Although at its root patriarchy is a historical concept, it has dominated healthcare and psychology since the 20th century. According to a WHO report, there is a link between growing up in a patriarchal society and a higher risk of mental health issues among women. While there can be positives to living in a family and adhering to a set of cultural norms and traditions, when these norms limit women’s means of self-expression and their opportunities, that can have lasting effects on self-confidence and mental health.  

What is cultural patriarchy?

The word “patriarchy” means “the rule of the father” in Greek and, historically, it has referred to a system of government where men predominantly hold political and social power and have moral authority. More often than not, this system is based on an ideology where men and women are naturally different and thus should hold their appropriate roles. Most contemporary societies are based on patriarchal principles. From the 20th century forward, the term patriarchy has been increasingly used to refer to any social system dominated by men, as well as in social relations that aim to liberate women for male domination, oppression, and exploitation. 

How does patriarchy affect women’s mental health? 

When patriarchy is enshrined in a family’s culture, this can have a huge impact, particularly on women wishing to stand up for their rights, pursue their dreams, earn their own money, study their chosen subject, or pick who they marry. Women who do this can be subject to shame, scorn, even sometimes violence. The patriarchy is not exclusive to one area, but many cultures have a religious element to a woman’s role, along with traditional cultural gender roles, and this creates difficulties for family members.

 

In a patriarchy, gender roles are dictated by a strict dichotomy: the man is supposed to be the head of the household, provide for the family, get a good job, and be successful, while the women must exist in his shadow and respect his authority. Common manifestations of patriarchy include: 

 

  • The imposition of gender roles. Women aren’t allowed to have roles outside of a culturally defined template: women are made for family life, they shouldn’t seek higher education or a well-paid job that offers them independence. On a similar note, the woman has a fixed role within the family: she is supposed to live with the husband’s family, she should be soft-spoken and submissive.

  • Sexist work environment (Women’s opinions aren’t listened to at work, women aren’t given leadership roles because they’re emotional/irrational, women are more likely to be paid less than men.)   

  • Arranged marriage (Women should marry who their parents see fit and not have a say in it.) 

  • Ageism. After giving children or grandchildren, women are expected to give up their careers and be “aunties” or “grannies”. At the same time, they are seen as less fit for work and become a subject of ridicule among co-workers. 

  • Childbirth (Women should have children. Those who don’t want children or cannot have them are ostracised and marginalised.) 

  • Stigma around women who do not choose to marry. 

  • Physical and emotional abuse towards women. 

  • Certain biological traits specific to women, such as pregnancy, menstruation, menopause) are used against them to justify their weakness (i.e., women don’t make rational decisions on their period). 

  • Women’s sexuality is treated more negatively. Sexual behaviours that are regarded as normal in men, such as having sexual partners before marriage, are seen as abnormal and promiscuous in women. 

When a girl is exposed to these practices from an early age, that can affect her wellbeing and mental health. In patriarchal families and societies, the following psychological effects have been observed: 

 

  • Anxiety 

  • Depression 

  • Low self-esteem 

  • Learned helplessness: women who have been exposed to cycles of physical and psychological abuse for so long that they don’t do anything to escape them. 

  • PTSD 

  • Psychosis 

  • Developing a fear of men 

A worrying phenomenon that occurs in patriarchal communities is that of high-functioning anxiety: the girl or woman is emotionally affected by patriarchal norms but, because she knows she will not receive support from her parents or peers, she suppresses the symptoms and puts on an image of perfection and make it look like they are happy with their life. Apart from perpetuating a false image, this habit is particularly harmful from a mental health perspective because that women bottles up her feelings and issues such as anxiety and depression will only get worse. 

 

In general, all forms of abuse, physical or emotional, can cause mental health issues, but when this abuse is ingrained into the very fabric of society, cultural patriarchy issues become deeper and harder to address. 

 

For example, women who eventually speak up against their oppressors are labelled as unstable, paranoid, or psychotic. In some cultures, that can lead to misdiagnosis, and women may be denied the right to custody or legal support. 

Impact of patriarchal norms on men 

Patriarchal norms can have a devastating blow on women's mental health, but there is also another side to the coin. Cultural patriarchy issues can also affect men, and that should be talked about just as much. Men who grow up in patriarchal societies have to fit a strict mould: they are the head of the family, and they are strong, authoritative features. Women are the ones who should verbalise their feelings and emotions and show vulnerability, while men should be strong, self-reliant, and never show emotions. When they violate this norm and ask for help, men lose their authority and are ridiculed because these are displaying supposedly feminine behaviours. As a result, patriarchy inhibits help-seeking behaviours and men end up struggling with mental health issues too. Moreover, in the patriarchal society, the man is the one who provides. So, when the man is no longer able to provide because they are laid off, or their wives make more money than them, men feel displaced in their culture because they don’t live up to their society’s expectation of what a man should be.