Thesis Number: #7 (Page 2 of 8)

The Subordination of Women

Today, after a century of campaigning for the restoration of their rights, women continue to oppose the abusive treatment which is meted out against them and their sisters. The violence assumes many forms, from the exploitation of wives as domestic servants to the rape of women as a tactic of war, to the dragooning of women into the diamond mines of Zimbabwe by rogue politicians and their military henchmen (Thorneycroft and Laing 2012).

Demands for legal and institutional reforms, to establish the right of women to be treated as equals, are expressed as the right to vote and the right for equal pay. Are these demands sufficient to override the crime of gender inequality? Are additional reforms needed to materialise the rights and dignities of women?

The violence against women originates with problems that are “structural”. One definition of this kind of violence has been offered by American professor of psychiatry Dr James Gilligan (Box 1).

Box 1

Structurally-induced Violence


Dr. James Gilligan (2000: 192) notes that “Structural violence differs from behavioural violence in at least three major respects.

  1. The lethal effects of structural violence operate continuously, rather than sporadically, whereas murders, suicides, executions, wars, and other forms of behavioural violence occur one at a time.
  2. Structural violence operates more or less independently of individual acts; independent of individuals and groups (politicians, political parties, voters) whose decisions may nevertheless have lethal consequences for others.
  3. Structural violence is normally invisible, because it may appear to have had other (natural or violent) causes.

Neither the existence, the scope and extent, nor the lethal power of structural violence can be discerned until we shift our focus from a clinical or psychological perspective, which looks at one individual at a time, to the epidemiological perspective of public health and preventive medicine.”

How the violence became institutionalised may be inferred from an examination of what happened when ancient traditions were disturbed. The traumatic responses have been analysed by English jurists.

Sir Henry Sumner Maine, in Lectures on the Early History of Institutions, stressed that the shift in the character of society away from its kinship basis was defined by land tenure: “[F]rom the moment when a tribal community settles down finally upon a definite space of land, the Land begins to be the basis of society in place of the Kinship” (Maine 1914:72). How the rights of access to land were redefined became the seminal issue. One of the transformations is noted by Maine:

[A]s the land rather than the common lineage gets to be regarded as the cement of the brotherhood, each man in his own house practically obtains stringent patriarchal authority over his wife, children, and servants (Maine 1914: 118, emphasis added).

Arthur Diamond (who became Master of the Supreme Court) explored Primitive Law, Past and Present. In the forested regions of West Africa, “the matrilineal principle is dominant, whereas in states which have been created through the conquest of agricultural peoples by pastoralists (as in Northern and Western Nigeria) or by hunters (as in North America) we see clearly the paternal principle gaining upon the maternal” (Diamond 1971:365). With the onset of patrilineal practises, “primogeniture holds sway; the eldest son (or sometimes brother) succeeds with the obligation to help his brothers to marry and to support his mother and sisters…Personal property usually descends in the same way as heritable interests in land. It is almost exclusively vested in the male head of the household, who acquires powers of life and death over his children and almost equal powers over his wife” (Diamond 1971: 337; emphasis added).

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