Societies that treat women badly are poorer and less stable12 min read
“A WOMAN WHO drives a car will be killed,” says Sheikh Hazim Muhammad al-Manshad. He says it matter-of-factly, without raising his voice. The unwritten rules of his tribe, the al-Ghazi of southern Iraq, are clear. A woman who drives a car might meet a man. The very possibility is “a violation of her honour”. So her male relatives will kill her, with a knife or a bullet, and bury the body in a sand dune.
The sheikh is a decorous host. He seats his guests on fine carpets, in a hall that offers shade from the desert sun. He bids his son serve them strong, bitter coffee from a shared cup. He wears a covid face-mask.
Yet the code he espouses is brutal. And one aim of that brutality is to enable men to control women’s fertility. A daughter must accept the husband her father picks. If she dallies with another man, her male kin are honour-bound to kill them both.
Women mostly stay indoors. Your correspondent visited three Shia tribes in southern Iraq in June, and wandered through their villages. He did not see a single post-pubescent woman.
Oppressing women is not only bad for women; it hurts men, too. It makes societies poorer and less stable, argue Valerie Hudson of Texas A&M University and Donna Lee Bowen and Perpetua Lynne Nielsen of Brigham Young University.
Some Iraqi cities are quite liberal by Middle Eastern standards, but much of the rural hinterland is patriarchal in the strict sense of the word. The social order is built around male kinship groups. The leaders are all men. At home, women are expected to obey husbands, fathers or brothers. At tribal meetings, they are absent. “I’ll be clear: according to tribal custom, a woman does not have freedom of expression,” says Mr Manshad.
The male kinship group has been the basic unit of many, if not most, societies for much of history. It evolved as a self-defence mechanism. Men who were related to each other were more likely to unite against external enemies.
If they married outside the group, it was the women who moved to join their husbands. (This is called “patrilocal” marriage, and is still common in most of Asia, Africa and the Middle East.) The bloodline was deemed to pass from father to son (this arrangement is called “patrilineal”). Property and leadership roles also passed down the male line. Daughters were valued for their ability to give birth to sons. Strict rules were devised to ensure women’s chastity.
Such rules were designed for a world without modern states to keep order, or modern contraception. In rich, liberal countries, the idea of the male kinship group as the building block of society faded long ago. Elsewhere, it is surprisingly common. As a group that champions an extreme version of it has just seized power in Afghanistan, it is worth looking at how such societies work.
In “The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide”, Ms Hudson, Ms Bowen and Ms Nielsen rank 176 countries on a scale of 0 to 16 for what they call the “patrilineal/fraternal syndrome”. This is a composite of such things as unequal treatment of women in family law and property rights, early marriage for girls, patrilocal marriage, polygamy, bride price, son preference, violence against women and social attitudes towards it (for example, is rape seen as a property crime against men?).
Rich democracies do well; Australia, Sweden and Switzerland all manage the best-possible score of zero (see chart). Iraq scores a woeful 15, level with Nigeria, Yemen and (pre-Taliban) Afghanistan. Only South Sudan does worse. Dismal scores are not limited to poor countries (Saudi Arabia and Qatar do terribly), nor to Muslim ones (India and most of sub-Saharan Africa do badly, too). Overall, the authors estimate that 120 countries are still to some degree swayed by this syndrome.
As a patriarch, Mr Manshad is expected to resolve problems his tribesmen bring to him. Many involve bloodshed. “Yesterday,” he says, he had to sort out a land dispute. Men from another tribe were digging up sand to make cement on a patch of land that both they and Mr Manshad’s tribe claim. Shooting broke out. A man was hit in the thigh. A truce was called to discuss compensation, mediated by a third tribe. In a separate incident five days ago, three men were killed in a quarrel over a truck. We have “many problems like this”, sighs the sheikh.
The Iraqi police are reluctant to intervene in tribal murders. The culprit is probably armed. If he dies resisting arrest, his male relatives will feel a moral duty to kill the officer who fired the shot or, failing that, one of his colleagues. Few cops want to pick such a fight. It is far easier to let the tribes sort out their own disputes.
The upshot is that old codes of honour often trump Iraqi law (and also, whisper it, Islamic scripture, which is usually milder). Cycles of vengeance can spiral out of control. “Innocent bystanders are being killed,” complains Muhammed al-Zadyn, who advises the governor of Basra, a southern city, on tribal affairs. “The last gun battle was the day before yesterday,” he says. The previous month he had helped resolve a different quarrel, which dated back to a murder in 1995 and had involved tit-for-tat killings ever since. Mr Zadyn has two bullet wounds in his head, inflicted after he decried tribal shakedowns of oil firms.
