I have been thinking about the word — patriarchy — and what it really means. Understanding patriarchy, and the power relations between the two sexes, is key to understanding political economy. If you do not understand patriarchy, you cannot begin to talk about the importance of tribal relations within the GCC economies, as patriarchy is an inherent part of tribalism. Moreover, when I speak about the different kinds of subjugation, I am not attempting to state whether they are moral or not, but rather just attempt to describe things as they are and then analyse them through the lens of political economy. Obviously, however, I am a human being. Being a human being means I have a moral compass, and as this is not an academic paper, I will be inserting my personal opinions here and there. In any case, this post will be long, and I urge the reader to have some patience. I have to explain how I conceptualize gender inequality and patriarchy before I can begin to link it to political economy within the GCC.
I am of the belief that in all parts of the world, women are subjugated by men. This subjugation can take different forms. Sometimes, this subjugation can be in the form of unrealistic media standards, and the sexualization of women’s bodies in the public sphere, as is prevalent in most media outlets, whether in the West or here in the GCC. In other times, this subjugation can take place purely biologically — regardless of the cultural context, i.e., during a women’s pregnancy. During her months of pregnancy, she is more vulnerable, and as such, is reliant on her spouse or her male relatives to provide for her. That is not to say women do not work — far from it — but a woman working while pregnant has a much more difficult job than a man does. She has to go through very difficult biological stressors while working to provide for herself and her future child. Moreover, women being much anatomically weaker than men (on average) places women at a severe disadvantage when it comes to working in manual labour. Even if a woman is strong enough to work as a man does in a manual labour, she is highly likely to feel unwelcome and harassed at her work, as she would be the only woman (or part of a very small minority of women) surrounded by men. Some may posit that the solution to these is through increasing gender equality through the same measures Western states have taken — increased political representation, representation in the workforce, as well as the proliferation of ideas that promote gender equality — such as feminism. A study published in Sage Journals concluded:
There is no evidence in this examination of cross-national data that gender equality is negatively associated with rape. Indeed, when an indicator of gender equality is significantly associated with rape, the incidence of rape increases as women and men move towards equality. Therefore, this evidence rejects the liberal feminist proposition that relatively limited reforms in gender equality will reduce rape rates.
However, this study is not conclusive — the data is limited. Nor should it be taken to mean “any idea any feminist has anywhere is bad.” Moreover, it is sometimes the case that “gender equality reforms” can mean very different things. For instance, I would argue that women deserve to have a much longer maternity leave than men do because men do not get pregnant. In the same vein, the requirements for women to serve in the police forces are much lower, as they should be, as women are not as strong as men on average. Female police officers are obviously still needed to deal with female criminals, so the requirement should be then made “unequal”. Still, this reform of having an “unequal gender reform” is a form of positive discrimination most feminists advocate for, and this unequal gender reform would be categorized by most as being a “gender equality reform”. This is one form of gender equality reform both patriarchal conservatives and liberal feminists could get behind, but they still have very different ideas of how the power relations between the two genders should be conducted. Therefore, it is extremely important to outline what specific gender-equality reforms one wants to put forth, rather than put a mash of ideas together and label them all as “ideas for gender equality reforms”. The specifics are often lost in conversations. I am proposing that societies should not be viewed as being “more” or “less” patriarchal, but rather, are patriarchal in different ways. Men subjugating women is the rule in all societies, for which you will find very little exception.
To further illustrate this point with an example closer to home, the stewardesses working in Qatar Airways can be used as an example. The stewardesses are selected to be young, beautiful, and are expected to arrive at work with their hair and make-up done and are expected wear skirts which show their legs. A woman has to send in a special request if she wishes to cover her legs completely, with her legs showing as being the norm. In terms of her de jure job functions, there is no reason for this. A stewardess may serve the passengers just as well and perform her job’s functions even if she chose not to put make-up that day, chose to cover her legs, and chose not to beautify herself that day. Flight attendants are even expected to wear heels in the airport! It would be easy to direct blame for this issue to the executives at Qatar Airways. But this is a systemic issue that pervades many more fields than Qatar Airways. This is an issue that is at the heart of capitalism, where the normalization of the commodification of a woman’s sexuality is the norm, especially among consumer-facing businesses. To state that this is a form of liberation, rather than a form of patriarchy, is to reject the hefty body of research demonstrating that women are psychologically harmed by this form of objectification, and to reject one’s own intuition and common-sense.
Another clear example is the “sexual liberation” of women has been mostly at the expense of women. Both the man and the women engage in fornication, but the man can run away from the responsibility, whereas the women cannot. One mistake made by a young girl might change her life completely and make it much harder. Too often, the men who make the very same mistake do not step up. In the US, around 83% of single-parents are mothers. That just serves to show you how often women are made to bear the burden. Of course, I am sure almost every single mother would say her child is a joy, and that she does not regret having him or her. But being the breadwinner while also raising a child is extremely difficult; especially for poor mothers, who sometimes have to work two jobs.
