Women and girls will not be free until fathers have lost their authority

Georgio Konstandi 24 September 2020
Image Credits: Parisian Gentleman

Quite the title. Who is this self-identifying male speaking on behalf of women and girls, attacking fathers of the nation when he himself is yet to reach the toils of parenthood? It’s ok – I’ve grown accustomed to being called rude, mostly by middle-aged men. Incidentally, if you were to read on you may find you do not disagree entirely with the tenets of my argument.

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls written by the brilliant American-Egyptian journalist, Mona Eltahawy, makes the following statement: “It is cruel to abandon women and girls to a culture they had no say in ratifying […] which in many cases practically demands they worship men: from a male god to their fathers to their husbands”.

This sounds a little 1972… or does it? In diaspora communities like my own, Eltahawy’s statement is often a thinly-veiled truth. Even in the fluffy, world of Western secularism the remnants of paternal authority persist.

According to Eltahawy, in the fight against toxic discourse aimed at women and girls, “men cannot sit back”. To that end, allow me to make my contribution to the struggle for a rational tomorrow. Allow me to explain why in the egalitarian harem that awaits us on the horizon, there is no place for fathers as we have known them.

Classical tales of paternal dictatorship

Yes, we have read about them in our books and watched them on our screens: tyrannical fathers have been around since time immemorial. Particularly present in today’s diaspora communities clinging onto archaic customs that dictate a nauseating reverence of the father figure, the naufrage of ethnic daughters left strewn in the trail of the omnipotent papa makes up a canon of international tragedy.

Ukrainians who order their daughter to remove a provocative photo from Instagram, Greeks who call their daughter a “tramp” because of the length of her skirt, Indians who won’t allow their daughter to be seen holding her boyfriend’s hand. Despite my wee age, I’m afraid I have seen it all. Most remarkable is the fact that these daughters are rarely minors.

It’s no secret, ever since clergymen began wiping the spit from their chins as they tightened the rope around women’s hymens, society has never really stopped obsessing over female virginity. In diaspora communities like my own, things can sometimes seem as medieval as the Council of Ephesus. But even in Western, secular circles, the fixation on the female body is only partly diluted, partly mutated, in a cocktail of political correctness that barely masks the bitter taste of misogyny.

Of course, though we can re-educate our children on the myths of gender norms, though we can write as many brazen women into our storylines as our pens allow, it is of little use if the most powerful mouthpieces in families today continue chanting yesterday’s tune.

In many ethnic households, fathers remain that dominant voice. It is ‘daddy’s pride’ that is bruised when his little girl dares show some shoulder, chest or thigh. After all, his little girl is an extension of him (sperm have long memories). If she were to coincidentally arouse another man’s (or men’s) interest – which we all know is the only reason a woman wears a short skirt – what would that mean for daddy’s existence? At least we know papa went through the same rigorous controls on his body when he was a young man…

This is not to say that this grisly discourse does not play out in white, secular households. However, growing up as a member of a diaspora community in British society, it seems to me that it is most prevalent in cultures where the authority of the father figure is still entrenched through social and religious norms.

It is often the case that these very communities pride themselves in sending their daughters to university and pushing their girls to find jobs (whoopee, brownie points for us). Nevertheless – and this newsflash may come as a shock – the world does not revolve around work. We can send the daughter to study and encourage her to take part in the market economy but none of that matters if, in the meantime, she lives in low-level fear of her father’s disapproval. That father who, guided by a religious or cultural belief ingrained into him by his predecessors, has convinced her to choose less flesh over more, to view sex as a man’s take and a woman’s give. Teach a girl she is passive and, guess what, she may just grow up to be so. A passive woman may end up in the arms of a possessive husband. Then who saves his little girl when the big bad man behaves just as big bad men do? And so it goes.

Secular, Western sexisms

If I were to end my article here, one could be mistaken in thinking that only ethnic fathers are revered. Unfortunately, even in our cosy, Western world the pitfalls of paternal authority remain, albeit with more discretion.

It was 2018, I was desperately trying to forget the woes of my incoming exams and I had every season of Love Island at my disposal. Why not start with the first one? If ever there was a sign of Western ease with the taboo of sex, surely this reality TV show is it. And yet, as I sped my way through each episode, I found myself struck by a sobering reality – and no, I am not referring to the cringe-worthy machismo and cries of “slut” aimed at female contestants.

Towards the end of the series, when the loved-up Jonathan Clark wanted to propose to Hannah Elizabeth, he did something that (at least on camera) seemed to come as second nature. Before asking a grown woman to commit to a life together as two individuals bound in that wonderful union we call love, Mr Clark of the very secular Essex county, in the year 2015, asked Hannah’s father for permission.

Of course, he did and of course, starry-eyed boyfriends still do across Britain today. For as far as we have run from the dogmas of the Church, as much as we have progressed from the days of housewives living for and through their children, the childlike reverence of the father is one of the final stains of sexism in our secular, Western way of life. The notion that the daughter ultimately belongs to her father until the day she is handed over to the next male guardian is still perpetuated today. It lives and breathes with every Jonathan Clark who plays his part in the social contract and asks the father’s permission to take away that prized extension of him – his little girl.

It lives and breathes with every Jonathan Clark who plays his part in the social contract and asks the father’s permission to take away that prized extension of him – his little girl.

Now I am not against tradition, nor displays of respect for those of a wiser age. Alas, this custom has little to do with courtesy. If it did, our instinct would be to approach both parents. Or perhaps the parent who gave life to our love interest through the pains of childbirth, rather than the one whose contribution to the reproductive process consisted of a few minutes of fun. We are kidding ourselves if we deny that this social custom is nothing more than a remnant of an archaic notion – one that, to some degree, insists that a daughter’s recourse is not to herself, nor to her parents, but primarily to her father.

It would be a lot easier for me to stay silent and enjoy the rules that privilege me with power over my daughter, should I have one. But frankly, I don’t want it. The idea of being revered in this way is unnerving because, aside from its artificiality, it is based on dogma rather than reason. The question remains as to when enough citizens of the world will embrace the latter to eradicate the former. Whenever that day comes, one thing is for sure: fathers, as we have known them, will be a dying breed.