labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
juillet/décembre 2012  - julho /dezembro 2012

Deconstructing Family: Family Relations under Patriarchal and Matriarchal Conditions

Mariam Irene Tazi-Preve


This contribution is meant to demonstrate what in Western societies is understood by family and living-together in a family and how the individual suffers from it. I will systematically describe from which problems this construct of family is suffering, why it cannot function, and on which pre-conditions it is based. I will give an analysis of the family as a place of domination (e.g. the primacy of marriage), of exploiting the potentials of mothers, and of reinforcing the existing gender gap. In contrast to this, there are other past and present traditions in which the genders are socialized in an egalitarian way, in which the family group is understood as being a matrilineal community which provides care and security to its children and grown-up members.

Key-words: family, domination, gender gap, matrilinearity.


What is the Problem

The second women's movement began with the slogan “the private is political” calling attention to the “unjust system” of families, which burdened women with all the emotional and nurturing work while denying all of their other facets of being.

Feminist research doesn't like to address the topic of family, instead the ideal of a woman as an individual, free of all family relationships is researched and propagated. But free of what? And freedom for what? Some portions of the feminist movement as well as feminist research on the subject of family are characterized by rejection for the most part. This has to do with the concept of family and its negative aftertaste, with connotations of exploitation and submission. But what about the idea that human beings are homebodies? That both women and men are social beings, requiring interaction and relationship bonds. That families are essential not only in the lives of children, but also for emotional support of adults.

When feminists approach avoids families, it also ignores the origin and foundation of the system.

In my opinion people fail to recognize how thoroughly the ideology of the nuclear family pervades our lives. From the earliest childhood it is presented as the – almost - only possible form which allows people to thrive in communities. It is reinforced with images and staged in the media and in politics. People overlook the fact that the institution of the family is one of the central institutions supporting the patriarchy and is also the theoretical basis for political structures (“the smallest cell of the state”) and the global economic system.

In spite of a broad scientific approach, research on families, psychology, many therapy institutions, media and film use a very narrow understanding of family, namely a heterosexual couple with child(ren).

The family as an institution implies installing a particular form of family, going back to ancient times, supported by a discourse in which marriage has an economic foundation (household, etc.) and was later supported by morality (Christianity) and in its modern form has come to be a life-long love affair. The ritual of holy matrimony was replaced by the ritual of marriage, which has since been given legal standing.

Under patriarchal conditions motherhood was perverted, instrumentalized, institutionalized and the creative act of bestowing life denied. Not even subtly, but directly enshrined in law. Family law in Europe denied women the right to their children up until the 1970's. E.g. in Austria the new family law was introduced in 1975.

We thought that this discussion was behind us. Quite the opposite, we are observing a restoration of the family throughout Europe.

Criticism on patriarchy as formulated by Claudia Werlhof (2007), Renate Genth (2009) and others, and I see myself in this tradition, whose analysis of the origins, coercion and consequences reveals a society characterized by the paradigm of the patriarchy as a system of thought. The urgency of this analysis comes from recognition that the global crisis and the dynamics of the primarily economic globalization have created a “west end” situation (Werlhof).

An understanding of the patriarchy as a system prone to war, based on violence and exploitation, the family is to be seen as a foundation in which coercion takes on different forms. On the one hand there is a direct physical form (violence against women and children). More subtle forms are camouflaged in the mythology of romance. Rationally, it occurs as the appropriation of women's labor while women are compelled to also perform the work within the family. 

Reproduction and Characteristics of the Nuclear Family

The purpose of imposing people's primary socialization under the conditions determined by the patriarchy is to perpetuate the gender roles and therefore ensure the perpetuation of the system. This goes well beyond the significance of family as private space.

It is the foundation of the production of the gender relationships whose political and economic impact has proven to be detrimental to the world. 

Families are places which reproduce existing structures:

-“Matricidal destruction” of the world: a masculinity of the kind postulated by Freud and Jung which can be established only through separation from the mother. 

By this reasoning masculinity is defined as not-feminine. Every generation repeats the drama of establishing male identity: boys force their differentiation and separation from their mothers by suppressing their need for love and security in favor of promoting their autonomy. This process is accompanied by the degradation and scorn of all women. Men must turn to the world outside, become attracted to its appeal – money and power – and create a “new – productive - life”.