That is not to say that women are not subjugated through non-capitalist and non-materialist structures in general. There is not a shadow of a doubt that in the Islamic faith and tradition, women are subjugated by men. The Qur’an in [24:4] clearly states:
Men are the caretakers of women, as men have been provisioned by Allah over women and tasked with supporting them financially. And righteous women are devoutly obedient and, when alone, protective of what Allah has entrusted them with.
Moreover, the Prophet Muhammad, blessings of Allah and peace be upon him, stated in a hasan hadith:
If I were to command anyone to make prostration before another I would command women to prostrate themselves before their husbands, because of the special right over them given to husbands by Allah.
The Prophet Muhammad, blessings of Allah and peace be upon him, stated in a sahih hadith:
Never will succeed such a nation as makes a woman their ruler.
There are many additional rulings within Islam demonstrating that it is an inherently patriarchal religion. The men must lead the women in the prayer, a woman may never lead a man. That is to say, even an eight-year-old boy would lead his grandmother in prayer. Women cannot divorce their husbands except by going to a judge, whereas men can divorce their wives of their own accord and quite easily. Men may own concubines and marry four wives, women cannot do the same with the opposite sex. A wife may not leave the house without the permission of her husband. If patriarchy is understood as a social system where men hold the power, then Islam is a patriarchal religion which encourages a patriarchal way of life. It is certainly true that women have certain privileges and rights that men do not have, but men are still the primary holders of power.
Patriarchy can even be found within the tribal structure of the GCC. The most notable and obvious demonstration of this patriarchy is that there would never be a female head-of-state in any of the GCC states. This is obviously a demonstration where men are the ones who have more power than women. However, in order to really differentiate between the contemporary capitalist form of patriarchy which permeates must this globalized world, and the more traditional patriarchy which is found in within the tribal structures of the GCC as well as the GCC social structure as a whole, going back a century or two would be helpful. This is because the contemporary GCC social structure has been impacted by the capitalist patriarchy via globalization; analysing the current GCC social structure would make the distinction less clear.
To do so, we must conceptualize and understand how the tribes conduct their relations with the despot. The despot, particularly before the oil age, is extremely reliant on tribal relations in order to manage state affairs. Familial relations were extremely important for managing state affairs. The despot would delegate certain tasks to his cousins, which would then in turn delegate certain tasks to their cousins, who then in turn delegate certain tasks to their cousins. This meant that the power was much more decentralized, as the despot had to make much more political concessions to maintain their support. The despot could not really rule as a despot, nor was he a monarch as we understand the role of the monarch to be today. Rather, he was a tribesman or nobleman who was the first among equals, rather than an absolute authority. The despot at this time did not have oil revenues through which he could employ a military and state bureaucracy which was reliant on him to distribute their salaries.
However, the oil revenues which the state received are not the only drivers of power decentralization in the pre-oil GCC. There was a fundamental difference between how the despot interacted with the populace. The modern state apparatus deals with atomized individuals, rather than dealing with organized family units. The state apparatus has a lot more bargaining power when dealing with an individual than it does dealing with collective. Perhaps an idea the reader of this might be familiar with is the concept of labour unions. Labour unions are able to extract a lot more concessions from their employers than individual laborers are by virtue of them being united. Tribes might extract political as well as economic concessions from the state by employing similar tactics a labour union might employ against its employer.
But what keeps a tribe together? The tribal structure is reliant on patriarchy. If one hones down on a single-family unit, it cannot be the case where they are all equals. There must be an ‘emir’ of the family, or final authority. This would typically be the income-earner and income-provider, which in the Islamic paradigm, must be the man. When a man is the income-earner, that gives him a position of leverage over the woman. The woman is usually reliant on the man for her financial necessities, which would put her in fear of disobeying her male provider lest she be deprived of her (usually) main source of income. Moreover, as she is a woman, she would have a much harder time getting a source of income, as demonstrated earlier in the work. Further still, men are much more aggressive than women than women are by nature. Males have a lot more testosterone than women do, and therefore, are much more aggressive and less likely to compromise. This means that generally, men would be able to get a lot more concessions out of women.
Additionally, women are much weaker than men in terms of raw physical strength. Even if a man were not to touch a woman, a woman would naturally feel scared of a man. For the men reading this — imagine if you had to live with someone who was much taller, stronger, and more aggressive than you. Even if you knew that the person who was much taller and stronger than you would not touch you, you would naturally feel intimidated by the power differential, and therefore more likely to compromise with the person’s wants. In terms of international relations, when state A has a much more powerful military and economy than state B does, state B would be much more willing to make concessions out of fear. This phenomenon within the family unit might not be evident to many people, as the decisions made within single family units are relatively minor, and as such the power-differentials are not evident to them.
However, when a number of different family units assemble, such as in a tribal structure, this power differential is more evident. Now, it is not usually the case that the strongest and more powerful man becomes the patriarch. Strength is just one of the factors that may elevate him to that rank, especially in the past where a person’s prowess in combat would play a much bigger role. The patriarch, usually an old male, would have accumulated significant wealth, experience, and cultivated important social connections during his lifetime. Even when it comes to combat, while he might not be personally strong, his experience allows him to take the role of a strategist. This would obviously be much more relevant before the oil age and the formation of the current GCC states but is sometimes still relevant in certain areas in the Arabian Peninsula is not strong. An example of this could be the area which encompass the mountains which separate Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
The ‘emir’ or sheikh of the family is still family and would not generally treat his kin the same way a state would treat its citizenry, as there is the element of personal connection between them. This personal connection is more for the benefit of the weaker members of the family, especially the women and children, than it is for the patriarch.
