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The Patriarchs by Angela Saini review – why it’s still a man’s world

Angela Saini’s 2017 Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong (2017) interrogated sexism in science and reminded readers that there is no biological basis for entrenched inequality between the sexes. That understanding has now led her to explore how, in that case, patriarchy took root, let alone became so powerful throughout history and across the world.

This is a vital question, and never more so than now. With the backlash against women’s rights that we see in so many places, from Afghanistan to the US, Iran to Russia, we need to think more about how patriarchal societies begin, how they are maintained – and how they can be changed.

Saini brings sparkling intelligence to this debate. She is brilliant at ferreting out intriguing nuggets of information and synthesising them into a big but not over-simplified picture. Her key theme is that there is nothing inevitable or unchanging about patriarchy. There are times and places where human society is not patriarchal, and wherever patriarchy is in the ascendant there is dissent. Women are constantly disobedient.

It’s heartening to see how Saini remains so constantly hopeful that society can be remade along more equal lines

This view of the fragility of male domination is compelling because Saini fleshes it out with vivid exploration of societies past and present that are not patriarchal. These are not matriarchies as such, but matrilineal or matrilocal societies that show “considerable variation” in “authority, power and influence among both males and females”.

What glorious possibilities these present. I loved the account of the Nair community in Kerala, a matrilinieal society organised around joint households with many family members, all with a common female ancestor. Or the glimpses of Native American or African societies where women wielded significant power. Or the stories from the goddess-worshipping Mosuo community in China. Choo Waihong, a lawyer who visited the Mosuo in the 00s, found a world where a man’s place is in his mother’s home, looking after his sisters’ children. Choo was struck to see, bathing in hot springs, a grandmother with a six-pack from physical labour, and a young woman striding up to men in a bar to buy them a drink. No wonder Choo called it a “feminist utopia” and didn’t leave.

Such narratives disrupt the western bias of much feminism, not out of a vague desire to decolonise, but because it is the case that the most interesting feminist experience so often lies beyond the west. While we may know in theory that western women preaching gender equality to other cultures is counterproductive, it really hits home to see how patriarchy was often imposed on more egalitarian cultures.

The Nair community, for instance, was pressured to move towards colonial patriarchal norms throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Similarly, settlers in American and African countries often saw social acceptance of female power in some communities not as a lesson from which they might learn, but as a deviation that had to be brought into line. Saini has a particularly salutary chapter on Seneca Falls, and how the site of the first women’s rights convention in the US was also a place where many years previously the Native American Haudenosaunee women “belonged to communities in which they already wielded significant control, as they had done for generations”.

The narrative is incredibly ambitious, and because Saini’s key takeaway is that history is not a straight line, it can feel a little repetitive in its accounts of gains and losses, losses and gains. At times I wanted a deeper, rather than a broader view of this carousel of time. The author suggests that there are no gender differences in society without their deliberate imposition by patriarchy: “The moment gender becomes salient is when it becomes an organising principle, when enormous populations are categorised in ways that deliberately ignore their everyday realities.” It would have been stimulating to read even more discussion of how societies where gender is not salient respond to sex differences, such as the capacity to get pregnant or to rape.

This is not to say that Saini simplifies the reality of current inequality. She recognises how patriarchal societies do not just represent a struggle of men against women. Women will often make the “patriarchal bargain” and be its strongest supporters, from anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly to girls who insist they want to be cut even when their society tries to ban FGM. In more subtle ways this bargain is the conundrum of all women under patriarchy.

Given this recognition of its often seductive nature, even for women, it’s heartening to see how Saini remains so constantly hopeful that society can be remade along more equal lines. “There are no natural limits to how we make the future; only our imaginations and our courage,” she concludes, bravely. How stirring it is to read such an optimistic view of our past and of our future in these daunting times. This conversation must – and will – continue.

The Patriarchs: How Men Came to Rule by Angela Saini is published by HarperCollins (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply