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Patriarchy Incarnate

July 4, 2021

‘Patriarchy Incarnate’ is a term I first used in the context of FGM (female genital mutilation) almost a decade ago.  I saw it then, and I still see it, as the literal imposition of some men’s will on women’s bodies. But since that time I have begun to understand how the term can also be applied to other aspects of patriarchal imposition, both physical and psychological.  In the end little distinguishes soma and psyche; harm to either is harm to both, especially when the harm is inflicted knowingly by fellow human beings.

Looking back, I probably first employed the specific concept of Patriarchy incarnate on this website on 15 January 2013: What Is Female Genital Mutilation? Why Does It Occur? What Are Its Health And Wellbeing Impacts?

Initially I saw this idea in the context only of FGM, but over time my understanding has extended to include a much wider range of harms inflicted by (some) men on women and girls.  Indeed, it can be argued that in certain circumstances patriarchy incarnate is imposed also on other men and boys.

Why Patriarchy?
It’s important to recognise that Patriarchy is not just one ‘thing’.  The Costa Rican feminist jurist Alda Facio Montejo puts it this way:

In any given Patriarchy all men will not enjoy the same privileges or have the same power. Indeed, the experience of domination of men over women historically served for some men to extend that domination over other groups of men, installing a hierarchy among men that is more or less the same in every culture or region today. The male at the top of the patriarchal hierarchy has great economic power; is an adult and almost always able-bodied; possesses a well-defined, masculine gender identity and a well-defined heterosexual identity, adding a few more features by region. For example, in Latin America, for a man to be at the top of the patriarchal hierarchy, that man has to be white and Christian, in addition to the other characteristics shared with Patriarchy’s counterparts across regions.

Across Patriarchy’s different models, women are exposed to different degrees and types of violence, some common to all and others specific to each cultural, religious or economic model adopted by the Patriarchy.

Patriarchy was the first structure of domination, subordination and exclusion which is recognized as such by History with a capital H (recognized patriarchal history) and still remains a basic system of domination. Ironically, while being the most powerful and enduring system of inequality, it is hardly ever perceived as such even by women themselves. In fact, precisely because the invisibilization of Patriarchy is one of its institutions, even some feminists deny its existence

Facio Montejo’s final point here is important.  Even today, let alone a decade ago, there is and was pushback against the proposition that FGM is underpinned by Patriarchy.  ‘How can that be?’ I am asked, ‘when FGM is very often done by women, with not a man in sight?’

The point is well made, but the reality is that FGM is performed because it indicates ‘purity‘ in respect of marriage and bride price, or it ‘ensures’ that a woman is faithful to her husband, or it (allegedly) prevents ‘dangerous’ levels of sexual arousal and promiscuity.  All these claims are factually nonsense, but they are powerful beliefs which demonstrate the concerns men have around securing their economic position and their control of female members of their family or community.

FGM is also closely associated with child, early and forced marriage (CEFM), another way in which patriarchal systems and economics place women and girls at risk.

It is hardly surprising that many mothers in societies where marriage is in effect essential for female adult status, or even survival, are as concerned as the men about the reputational and matrimonial prospects for their daughters.  If FGM is deemed critical for an acceptable bride price and a ‘good’ marriage, FGM will be done, and often by a female relative or a (probably paid) doula of some sort, or more recently by a clinician ‘more safely’, for a professional fee. (NB The medicalization of FGM is a growing, contentious and very serious threat to global eradication.)

Incarnate: Imposed physically and psychologically
The word ‘incarnate’ seems to hark back through the ages, but might be understood as ‘in or of the body’.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it – I abbreviate slightly – as to give bodily form and substance to (to give a concrete or actual form to, or to constitute an embodiment), meaning invested with bodily and especially human nature and form (made manifest or comprehensible / embodied).

Dictionary.Com gives the definition embodied in flesh; given a bodily, especially a human, form.

These definitions explain why FGM and other intentional actions by men (or by women influenced by men) which harm female human beings should be regarded as patriarchy incarnate.