His phone rings; another feud needs mediation. A woman was accused of having sex outside marriage. So far, seven people have been killed over it, and five wounded in the past few days. Because two of the slain were elders, their kin say they must kill ten of the other tribe to make it even. Mr Zadyn has a busy night ahead.
Clan loyalties can cripple the state. When a clan member gets a job in the health ministry, he may feel a stronger duty to hire his unqualified cousins and steer contracts to his kin than to improve the nation’s health. This helps explain why Iraqi ministries are so corrupt.
And when the state is seen as a source of loot, people fight over it. Iraq saw five coups between independence in 1932 and Saddam Hussein’s takeover in 1979; since then it has invaded two neighbours, been invaded by the United States, seen jihadists set up a caliphate, Kurds in effect secede and Shia militias, some backed by Iran, become nearly as powerful as the government. Clearly, not all this can be blamed on patriarchal clans. But it cannot all be blamed on foreigners, either.
Ms Hudson and her co-authors tested the relationship between their patrilineal syndrome and violent political instability. They ran various regressions on their 176 countries, controlling for other things that might foster conflict, such as ethnic and religious strife, colonial history and broad cultural categories such as Muslim, Western and Hindu.
They did not prove that the syndrome caused instability—that would require either longitudinal data that have not yet been collected or natural experiments that are virtually impossible with whole countries. But they found a strong statistical link. The syndrome explained three-quarters of the variation in a country’s score on the Fragile States index compiled by the Fund for Peace, a think-tank in Washington. It was thus a better predictor of violent instability than income, urbanisation or a World Bank measure of good governance.
The authors also found evidence that patriarchy and poverty go hand in hand. The syndrome explained four-fifths of the variation in food security, and four-fifths of the variation in scores on the UN’s Human Development Index, which measures such things as lifespan, health and education. “It seems as if the surest way to curse one’s nation is to subordinate its women,” they conclude.
Sexism starts at home
The obstacles females face begin in the womb. Families that prefer sons may abort daughters. This has been especially common in China, India and the post-Soviet Caucasus region. Thanks to sex-selective abortion and the neglect of girl children, at least 130m girls are missing from the world’s population, by one estimate.
That means many men are doomed to remain single; and frustrated single men can be dangerous. Lena Edlund of Columbia University and her co-authors found that in China, for every 1% rise in the ratio of men to women, violent and property crime rose by 3.7%. Parts of India with more surplus men also have more violence against women. The insurgency in Kashmir has political roots, but it cannot help that the state has one of most skewed sex ratios in India.
Family norms vary widely. Perhaps the most socially destabilising is polygamy (or, more precisely, polygyny, where a man marries more than one woman). Only about 2% of people live in polygamous households. But in the most unstable places it is rife. In war-racked Mali, Burkina Faso and South Sudan, the figure is more than a third. In the north-east of Nigeria, where the jihadists of Boko Haram control large swathes of territory, 44% of women aged 15-49 are in polygynous unions.
If the richest 10% of men have four wives each, the bottom 30% will have none. This gives them a powerful incentive to kill other men and steal their goods. They can either form groups of bandits with their cousins, as in north-western Nigeria, or join rebel armies, as in the Sahel. In Guinea, where soldiers carried out a coup on September 5th, 42% of married women aged 15-49 have co-wives.
Bride price, a more widespread practice, is also destabilising. In half of countries, marriage commonly entails money or goods changing hands. Most patrilineal cultures insist on it. Usually the resources pass from the groom’s family to the bride’s, though in South Asia it is typically the other way round (known as dowry).
The sums involved are often large. In Tororo district in Uganda, a groom is expected to pay his bride’s family five cows, five goats and a bit of cash, which are shared out among her male relatives. As a consequence, “some men will say: ‘you are my property, so I have the right to beat you,’” says Mary Asili, who runs a local branch of Mifumi, a women’s group.
Bride price encourages early marriage for girls, and later marriage for men. If a man’s daughters marry at 15 and his sons at 25, he has on average ten years to milk and breed the cows he receives for his daughters before he must pay up for his sons’ nuptials. In Uganda, 34% of women are married before the age of 18 and 7% before the age of 15. Early marriage means girls are more likely to drop out of school, and less able to stand up to an abusive husband.
A story from Tororo is typical. Nyadoi (not her real name) waited 32 years to leave her husband, though he once threatened to cut off her head with a hoe. He was “the kind of man who marries today, tomorrow and everyday.” She was the first wife. When he added a third, her husband sold the iron sheets that Nyadoi had bought to make a new roof. Perhaps he needed the cash for his new wife.
Bride price can make marriage unaffordable for men. Mr Manshad in Iraq complains: “Many young men can’t get married. It can cost $10,000.” Asked if his tribe’s recent lethal disputes over sand and vehicles might have been motivated by the desire to raise such a sum, he shrugs: “It is a basic necessity in life to get married.”
