Paternalistic domination is a variation of the patriarchy that exercises control over women in a sophisticated way. It promises protection. Privileges. Shared power. Material benefits. Domesticity for maintenance. Submission for maintenance. “I will protect you” “I will provide for you” Women exchange submission in all its forms for this benevolence of the patriarchy. Similar patterns of control were noticed during slavery- the ‘good master’ who didn’t keep their slaves out in the fields till very late, the ‘good master’ who fed his slaves thrice a day, the ‘good master’ who allowed his slaves to sleep under the same roof with his white family.
In this system, there is already power at play; the dominant group have the power of decision-making. They decide what is to be done, how it is done, when it is done, why it is done and where it is done. For example, in an ‘ideal’ heterosexual family set up, where the man is presented as the head of the household and the woman the proverbial neck; and let’s throw in the fact that this family also practices some form of organised religion- experience, statistics and verses will collectively show us that this man will have control of who gets home when, who wears what how, who speaks to who when and why. This is a classic example of how power unfolds in typical relationships. However, where there exists paternalistic domination, the man will assert control in all the above areas, but like, in a nice way. “You should come home early because there are killers out there” “You should cover up because there are rapists out there” “Don’t speak to so and so, they are a bad influence on you” “I’m here to protect you” “My role is to provide for you” How pleasing aesthetically, right? How pleasant it is to be protected.
Paternalistic domination creates a norm; and the norm is negotiation with the patriarchy. It gives the illusion of consent. It is pitched as something that is in our favour. It ignores the undertones of control. Women become part of this system and they sustain it. This system effectively creates The Good Woman– a woman who has magnificently internalised this norm, is submissive because of this norm, harbours a debilitating fear of stepping outside of this norm, aggressively upholds the heteropatriarchy as the standard of sexuality, accepts reproduction as an obligation and has zero agency.
Once you get to this point of the article, pause and breathe. Seriously-stop reading and take a deep breath and let it out in a long whoosh through your mouth.
All good? Good. Let’s continue.
I would now like to introduce the concept of The Bad Woman WITHIN paternalistic domination. Hear me out. What happens when agency is introduced within paternalistic domination? What happens when women deliberately, intentionally and strategically use the perceived benevolence of the patriarchy to benefit from it? What happens when women radically change the ideas around paternalistic domination? What happens when women find empowerment inside paternalistic domination?
I am working with the true acknowledgement that systems are not static. The patriarchy of the 13th Century is not the patriarchy of the 21st Century. Patriarchies have now intersected. Patriarchies have now evolved. Patriarchies are now married. A perfect and clear example of the evolution of the patriarchy can be witnessed in the Ugandan Ssenga Institution, a socio-cultural institution among the Baganda where young girls and women are tutored in a wide range of sexual matters including pre-marriage preparation, erotic instruction and reproduction. This institution historically centred the male gaze. The erotic was taught to girls to prioritize male pleasure and male contentment. However, as Sylvia Tamale rightly states, the institution was transformed by modernisation, neoliberalism, urbanisation and capitalism. She says the Ssenga institution adapted to these economic factors and became commercialized, and with its commercialization came progressive ideas of sexuality influenced by younger or highly educated Ssengas, feminism, increased intermarriage and information technology. Women increasingly reclaimed their sexuality, prioritized their sexual pleasure, narratives on domesticity and gender roles were changed.
Paternalistic domination has in my opinion also radically evolved especially with the advent of capitalism where women also form part of the labour force outside of the home- effectively shattering the promise of this concept-protection and maintenance. The 50-50 model of labour and financial division has been introduced by the very same patriarchy that upheld paternalistic dominance. Men are now kept, but who’s complaining. Women nurture. Women provide. Statistics show that women are the fundamental providers all over Africa. Women run homes. Women sustain economies. Basically, the “good woman” who was promised protection and maintenance under the patriarchy is now working both inside and outside the home. She is unpaid for her labour inside the home, is paid very little wages outside the home and going by the rising cases of femicide and Intimate Partner Violence, is unprotected both in the private and public spheres. The ‘good woman’ has quite literally, been scammed by the patriarchy.
So with this unfortunate but necessary realization that the patriarchy received all the goodies during negotiations, what happens to the bad women who want patriarchal reparations in the form of classical paternalistic domination? Bad women who demand affirmative action as reparations. Bad women who refuse to split bills. Bad women who refuse to start relationships with a patriarchy that cannot fulfil its paternalistic dominance. Bad women who say ‘the patriarchy gon learn today!’ Bad women who have reclaimed the word paternalistic domination to mean reparations. Bad women who want to be ‘kept’ as a political act. Bad women who emphatically announce that there can be no submission without submission money. Bad women who brutally, pitilessly and ferociously negotiate with the patriarchy for maximum benefit. Bad women who realize that the system is not 50-50 and therefore deliberately throw that 50-50 right back to the face of the patriarchy as an act of resistance. Bad women who recognize that the system is not changing and that the patriarchy is literally just changing its nasty face and therefore they also adapt accordingly.
What happens to them?
Do we shame them for adapting?
Do we shame them for not holding on to the ideal of a equal society that we all crave?
Do we shame them for reclaiming paternalistic domination?
Do we shame them for negotiating with the patriarchy?
Do we shame them for surviving within the patriarchy?
There are narratives around redistribution of resources by billionaires for the resistance and narratives around slavery reparations. Why do we frown upon narratives and actual acts of patriarchal reparations?
I do not have the answers. Anticlimactic, I know. But I do know that our freedoms do not look alike. Our resistance is not similar. Our strategies are not similar. And we can’t force them to align- especially in a complex and dynamic system that is constantly evolving and power relations relentlessly shifting. The two things that I have found align in feminism is our political stand against systemic power and our collective voice for action. Everything else, I have found, never aligns and I have come to accept and respect that.
There is a verse in Sylvia Plath’s critically acclaimed poem Daddy, that says:
Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
It points and speaks to all our biases and complicities as feminists, as human beings. We have created a sort of panopticon where we are constantly policing ourselves and each other so that no power structure doesn’t even have to do it for us because we are successfully doing it ourselves. We are not going to be perfect as we resist. Hell, I don’t even want to try. We may employ strategies that other feminists won’t get with. We may say things that other feminists won’t get with. But I love feminism because it is fluid. It offers a listening ear. It offers solutions. It offers accountability. It offers discussion. And we have to embrace this offering.