-Women as accomplices of the patriarchy. Family as the place of reproduction of fathers' daughters, of women who see themselves as Athena, born from the head of Zeus, who desire to represent patriarchal values, who imitate their real and symbolic fathers, despise female “weakness” and who want to secure their portion of power and material assets. They are the women who support the system and have internalized “male values” as universal values for themselves.

-The domestication of motherhood. Seen from the other side - from one generation to the next family and society coerces young women to abandon their dreams of freedom and to grow into their role as nurturers, to conform to the image of selfless mother, who takes care not only of her children but also of her husband.

This perpetuates the dominating gender relationships, the “patriarchy within us” is reinforced by uninterrupted one-sided socialization. So families should be seen as seeds of the patriarchy. Families are not merely private and personal, but the source of human socialization and all patriarchal relationships. The idea of private space as protected is a historically recent development brought about by separation from the outside, as a place for the creation and nurturing of “human resources” for the job market. 

The situation we have in Europe and as export concept in countries of the South is the model of the nuclear family, an ideal, which individuals endeavor in vain to achieve. Evidence that the system doesn't work is manifold and has been documented in countless studies:

-High rates of divorce and separation and new areas of the battle of the sexes:

Custody battles and children suffering through divorces have led to massive gains by the fathers' rights movement. As part of the backlash against “women's rights” in general, they are supposed to undermine the rights of mothers. The purpose of marriage is to secure fathers' rights to custody their children, while in Austria mothers who don't marry ensure their autonomy. In Germany the law has been reversed so that unmarried fathers have custody rights. In Austria the custody rights of fathers to their children born out of wedlock is currently the subject of controversial discussions. 

-The myth of heterosexual love has been persistent and the therapy market for couples booms.

The feeling of individual “guilt” and the supposed “failure” in the face of divorce is enormous. But there is no failure, women have become convinced of an ideology which creates the illusion of eternal love and that this must come from a man, completely isolated from the assistance of the community and the matrilineal support network.

-Marginalization and isolation of so-called “singles” and “single mothers” as a deviation of the norm.

Family rhetoric bestows singles and single mothers with the stigma of “failure” and “incompleteness”. They are considered freeloaders, in Austria the expression „Sozialschmarozer“ was coined in the context of an increase in the subsidies for child care for single mothers.

Women are considered “single” whenever they don't have a male partner “to show”, the language suggests a “deficit” (of money and other resources).

-Overwhelming mothers not only within the context of heterosexual partnerships

Germaine Greer (2000) writes about the “persecution of mothers” in patriarchal societies, that today a situation has come about which has never existed in human evolution, namely the mother ideal, women doing nothing for the entire day other than taking care of a child. Our society has created child-rearing as a thankless, yet exhausting 24 hour a day job for mothers.

-The ambivalent role of fathers

As countless studies on fathers have demonstrated the bond to their children – both during as well as following a relationship – are frequently undeveloped and are optional (Walter/Künzler 2002). Divorce often results in children completely losing contact to their second primary care giver. The lack of a father or his absence following a divorce or separation has been studied repeatedly (Tazi-Preve et al 2007 etc).

Absent fathers are explained in the context of one-sided gender socialization. Another argument offered by psychological research is that men require a woman as relationship facilitator in order to exercise their fatherly relationship, if this is lacking then there is no “independent father identity”.

Fatherhood is more theoretical, where motherhood is a physical experience. The integration of fathers into families doesn't actually have any significant historical tradition. That is related to the way men view “family” as a place of regeneration, the preparing a – once again, maternal household – in which he is nurtured, but not a place of reproductive work and emotional involvement.


-Violence and sexual abuse by grandfathers and step-fathers


People frequently talk about “domestic violence”, which conceals identities of the perpetrators and the victims. One of the successes of the women's movement was to bring physically and sexually violent relationships in the “smallest cell of the state” in the light of day. One problem which I see as nearly epidemic is the physical and sexual violence of step-fathers against their partner's children.

Women are increasingly leaving intolerable conditions, and are often alone, not only with their children, even though they are often without support in the relationship, but are also alone with their emotional needs and are confronted with the lack of social network and community.

Essential questions are not answered

Women often create their own community, mostly by mothers helping each other or if they are lucky their matrilineal contacts remained intact, their mother or sisters who support and are loyal to each other. For many women, this way is no longer an option, and often positive mother-daughter relationships - such as the myth of Demeter and Persephone – have been infiltrated by the patriarchy, destroyed by ties to the job market or made impossible. Often these relationships can't be maintained because women's solidarity has been undermined for centuries, just as the matrilinearity in Europe has been systematically annihilated. While witches were being persecuted the solidarity was brandished and brutally dismembered. This shock sits deep in women's psyche: they have internalized the necessity of conforming to the laws under the threat of death. 