Insurgent groups exploit male frustration to recruit. Islamic State gave its fighters sex slaves. Boko Haram offers its troops the chance to kidnap girls. Some Taliban are reportedly knocking on doors and demanding that families surrender single women to “wed” them.
You don’t own me
Patrilineality is sustained by property rules that favour men. To keep assets within the patriline, many societies make it hard for women to own or inherit property. Written laws are often fairer, but custom may trump them. In India, only 13% of land is held by women. Several studies have shown that women who own land have more bargaining power at home and are less likely to suffer domestic violence.
Nyadoi tried to build a small house on the land of her deceased parents, but her cousins told her she could not, because she was a woman. Only when staff from Mifumi interceded at a clan meeting and laid out her rights under Ugandan law did her relatives let her have a small patch of land. She now lives there, away from her husband. She sobs as she recalls “all the suffering for so many years…fighting, beatings, cuttings, being chased away.”
Home matters. If boys see their fathers bully their mothers, they learn to bully their future wives. They may also internalise the idea that might makes right, and apply it in the public sphere. Ms Hudson argues that if women are subject to autocracy and terror in their homes, society is also more vulnerable to these ills.
Yet there are reasons for optimism. Globally, patrilineal culture is in retreat. The selective abortion of girls is declining. The male-to-female ratio at birth peaked in China and India and has fallen since. In South Korea, Georgia and Tunisia, which used to have highly skewed sex ratios, it has fallen back to roughly the natural rate.
Child marriage is falling, too. Since 2000 more than 50 countries have raised the legal minimum age of marriage to 18. Globally, 19% of women aged 20-24 were married by 18 and 5% by 15, according to Unicef, the UN’s children’s fund, but that is down from 31% and more than 10% in 2000. Polygyny is less common than it was, and often unpopular even where it is widespread, because of the harm it does to women and non-elite men. Women’s groups have pushed for bans in countries such as India, Uganda, Egypt and Nigeria.
Even in rural Iraq, some sexist traditions are in retreat. Mr Manshad says it is no longer acceptable for men to pay blood debts by handing over a daughter. “It is haram [sinful],” he says, though local feminists say it still goes on.
Other trends that help include urbanisation and pensions. When women move to cities, they earn higher wages and increase their clout at home. Their clan ties tend to loosen, too, since they live surrounded by non-members.
When the state provides pensions, old people no longer depend so completely on their children to support them. This weakens the logic of patrilineality. If parents do not need a son to take care of them, they may not desire one so fervently, or insist so forcefully that he and his wife live with them. They may even feel sanguine about having a daughter.
That is what happened in South Korea, the country that in modern times has most rapidly dismantled a patrilineal system. In 1991 it equalised male and female inheritance rights, and ended a husband’s automatic right to custody of the children after divorce. In 2005 the legal notion of a single (usually male) “head of household” was abolished. In 2009 a court found marital rape unconstitutional. Meanwhile, increased state pensions sharply reduced the share of old Koreans who lived with, and depended on, their sons. And among parents, one of the world’s strongest preferences for male babies switched within a generation to a slight preference for girls.
The change was so fast that it prompted a backlash among bewildered men. By comparison, it took ages for patrilineal culture to wither in the West, though it started much earlier, when the Catholic church forbade polygamy, forced and cousin marriage and the disinheritance of widows in the seventh century.
Individual attitudes can evolve. In Uganda, which has seen five violent changes of government since independence and invaded most of its neighbours, 49% of women and 41% of men tell pollsters that it is sometimes acceptable for a man to beat his wife. But this rate is in decline.
In the northern district of Lira, which is still recovering from a long war against rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army, domestic violence is rampant, says Molly Alwedo, a social worker. But it is falling. She credits the REAL Fathers Initiative, a project designed by Save the Children, a charity, and the Institute for Reproductive Health at Georgetown University. It offers older male mentors to young fathers to improve their parenting and relationship skills.
Gary Barker of Promundo, an NGO that promotes such mentoring globally, says: “There’s always a cohort of men who say, wait a minute, I don’t believe in these [sexist] norms. [They see the] consequences for their mums and their sisters.” It is local dissidents, rather than parachuting Westerners, who make the best messengers. Mentors do not tell young men their attitudes are toxic. They get them to talk; about what happens in their homes and whether it is fair. Peers swap tips on how to control their anger.
It doesn’t work everywhere. But a randomised controlled trial with 1,200 Ugandan fathers found that such efforts resulted in a drop in domestic violence. Emmanuel Ekom, a REAL Fathers graduate, used to come home drunk and quarrel until morning, says his wife, Brenda Akong. Now he does jobs he once scorned as women’s work, such as collecting firewood and water. One day she came home and discovered him cooking dinner. ■
This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “The cost of oppressing women”