top of page

1.3 Listening Room
How to Smash The Core of Patriarchy 101  

In partnership with He Says, She Says, They Say podcast.

May 2021

The following is a snippet from the episode ‘Why Some Women Uphold the Patriarchy’ on He says, She says, They say podcast. Hosts Azielia and Iqbal

are in conversation with Lynn Davies, a researcher at the European Commission, and Basem Talha, a Master’s student at the International Islamic University of Malaysia.


The 30-minute episode talks about structures of patriarchy in different countries, and why women in different cultures uphold their society's versions of it.

Mysticeti Magazine_conversation_smash patriarchy.png
  • Spotify

Listen to the conversation on Spotify

Illustration by Ishani Kamat


Hi, I’m Azielia.


And I'm Iqbal, and this is the He Says;


She Says


They Say podcast


They say podcast


Iqbal: Let’s talk a bit about the difference between the subtleness of Western patriarchy versus the obviousness of patriarchy elsewhere.

Basem: Look at Saudi Arabia, for example, a conservative country. Just recently, they allowed women to drive and go out on the streets without male company. This happened within the last year or two. That shows you how hardcore the patriarchy is over there.

In the US, for example, that level of patriarchy you don't see. But it is felt, for example, with the 2016 elections. Never mind the popular vote versus the actual vote, that is a different political story of the US. But in terms of Hillary Clinton being a woman herself, that alone killed her chances of becoming president. 


Lynn: If you don't mind, I do want to add to that. I completely agree there is a real superiority complex in the West about how liberated their women are and there is not really a nuanced understanding of the implicit ways in which patriarchy works outside of the Middle East. The Middle East is often used as an example like, ‘Look, that is the place where women are oppressed, our women are all free to do whatever they want’. But when you look into the more granular details of people's lives and the way that marriages work and workplaces function, even the kind of experiences that girls have at school, it is clear that patriarchy just takes on different forms. And the West is kind of symbolic of liberalism and freedom, but it is not real. 


For example, when I was growing up in Egypt, it was a very in-your-face patriarchy. I could not walk to school without being harassed by people. And I developed really bad posture because I was constantly looking down at my feet trying to avoid making eye contact with anyone, because that's just not what you wanted. And it was very normal for people to try and grope you when they were riding past on their bicycles. Aside from this blatant, obvious sexual tension in the entire society, you could feel it wherever you went because as a woman, you could not occupy any space without every eye being on you. It was like being a walking magnet or target. 


There were also all kinds of strange debates and weird points of views I heard from friends of mine who were Egyptian. I was (born in Scotland), part of a countercultural set of kids (in Egypt), so most of my friends were Egyptian metalheads. I did not spend that much time with other expat kids and they were very liberal in some ways. So my (Egyptian) friends loved heavy metal. They wore the band shirts. They didn't really ascribe to Egyptian culture and they didn't really live by the rules of Islam. I mean, they believed in it very strongly, but they constantly broke the rules and they assumed that they would make up for it one day. 


There was also a lot of resistance to the way that they lived. From a cultural perspective, they were painted as being Satanists and all it really was, is that they liked a different type of music and a different type of lifestyle, and they were often demonized for this.

But even among the groups that were considered to be very forward-thinking, they still had very archaic ideas of the differences between women and men. 


Iqbal: Can you give us an example? 


Lynn: Yes, I was dragged into a huge debate about why women can't be judges in Egypt. So I have no idea if this is still the case. (Mysticeti: In Egypt, It was illegal for women to be judges till 2003. According to the most recent study done in 2018, only 0.5% of the judges in Egypt are women). And the reason is because, of course, of hormones and menstruation and the idea that we can't think straight for twenty-five percent of the time that we're alive. So how could we possibly be in charge of making these highly critical, objective decisions? 


Basem: That is an excuse that keeps being brought up not just with the courts, but with women taking high positions in companies as CEOs, managers. You hear that excuse being shouted out a lot, especially in recent times and where leadership positions are concerned such as prime minister and president. 


Lynn: All of the myths that I was hearing about like male versus female brain differences or differences in our abilities, at the time when I was a teenager, I didn't really have the knowledge or the vocabulary to fight back against it. I just thought it was unfair and it was wrong, but I did not have the proof that it was. And the way that they describe things, they use very circular logic in that kind of society. So they say, look, there aren't that many female mathematicians. It's just because they're bad at math, because their brains can't handle numbers or there are such few female leaders, it's because they don't have leadership skills. And they would never stop to think that it may be because girls do not receive that kind of positive feedback when they demonstrate leadership skills. Humans are desperate to be validated. We are social animals, so we are constantly trying to figure out our space in society. And if little girls are told that certain traits are more valuable than others, they will adapt themselves. 