By the way, men are also looking for a home and after a divorce they are much less able to organize their lives than women. For almost all homeless men, their social decline began with a divorce.

The question as to how women can live, how their emotional needs can be met, the desire to belong to a community, for a decent upbringing for their children on the one hand and the desire for erotic stimulation and sexuality on the other, this essential question has not been answered.

The counter culture of the 70's and 80's opened many possibilities for experimentation and introduced new structures; some of them became established practices and were continued by environmentalists or Christian movements, although mostly in the context of “sustainable living” or child-friendly or alternative living for the elderly. I don't know of a single project in Austria which was founded on matriarchal principles with the goal of a radical break with family life. The failure and the patriarchalization of some alternative lifestyles (such as the Otto Mühl Commune) came to be used as justification of the model of the nuclear family. 

The European model of the nuclear family was always intended to be exported to other parts of the world. In the historical contexts of colonization and missionary work, the model of the nuclear family was to be imposed on all cultures. The message was delivered and still is being delivered that supposedly motherhood alone isn't worth anything; it must submit to a male paternal system, for on its own it has little value, the “real world” is actually happening “outside”, in politics and the working environment. What does “real world” mean? The criteria are the opposite of what is considered nurturing in a relationship: competition, hierarchy, recognition and value assessments exclusively through money. It is suggested that “the most natural things” are not appreciated.

The fragility of the nuclear family structure is related to the way both partners are equally overwhelmed by the stressful work environment as well as child-rearing. Leaders of the conservative movement are aware of this and new patterns have been designed to restore the so-called “life-work balance”. I refer to these kinds of approaches as the “re-modernization of the family,” structured assimilation of unchanging family relationships oriented on the nuclear family structure to conform to a work environment dictated by the capitalist economy and increasingly hostile to human beings. All this is playing out during the crucial phases of their careers and their child-rearing years. The simultaneous demands of family and career create a dilemma, which the individual can hardly escape and is also lacking the psychological and physical resources to reflect critically on the situation. This is how an army of emotionally deficient laborers is created (see Renggli 1992) in the service of the economy and the ideology.

The problem is that the matriarchal bonds and obligations for the society and for the economy and politics have been recognized for a long time. Neo-liberal terminology and new wording is supposed to enhance the value of the “matriarchal foundation”. The correct “work-life balance” propagated by Austrian and German family policy is taught in seminars which preach propagate the “compatibility of family and career” in order to ensure that the structure of the foundation remains unchanged. In fact the organization of families is getting a facelift, a common practice in the modern world.

Sketch of the matriarchal concept of family

How different is the matriarchal concept of family.

It is arranged according to the mothers' line of descent, both geographically as well as the “symbolic order of mothers” (Luisa Muraro 1993). That only the mother can be sure was a truth known to the Romans, which testifies to the inherent logic which was replaced by an artificial patriarchal lineage. The Minangkabau Adat ensures that children always have a family, always have food and the land of their ancestors (Reeves Sunday 2006).

“Here clan mothers and their sisters, daughters and granddaughters live together with men who are directly related to them: brothers, sons and grandsons of the clan mother and her sisters.” (Göttner-Abendroth 2007: 6)

The maternal clan house guarantees a woman not only economic and emotional security, but also freedom in romantic relationships. 

Marriage is understood as something fundamentally different from the institution of marriage, as it is known in societies of the North. It is not intended to have a lifelong duration, but one of shorter periods of time and divorces are not difficult to carry out nor are they socially stigmatized (such as by the Bantu people of Bemba).

As for the logistics, visiting marriages are the most common form (such as by the Mosuo in China), even if they have changed over time so that it has become common for a woman to bring her husband to live with her clan (such as with the South American Goajiro-Arawak in Columbia and Venezuela, (Göttner-Abendroth, 2000). Historically, the Iroquois practiced visiting marriages in the woman's clan. One nation which was especially well researched at the turn of the last century (1880-1940) was the Hopi (“the peaceful people”) (for one example Titiev 1944) who practiced classical visiting marriages. This practice was vilified by missionaries for so long that people began to live together monogamously, but always in the woman's house. Husbands stay at the woman's clan house as guests, either overnight or occasionally all day.

