Neotribalism: Same Patriarchy, Different Tribe

Same Patriarchy, Different Tribe  

“Where are the women?” asked New York congresswoman Carolyn Maloney when the Republicans convened a subcommittee panel about birth control last spring.  It had not occurred to the GOP that women could know and represent their own interests.  It had not occurred to them that perhaps women should be the ones in control of their own bodies. Apparently Republican congressmen can and should speak on the behalf of their daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers. This is why the Republicans have been trying to defend themselves ever since, protesting that they are not against women. Yet clearly they think (and feel) that they are entitled to decide against the basic rights of women while women are out of the room.

When comparing various types of fundamentalism — Christian, Islamic, and Judaic — most people focus on the differences among them. To be sure, honor killings are not the same as denying women their reproductive rights (as these Republicans in Congress hoped to do). Yet while the differences in kind are stark, we need to understand that the War on Women is a universal concept, one that can and should be described as neotribalism.

Using the term “neotribalism” helps us focus on the primary assumption that religious fundamentalisms share: patriarchal rule, carried out in a re-enlarged private sphere. “Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “But they all seem to. It doesn’t matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim. They want to control women.”

Getting the public sphere to limit a woman’s autonomy regarding her reproductive capacity, or killing her for sullying the family’s surname, are both examples of neotribalism. There is a “trifecta of sex, death, and religion,” as Mona Eltahawy writes in Foreign Policy (“Why Do They Hate Us? The real war on women is in the Middle East”). The extended family — the tribe — reestablishes the primacy of the patriarch. After all, the nuclear or extended family is typically governed by one of the three dominant world faiths or religions, all of which have fundamentalist branches that are premised on patriarchy. In the United States, religious organizations, primarily Christian ones such as conservative Catholic dioceses and evangelical churches, in effect declared the War on Women, hoping to push reproductive health back into the private domain.

Now, as the Democrats convene in Charlotte, they are right to call on all women, as well as all men in support of their women, to exercise their right to vote, making sure the Republicans retain little power.

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About Ruth O'Brien

Professor Ruth O'Brien, The Graduate Center, The City University of New York (CUNY) & Honorary Unaffiliated Academic Book Series Editor for The Public Square, Princeton University Press & Heretical Thought, Oxford University Press, USA Last book: Out of Many, One: Obama & the Third American Political Tradition (U of Chicago 2013). Nickname: Professorette by Rush Limbaugh (see

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