The patriarch is incentivised to look out for the interests of his family — as simplistic as this might sound — because he loves them. The patriarch is typically too old to benefit materially from the future of his family members, and as such, it is only because of the personal affection he feels towards them and the sense of responsibility hoisted upon him by the culture that he fights for the interests of his extended family. However, it is not always purely altruistic. If one increases the socioeconomic status of his own family members, especially of those he has influence over, he indirectly increases his own socioeconomic status. Critics of this more cynical view, however, might argue that the patriarch in this instance would have to sacrifice political capital in order to advance the interests of his family members, which would only indirectly benefit his own interests. These family members might also pose as threats to his authority. They could very well argue that he would benefit more from spending political capital in increasing his own socioeconomic status rather than the socioeconomic status of his family members.
Criticism constructed in aforementioned form is too simplistic and thinks of political capital and socioeconomic status as being raw numbers which can be subtracted and added to, rather than an attempt to describe certain concepts within the complex web that makes up social relations. An old patriarch, for instance, would in most cases not be able to lead a war-band into combat. However, being the leader of a war-band would certainly increase one’s own importance and social status within society. Therefore, the old sheikh places his nephew or cousin or son as being the leader of a war-band. Similarly, a sheikh might be considered too old for the daughter of an important neighbouring emir, so he arranges for his grandson to marry her. If he married her himself, his socioeconomic status would be even higher, as the relation with the emir would be direct rather than through his grandson, but circumstances prevented did not allow for this political move.
Due to widespread propaganda from the enlightenment-era, many people have the idea that as time goes on, things get better. It is a widespread misconception that the patriarchy found in the GCC and the Islamic world in general is similar to the patriarchy found in the medieval era within the west. This is inaccurate. It should be noted that I will be falling into the trap of generalization.
If one looks far and wide enough, they will find exceptions within the medieval West for my assertions. I am speaking about an era that covers thousands of years and which covers many different civilizations. Mountains of books would not do them justice, let alone a few paragraphs. Still, it can be generally found that within the popular Christian tradition women do not have clear legal rights, or at least did not enjoy the same legal rights that women within the Islamic tradition enjoyed. It was only in 1870 that married women in England had the right to own and inherit property, for instance. In the Islamic tradition, however, women always had the right to property and wealth, and that it is completely her husband’s responsibility to provide for her and her children. Her wealth is her own and her own exclusively.
The traditional tribal patriarchal structure — at least after spread of Islam — is healthier than the new-age capitalist patriarchal structure that currently permeates the global economy. The woman in the patriarchal tribal structure is valued for her role as a mother and for a wife. The inherent nature of her being part of a family unit means that the patriarch, as well as her male relatives, have a humanized view of her. By contrast, the woman in the in the capitalist patriarchal structure is treated insofar as well as she is able to produce surplus value for her society. You will find, for instance, rich and powerful women within capitalist-patriarchal societies who enjoy many luxuries of life that are more seldom found in traditional tribal societies. But as a consequence, you will find many lower-class women who are unsupported and are therefore exploited, whether through their body or through their labour. Feminism overlooks the vast majority of these lower-class women by focusing on women CEOs and women politicians. But the vast majority of men will never be rich and successful in the worldly sense, let alone the vast majority of women. By focusing on “breaking the glass ceiling” for women; feminists are forgetting the vast swathes of invisible women who are just thinking of making ends meet.
This is sometimes dubbed as being “white feminism” as opposed to the real feminism, “intersectional feminism”. It would be accurate to call it “white feminism” in the sense that this feminism was born in an Anglo-centric cultural context, but “white feminism”, the feminism that focuses on “breaking the glass ceiling” is not limited to the white race (if there is such a thing). But this “white feminism” is not exclusively beneficiary to the white women. Instead, it benefits all upper-class women everywhere in terms of raw-material gain, who are barred from reaching the very highest echelons of society because of their sex. These few individuals are still important, but their voice often drowns out the masses of invisible women who just want to be fed and feed their children.
This does not mean that post-7th century Arabia was a paradise for women, nor would I suggest such a thing. It was not even a paradise for men, who are certainly more privileged than women are, so there would be no reason to think it would be a utopia for women. Women in Arabia as well as in the Islamic world in general have had their rights violated by patriarchs and those in power since time immemorial. There is no system, divine or secular, that can guarantee the complete absence of oppression by individuals within that system. Criminals will always exist in this world; that is a fact of life. But for the masses of invisible women, they have a much easier time being fed and having their honour protected under a tribal patriarchy than they do under the capitalist patriarchy. For the masses of the invisible women, they would rather their ‘boss’ be a member of their family, whether it be their husband or their father, rather than a stranger who is only concerned with exploiting her for maximum gain.