In the Beginning: The Origins of Patriarchy

Margaret Huffman

HIST 5005

In the Beginning: The Origins of Patriarchy

            When asked, most American students would say that Islam has had a negative effect on women.  Islam did not create patriarchy in the Middle East.  Monotheism in general, and Islam in particular, have had a significant impact on the roles of women and their rights, but it is not the root cause of male domination.  The beginnings of patriarchy trace back to ancient civilization, but there is not consensus on the most important factors leading to reduced rights for women.

            The traditionalist argument is founded upon the assumption that biology constitutes the impetus for differing gender roles for men and women.  Because women are mothers, a sexual division of labor emerged and women’s sphere became the household.[1]  The feminists counter that patriarchy is a historical phenomenon; its creation has a beginning and therefore can have an ending.  Gerda Lerner states “Patriarchy as a system is historical…it can be ended by historical process.”[2]  Yet the search for matriarchal societies as evidence against the universal nature of patriarchy is mostly fruitless.  Patriarchy seems deeply embedded in societies across the globe, especially in many developing countries. 

            Prior to Islam there were several observable movements that enforced the escalation of patriarchy.  For example, the roles of mother-goddesses and other female deities were gradually revised to reflect patriarchal cultures.  Monotheism also contributed this erosion of women’s influence in religion.  Before Islam, seclusion was already in effect, but escalated in the centuries following Mohammed’s life.  The veil, previously used to signify the chastity or class of a woman and identify prostitutes, came to have a slightly altered meaning.  The Bible similarly reinforced women’s subservient role to men.  Women were no longer priestesses and female deities ceased to exist. 

            Thus, patriarchy was clearly established prior to Islam and other monotheistic religions, but how and why?  It is crucial to remember that there is not a single answer.  The establishment of patriarchy was multi-causal and gradual.  As Lerner suggests, patriarchy grew out of biological and social conditions to become the cultural norm.[3]  The most important misconception that needs correction is that Islam created patriarchy in the region, although perhaps it explains certain circumstances in the Middle East today.

[1] Guity Nashat and Judith Tucker, Women In the Middle East and North Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 17. 

[2]  Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 6.

[3] Lerner, 42.