Iqbal: Okay, so just to steer the discussion a little bit. We've talked about how certain things come to be and how certain things are this way. But really the aim of today is because we wanted to find out how these get reinforced by women themselves. So we're hearing a lot about how women are at the butt end of discussions about hormones. They're not fairly treated when it comes to discussions about who should take leadership positions. But why or what is in it for members of that very same group, reinforcing and upholding these perspectives, even at a seemingly negative cost to their own selves? Basem, Lynn's gone a lot into the science of it. Maybe you can share a bit more about cultural perspectives, about why women uphold patriarchy, even though it comes at a seemingly detrimental cost to themselves. 

Lynn: …there is a lack of choice for a lot of women in whether or not to uphold the patriarchy. As you've said, Saudi Arabia doesn't really allow for exploration. But on a very fundamental level, the women themselves don't really have other options because these mainstream societies are quite powerful. In Egypt, for example, if you thought a different way, you tended to be on the fringe. So in Cairo, for example, I knew a lot of women who did try to push against the patriarchy and some of them had awful experiences. Their families would send them to insane asylums where they would be incarcerated. I got to know quite a few women. I think they would have been between... sixteen and maybe early twenties. And they just don't have the same options that I do in the UK. If they decide to go against their family's values, the way that the legal system is set up, their fathers have control over them. They can lock them away if they want to. And aside from that, they can also deny them resources. They can keep them inside the house, refuse to educate them, so they can leverage the power that they have over a woman which is given to them by society since the societies are built to make women dependent.

Basem: Even if you are not being exposed, you yourself have an innate curiosity of what is outside. What else is there for me to know?

What else can I grasp? Maybe I can make my life a bit better, or maybe I can earn something for myself. 


Lynn: Yes, there is nowhere for the curiosity to go because of censorship from the media. But for a lot of them, it is a false promise. They might learn about other alternatives and become even more frustrated with the limited options that they have and I have seen it happen and it has led to a lot of family strife and more pain than they would have had, if they had just upheld the system. 


Basem: Many women actually do believe that patriarchy is bad and it doesn't do anything for society. They will have to risk themselves in that system because the consequences of breaking away are a sort of liability for their families, and they do not want to put anybody through that. 


Iqbal: We're talking a bit about structures and why they keep those people within them. But to some extent, is there no individual agency?

Like Lynn, you've brought this up about the women you know, personally, who do try and fight against the system. Are they all just trying to make the best situation of what they have within the system? Because you have this in other countries where the systems don't have these sorts of consequences, but women still uphold other existing signs of patriarchy. So what's happening here? 


Lynn: For the women that I do know, the two that I am in touch with, they both managed to get out (of Egypt). One left as an asylum seeker, because she was in so much personal danger. The way that she escaped her family was by escaping into a marriage, which was also extremely bad. And the way that she escaped the marriage was through divorce in Egypt. But because of other details of her lifestyle, which I do not want to get into, she succeeded in claiming asylum in Europe on specific grounds. So now she gets to live in a nice European city with her son. She is one of the bravest people I know. The way that she managed to get out of that situation took an insane amount of suffering and uncertainty, and it is great that she managed to get to where she is now. But it just goes to show, if you don't fit the mould of what is considered acceptable for some people, it is too much to try and stay and lead a double life. But also leaving is extremely difficult. So that is why I can see why Basem said, a lot of people will choose the path of least resistance. But I think that this detail in particular makes it so much more interesting to me why it is that women in liberal countries where they have infinite choices, still decide to uphold patriarchy. 


Azielia: Exactly. That is my confusion as well. Like women in power, they have all these options to topple over patriarchy and be the voice of freedom, to fight for all these other women who don't have the same privileges they do. But they're not doing that. 


Lynn: I think this is where we can distinguish between women who are aligning themselves with a bigger ideology which still benefits them, versus women who maybe unintentionally uphold the patriarchy for other reasons. So, let’s talk about these women who do it intentionally first. I think in these cases it is because they do perceive themselves as standing to win something regardless. And I think it comes fundamentally from a place of selfishness. 