Marriages of the patriarchal model are unknown. The Mosuo women assume that a couple's erotic attraction rarely lasts longer than 4-6 years and find it negligent to make fluctuating erotic feelings the foundation of family bonds. 

The essence of marriage for the Khasi was changed permanently by Christianization; informal relationships were replaced by an institution. Many existing matriarchies are acutely threatened and are being subjected to attempts at patriarchalization through various means (marriage, father's name, seizure of family assets etc.) (Mukhim 2009, 201).

A husband can never attain the same position as a brother, who is truly the “man at the woman's side”. He protects her and their mother when needed; he is the social father to her children.

Historically, the Iroquois were familiar with the concept of “fatherhood” but it was less important. For the Hopi fatherhood became significant through the work of missionaries.  The emphasis was placed on social fatherhood, which was fulfilled by the mother's brother, such as with the Tuareg, where the oldest brother takes on this role. For the Mosuo the biological father bears no responsibility for the children. His task is to help his sister raise her children. The Minangkabau also recognize biological fatherhood. For all generations the mother has more significance than the father. 

Their concept of motherhood also does not reflect ours. In the Hopi matriclan, for example, the oldest woman is considered the “first mother”: she is the commander and source of advice for the whole clan. The mother or mothers of the clan define the values.  

“The sisters of a clan raise their children together; the children address them all by the same word for “mother”. Some adults don't know which sister is their biological mother.” (Göttner-Abendroth 2000: 83).

Matriarchal societies “know no mother cult” (Göttner-Abendroth 2009, 21) Motherhood is a principle practiced by women who are related to each other and is not the obligation of a single woman. This prevents individual women from becoming overwhelmed and also protects children from mothers with difficult personalities.

Children belong to the clan and bear the clan name and are part of a larger group. The children of sisters (cousins) belong to the same family, while men recognize only those children as their own, who bear the same clan name, determined by a common maternal lineage. For the Khasi, for example, the maternal lineage is the best protection for the children. A child can never be considered illegitimate, because every child belongs to her mother and to her clan, as is emphasized by the African Asante (Ghana) (Donkoh 2010).  Most of the people in the world (Blaffer Hrdy 2000) are taken care of by female relatives or other women rather than by their biological fathers.

Multigenerational families are the norm. Care for the invalid and elderly people are guaranteed in matriarchal contexts. Also there is an awareness of duties which vary according to a person's age.

The form of communal life in which people feel bonded through the maternal line guarantees communal responsibility for the comprehensive well-being of all the members of the clan. This responsibility has no counterpart in the patriarchal family model. In fact women and children feel that they are “in exile”. The lack of support from the maternal side leaves women feeling overwhelmed and isolated. Women who are subjected to oppressive marriages find it especially difficult to raise their children alone without the emotional and material support of their mother or sister.

For the Kabyle in North Africa it's clear that the family is determined by the community and less by the individual.

“The Kabyle people always experience their social identity as part of the group. Their responsibility is oriented on the family and ensures that no one is isolated, and everyone feels protected.”  (Grasshoff 2006: 125-126)

“According to tradition children don't belong to their parents, but to a certain group of relatives (...) turning a child over to one mother and one father is an idea which assumes an individualized social concept.” (Grasshoff 2006: 128)

Learning and remembering other concepts

The problem is not the frequency of divorce and low birth rates, these express the fact that women are leaving unbearable circumstances, which they previously could not leave because of their complete economic dependency and social pressure. The suffering is expressed within themselves or in their children. Also the fact that there is hardly any alternative to marriage or partnership, no support or the emotional stability of the matriclan. 

A heterosexual partnership may be successful in phases, or in some exceptions life-long, but that is the exception to the rule. Although the opposite is generally insinuated.

In practice partnership is often experienced as a substitute for emotional attention from a person's biological family. And that is the profound problem which we must face: the lack of livable alternatives and therefore the tendency to pair up.

What can we learn from other concepts/societies, which have preserved their matriarchal memories? And how can we develop a new understanding of family relations?

It is important to remember gynocentric ideas, whether they be those which were once dominant in our region, or those introduced to us by other cultures as ecological and sustainable ways of life. What is important in times of crisis, times of loss, when the environment is being destroyed and numerous wars are being fought over land and resources, is to honor the ways of life which bring about peace and which present the only possibility to live in dignity.