It may also be appropriate to deem some actions imposed by men on other males – for instance, ‘circumcision’ or male genital mutilation (MGM), also a patriarchally based breach of human rights and potentially a curb also on male sexuality – to be patriarchy incarnate, but the primary focus in this post will be on harm to women and girls.

The physical harm that FGM can inflict on a girl or woman is well recognised and has been rehearsed in detail by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and many others.  There can be no doubt at all that FGM has no health benefits.  It is harmful both to general health and, also critically, to mothers and their children.

And the same applies to FGM and mental health. Studies show that FGM can give rise to both immediate and longer-term conditions (shock, feelings of isolation, anxiety, hyper-sensitivity, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder etc) [see e.g. GWU / Milkan Institute FGM Toolkit (nd) and Abdalla and Galea (2019)].

Not ‘just genital’ mutilation
The outcomes listed above show that FGM is not the ‘only’ sort of harm comprising patriarchy incarnate.  Harmful practices, whether ‘traditional’ or contemporary come in many guises and include numerous acts and types of harm, both physical and psychological / emotional.

It is difficult to argue that almost all domestic and related violence is not at base patriarchy incarnate.

The United Nations defines violence against women as

“any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” 

[United Nations. Declaration on the elimination of violence against women. New York : UN, 1993.]

Such harmful practices include child and early marriage, breast ironing, ‘beading’, domestic violence, teeth-pulling, bride kidnap, ‘honour’ stoning / killing, war-time rape and much else. (See this link, as above.) Every one of these acts becomes in its imposition an act of patriarchy incarnate.

It should also be noted that by no means all harmful practices are ‘traditional’.  Child marriage occurs in several USA states, patriarchal control of a woman’s fertility is common in many parts of the world, domestic abuse is global, and has increased everywhere during the current Covid-19 pandemic.

This is the WHO commentary on violence against women.  The statistics are stark:

Violence against women – particularly intimate partner violence and sexual violence – is a major public health problem and a violation of women’s human rights.

Estimates published by WHO indicate that globally about 1 in 3 (30%) of women worldwide have been subjected to either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.

Most of this violence is intimate partner violence. Worldwide, almost one third (27%) of women aged 15-49 years who have been in a relationship report that they have been subjected to some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner.

Violence can negatively affect women’s physical, mental, sexual, and reproductive health, and may increase the risk of acquiring HIV in some settings.

The WHO adds that

Violence against women is preventable. The health sector has an important role to play to provide comprehensive health care to women subjected to violence, and as an entry point for referring women to other support services they may need.

Impacts can be enduring, even life-long, affecting every aspect of the victim’s experience – for she is a ‘victim’ in the sense of in some way harmed, even if she is also a ‘survivor’ and in fact survives well by dint of commendable personal determination.

The consequences of such patriarchal impositions also reach beyond the individual: they may harm lives of her children, her wider family and her community. FGM, as one example, adds to the risks to both mother and baby of childbirth, leaves children vulnerable, reduces the capacity of women to look after their families and livelihoods and is a generally damaging to personal and family well-being and to community finances and economics.

Ultimately, patriarchy becomes a negative at every level of society; and in its impacts it is usually (maybe always?) also economically damaging at even national level.

Contextualising patriarchy incarnate
There is still no recognised and generally acknowledged academic / research-based discipline around FGM or related VAWG.  Different fields such as anthropology, medicine / heath and law, and child protection etc all address these pressing issues from their own perspectives as they consider ways to reduce or halt the damage which such practices cause. At some point these approaches will need to coalesce around a paradigm, but this hasn’t happened yet, probably because most of the leading activists are involved directly in programmes in which they have considerably invested their energies and resources.

Nonetheless, it is important in the context of Patriarchy that some level of theorisation is in place.  Clearly this context will need to be both feminist and economic, in some combination.