I mean, it depends because there are women who uphold Trump and that kind of brand of politics in the States in the name of what they think is God. But in general, I think there are women who stand up for him because they ascribe to conservative Christian beliefs and that's sort of what he branded himself doing. And then there are women who are either explicitly or implicitly racist and also ascribe to the America-first doctrine. So they're trying to pull up the ladder behind them. 


Iqbal: I want to steer the conversation to more non-religious contexts where women uphold the patriarchy. There was a study done recently. Two researchers, one of the researchers was a woman. One of the researchers was a guy. They were trying to look at reviews from students on tutors


For one group of students, they gave the details of the tutor as a woman and for another group of students, they gave the details of a male tutor. So the person who was running the classes for the entire semester, the person who was giving the feedback on essays, the person who was responding to emails, all of them were the same person, a woman. But half the students thought it was a male tutor they were interacting with. And when it was time to give feedback, the students who thought they had a male tutor gave their fake male tutor a way higher feedback rating compared to the students who got the actual details of their tutor, which was a female tutor. 


And in fact, girls were more likely to give the female tutor negative feedback compared to the male students, they were seven times more likely than male students to give negative feedback to the female tutor. This is an example of a non-intentional upholding of the patriarchy where women are hurting themselves. And I just want to figure out if you might have any ideas for why this happens. 


Lynn: I know a bit about the scientific context of how this happens. I think it's referred to as priming in psychology, where people have implicit ideas of what a normative man or woman should behave like and of what certain behaviours mean when they are done by women versus men. So, for example, the same behaviour can be branded as a leadership quality in men versus being shrill in a woman. 


These kinds of things happen on such a deep automatic subconscious level that we can't really control it, unfortunately. To give you an idea of how automatic it is, there are tons of studies out there on the impact that things like wearing a skirt or wearing high heels can have on a woman's performance, on certain tests. So if they, for example, did a cognitive strength test where they were wearing skirts or heels, they were more likely to over-perform on the verbal reasoning and less likely to perform well on things like mathematics or mental rotation. These are all things which are stereotypically linked to being female. The same is also true of men. For example, in the beginning of an exam, if you have to tick a box specifying which gender you are, that can determine how you perform on those tests to a statistically significant degree. A lot of it has to do with social conditioning and this tends to happen over a person's entire lifespan. 


The sad fact is, changing this has to happen on a very large collective level. It has to do with media portrayals and the way that your parents talk to you, the way that you've been spoken to by a teacher at school, all of those things reinforce your ideas of how women differ from men. 




Iqbal: We've talked about two different kinds of women. Women who uphold the patriarchy because they are in structures that kind of force them to do so or it benefits them to uphold the patriarchy in those contexts. Or women who unknowingly do so because of, like, Lynn said, years and years of priming. And to wrap the conversation up, how do we move forward from there? How do we proceed from here, I guess, is the question.


Lynn: Well, social change happens on multiple levels… the individual, the family, the societal. On a societal level, we're already seeing a lot of improvement. So the fact that we're even having this conversation is because it is taking center stage and people are continuing to draw attention to it and engaging in public debates. 

But I think on a personal and family level, it has to do with people questioning their own ideas in how they choose to live out their private lives because the fact is that women can uphold patriarchy simply by choosing to tolerate certain behaviors from male coworkers or even from their own male partner. One of the things that really frustrates me is the conversations that women insist on having, not really as much in our generation, but maybe Gen X and above. They have a lot of conversations about whether women can have it all, like whether they can balance work and family. And to actually spend time debating this question as though it is a moral argument is extremely detrimental in my opinion, because we shouldn't be asking, can they or should they? We should be asking why it isn't currently possible.

If you enjoyed this, listen more on the He Says, She Says, They Say podcast

About Mysticeti's friends:

He says, She says, They say podcast discusses society, culture with interesting guest speakers and covers topics normally too taboo to air out. Azielia and Iqbal, hosts of the podcast, are Malaysians who want to improve the level of public conversation by offering a safe space to explore topics less talked about and have fun while doing it. 


  • iTunes
  • Spotify
  • Twitter

Basem Talha is an Egyptian brought up in the United States and Canada.

He is a Master’s student at the International Islamic University of Malaysia. 

Lynn Davies is Welsh-Malay born in the UK and currently residing in Belgium. She manages research and social policy for the European Commission.


  • Instagram

From Mysticeti’s library:

Invisible women by Caroline Criado Perez

Bad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay

We should all be feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The great Indian Rape-Trick (Part I and II) by Arundhati Roy

bottom of page