What is also important is to restore the value to the relationships to your mother, brothers and sisters, which they actually have. Namely the most important relationships which came about through a common past and life together and cannot be replaced by romance.

We must be aware of the fact that we carry the patriarchy within us through a system in which women are subordinate, a system built on the exploitation of the life energy of women and of nature, deprived from matrilinearity by a patrilineal family system (family name). That requires familiarity with alternatives (Kailo 2007). Without this knowledge and through the internalized patriarchal values which are promoted as universal, there is little hope of discovering new ways and actually breaking free of the patriarchal indoctrination. (W. Ernst).

The Indigenous of Europe and the Matriarchy Here and Now

There are examples from social research which demonstrate the importance of matrilineal bonds for women today. In a current empirical analysis Laura Bernardi and Clementine Rossier (2008) demonstrated the significance of social networks in France and Germany especially between mothers, grandmothers and sisters, when deciding whether or not to have more children. If the relationship to the own mother was good, women were significantly more willing to have more children.

More studies are necessary to define living models of matrilinearity in Europe.

It is also necessary to rediscover traces - your own matriarchal past. For instance, as a native woman of Tyrol, my country, Austria, necessitates directing my attention to the own background and uncovering traces of the matriarchy, in legends, myths, in earlier social order (Maria Gimbutas). The legends of Tyrol are full of indications of matriarchal origins, such as the Salige women of the Legend of Ötztal (Haid, 2006). The wise women or Salige are one of the greatest Alp legends. They are much more prominent in the mythology of the Alp region than any of the male figures. Even the custom of carnival celebrations in many communities of Tyrol bear traces of earlier times. Knowledge of healing and magic rituals are always practiced and passed on by women.

The urge to study European history and its beginnings is not motivated by nostalgia, but by the idea that it isn't necessary to turn to cultures outside Europe to demonstrate that it was once possible to live a life of dignity and peace and actually still is. That which Westerners believe to have discovered as “true” and “original” in foreign cultures also exists in Europe. Traces of cultures founded on justice and on matriarchal wisdom can also be found in Europe, even in Central Europe, and in my case, in Tyrol and in Innsbruck.Evidence uncovered by Gimbutas and in study of graveyards demonstrated that in all of Europe the non-Indoeuropean, or pre-patriarchal society before the 4th Century was organized matrilineally and was economically egalitarian (Gimbutas according to Marler 2006). In Eastern Europe people lived in long houses, which are typical for societies which trace their lineage through the mothers.

“After the introduction of androcratic structures and the fall of old Europe the matristic model was retained in some regions as a subculture up until historical times. Ancient sources, beginning with Herodotus in the 5th Century BCE until Strabo in the 1st Century CE describe cultures which were still matrilineal (Greek Metronymy), matrilocal and practiced endogamy and communal marriage and had no private property, knew only communal property.” (Marler, 2000: 205)

The matriarchy always survived as a “second culture” (Genth, 2009, 52f). We find traces of it in the Gift Economy (Vaughan 1997), in mother-child relationships, in romantic relationships and in social networks. We always live in mixed cultures. What enables the patriarchal order is all the “services” which are performed out of emotional and/or family obligations. Although that does not justify the assumption that families are purely gift-societies. It is important to emphasize the difference between the compulsion behind the giving and what is referred to as “gynergy”, the power of women to care for children, parents and the sick. Not purely as a product of socialization, but because otherwise it wouldn't get done.  What we need is to annihilate our ideological armor of the patriarchal concept of family.  That would be a way to the freedom of rediscovery, or restoring family relationships.  

What we need is to annihilate our ideological armor of the patriarchal concept of family.  That would be a way to the freedom of rediscovery, or restoring family relationships.  


Mariam Irene Tazi-Preve is currently returning from her Visiting Professor at the University of New Orleans, LA to the University of Vienna, Austria. She has a background as political scientist/women`s studies doing research in the area of demography (fertility) and family studies. She is a patriarchal critic scientist applying a matriarchal view within her research; focus: feminist theory, motherhood and fatherhood (European perspective) family and population policies (European perspective) and women in Islam. She published several books: Familienpolitik – nationale und internationale Perspektiven (Family Policy – National and International Perspectives, 2009), Väter im Abseits (Fathers aside, 2007) and Mutterschaft im Patriarchat (Motherhood in Patriarchy, 2004, soon published in English).


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labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
juillet/décembre 2012  - julho /dezembro 2012