Can empowered women exist in patriarchal societies?


What is it like to live as a woman in a patriarchal society? I’ve been asking that of Ruth, the protagonist in my historical novel, Less Than a Widow? While researching this subject, I listened to a Tedtalk called “My daughter, Malala” by Pakistani educator Ziauddin Yousafzai. You can watch this video at:

Mr. Yousafzai begins his 2014 TEDtalk this way: “In patriarchal and tribal societies, fathers are usually known for their sons, but I am one of the few who is known for his daughter, and I’m proud of it.”

For those of us in the west, the above statement evokes a wide variety of emotions—not too many of them on the positive scale. It is so different from what we have grown up with, that we struggle to comprehend living under such restrictions.

From the beginning, girls are not celebrated. Mothers feel guilty for giving birth to daughters—as if they have done something wrong. Daughters don’t get to go to school or learn about anything outside of keeping a home. Even so, life isn’t too bad for girls until the age of 13, when daughters are confined within the four walls of their homes. At that age they become part of the honor of their fathers, their brothers, and their families. Transgressions to this code of honor can result in punishment up to death. Mr. Yousafzai contends that the men in the family also suffer, often having to sacrifice their chance of fulfillment and happiness (as well as that of their sisters) to honor.

Recently, much of the Middle East’s strict adherance to law negates women’s participation in all social, economic, and politic systems. Mr. Yousafzai believes, as does his daughter Malala, that education is the key to emancipation for both women and men, and they have put their lives on the line for this belief. Malala was shot in the head for publicly attending school and blogging about it for the BBC. She survived and continues to remain a staunch advocate for the power of education, and a target.

Let’s return to western civilization. We take the empowerment of women for granted, while in other countries women put their lives on the line for this privilege. Even the latest Disney animated movie moved away from a princess being rescued by a man—instead she rescues another woman (Frozen). This idea is not a new one—it’s what happens in this historical novel. Still, a lot of questions remain:

  • How strong does a woman have to be to push for even a small change in her society?
  • Do we in the West think that patriarchal societies should be banished and all societies should look like ours? Is this what it would take for women to be empowered?
  • Can women be valued, recognized, and hopeful in a patriarchal society? If so, what would this look like?
  • What’s love got to do with it?
  • If a woman needs or uses the help of a man to achieve a desired outcome, does it count as empowerment or weakness?

Civil discourse is invited.

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