What the coronavirus response teaches us about patriarchy
How did one sex come to dominate the other in virtually all areas of the world, and for so long? The response to the coronavirus, leading, in weeks, to the lock down of over half the world’s population, holds some clues. Because, of course, half of the world’s population has been confined before.
When I watched what seemed like extreme behaviour from the Chinese government, quarantining 60 million residents in their homes in Wuhan in January 2020, I was laughably naïve. It was something that seemed to have very litttle bearing on my own freedom. March 2020 changed everything.
On March 9th, Italy was the first European country to place its entire population on lockdown. Soon after, on March 13th, Spain and the USA declared national emergencies, unlocking presidential emergency powers. The next day, March 14th, France, the country of “liberty, equality, freedom” confined all people to their homes with 100,000 police enforcing the lockdown. It wasn’t until March 23rd, but the UK followed, with 66+ million of us ordered to stay in our homes. India, with a population of 1.3 billion, joined the lockdown on March 24th. Then, in the next few days, Italy introduced prison sentences, and the UK passed emergency legislation and regulations restricting movement. On March 30th, Austria joined Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Bosnia-Herzegovina in making the wearing of face masks out of the home compulsory. Russia, the largest country in the world, began locking down its 144 million population, and instigated emergency laws enforced by fines and prison sentences on the last day of March.
The take up of lockdowns, enforced by the law and the police, created a domino effect across the globe. It struck me that, like the deadly disease, the spread of patriarchy must have followed a similar dramatic path. A poisonous trend, transformed a world which respected women as central, into one that moved them indoors, excluded them from economic and public life, and curtailed their physical and bodily freedom with the strong arm of the law. When patriarchy began, whilst there were clearly long-standing trends in place to change lineages from following the mothers’ to the fathers’ line, and worship gods rather than goddesses, other situations must have accelerated and solidified women’s subordination.
The law, and punishment, is a key tool used in the coronavirus response as well as patriarchy. Going back 4000 years, the very earliest law codes, such as the Code of Ur Nammu (2100–2050 BCE) were tools to restrict women’s behaviour, a trend that was built on by successive legislators. By the Middle Assyrian period (1363–1057) laws demanded certain women cover their head when they went out on the street alone (MAL 40). It was not long before veiling and the sequestering of women spread across the globe through trade, conquests, and wanting to emulate the more powerful. Laws have successively been used as a female subordination tool ever since.
Yet laws have no power without the people. The coronavirus response doesn’t work without majority cooperation, and so too with patriarchy. Whereas the original Middle Assyrian law had to punish ordinary men who did not alert the authorities to women’s veiling transgressions, this stopped being a problem as time passed. And actually it turns out that societies can change their minds quickly. While face masks are now mandatory in certain European countries, they were not worn routinely here a month ago. The disapproving looks which now enforce their uptake, would have previously been bemused looks which prevented people from wearing them at all.
Most of us are very obediently policing ourselves during the coronavirus response. Women haven’t always been very cooperative in our subordination, or else we wouldn’t have had to be incessantly restricted, controlled and belittled over millennia. Yet we got to a point when we didn’t need to be policed because we were policing ourselves. Two months ago, the idea that I would be confined to my flat on the order of the government would not just have been galling but terrifying, and yet here I am, quite quickly settling in to a new normal. A government order becomes a personal decision that distinguishes you as a public health saviour or a public health pariah.
Perhaps at some point around 8,000 years ago, women initially agreed to some form of restriction for a temporary period. Maybe it was in order to get over a crisis or some kind of disaster, and then the practices that needed to be enforced during that time got written down, and then violently enforced by male authorities. Then, before we knew it, peer pressure and our own self-policing carried it on until we woke up one day and it was suddenly too late. The laws and myths were in place, the world was dominated by men, and they weren’t going to share their power very easily.
We are not over patriarchy. The majority of our world’s governments are still male dominated, and it is they who are deciding, and instigating the response to the coronavirus. Given their continuing control, and that C-19 seems to be more deadly for men than women could our future see a response that focuses solely on the restriction of women, acceptably subjugating one sex to protect another? Might one half of the population get out whilst the other stays confined?
What we have seen across the world, within a month, is the sanctioning of personal loss of freedom on a scale unprecedented in modern times, and yet what is interesting is that we asked for it. It has been quick, government led, and we, the people, are following gratefully. Now it is considered not just acceptable, not just appropriate, but a welcomed requirement to stay in our homes, and to cover our faces if we leave, and to fine us or put us in prison if we don’t comply. We can see that such powers are easily abused, and yet we don’t complain. Or at least not at the moment, and maybe by the time we do it will be too late.
Marianne is a political-philosopher on a mission to de-legitimise the structures and values of patriarchy, helping the world to see that a new way is possible. Using history and strategy, Marianne writes on liberation and female power. She provides ideas and mechanisms to build new structures and values in our world.