Like some other feminists focused on delivering urgently required change, my own position is a combination of liberal feminism and postmodern feminism – and I would include also some version of political economy; but I leave others, if they wish, to take the ensuing debates forward.  As things stand, I favour praxis, the bringing together of whatever elements of ‘fact’ and understanding (both always also contestable) are required to make progress on the ground; but that concept, praxis, too is readily open to interpretation and sometimes dispute.

To summarise:

Patriarchy incarnate

is a method of imposing intimately the will of (some) men into the bodies and minds of (mostly) women and girls – but boys and men are also in various ways damaged by such acts;

can be directly controlling of sexuality (generally female sexuality, but in some interpretations also male) when it involves e.g. FGM or other VAWG (or MGM), or indirectly when the harm is inflicted economically, culturally or psychologically;

harms everyone involved, including perpetrators directly, when it gives rise in community or wider contexts to consequences such as agricultural, childcare or ecological failures, or war;

is always at base a contest around economics (resources) and/or power – often both;

is always an attack on individual autonomy, and is often employed specifically, as a conscious act, to control and reduce the autonomy of women (and of girls who will grow to be thus controlled women).

In the end, the imposition of patriarchal control is not ‘only’ about the control by men of women, but in its most overt, consciously or directly and individually applied modes, that control is often the specific intention or traditionally community-ordained outcome.

We may not as things stand be able to eradicate all society-led wars, but we can and must at every opportunity challenge the personally chosen, individually imposed hurt to which Patriarchy and patriarchs give rise.

One step at a time, each and every action has value, as does every human being. The lives and well-being of every girl and woman absolutely do matter as much as those of boys and men.


I am grateful to Saarrah Ray for the conversation which finally prompted me to write this post.
I hope it will trigger a discussion (via the Reply box below) about the interface of patriarchy , human rights and gendered violence.

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This post was circulated via the WUNRN ListServe on 15 August 2021.

Read more about Patriarchy Incarnate

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Books by Hilary Burrage on female genital mutilation

18.04.12 FGM books together IMG_3336 (3).JPG

Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: A UK Perspective (Hilary Burrage, Ashgate / Routledge 2015).
Full contents and reviews   HERE.
FEMALE MUTILATION: The truth behind the horrifying global practice of female genital mutilation  (Hilary Burrage, New Holland Publishers 2016).
Full contents and reviews   HERE.


There is a free FGM hotline for anyone in the UK: 0800 028 3550, or

Details of NHS Specialist Services for FGM here.

More info and posts on FGM here.

Activists, service providers and researchers may like to join the LinkedIn group Female Genital Mutilation (FGM): Information, reports and research, which has several hundred members from around the world.

The (free) #NoFGM Daily News carries (unedited) reports of items shared on Twitter that day about FGM – brings many organisations and developments into focus.

Also available to follow at no cost or obligation is the #NoFGM_USA Daily News.

Twitter accounts:
@NoFGM_UK  @NoFGMBookUK @FemaleMutlnBook  @FGMStatement  @NoFGM_USA @NoFGM_Kenya  @NoFGM_France  [tag for all: #NoFGM] and @StopMGM.

Facebook page#NoFGM – a crime against humanity


Email: Hilary @  Twitter: @HilaryBurrage  LinkedIn: Hilary Burrage


[NB The Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, which has a primary focus on FGM, is clear that in formal discourse any term other than ‘mutilation’ concedes damagingly to the cultural relativists – though the terms employed may of necessity vary in informal discussion with those who by tradition use alternative vocabulary. See the Feminist Statement on the Naming and Abolition of Female Genital Mutilation,  The Bamako Declaration: Female Genital Mutilation Terminology and the debate about Anthr/Apologists on this website.]


This article concerns approaches to the eradication specifically of FGM.  I am also categorically opposed to MGM, but that is not the focus of this particular piece, except in the specifics as discussed above.

Anyone wishing to offer additional comment on more general considerations around infant and juvenile genital mutilation is asked please to do so via these relevant dedicated threads.

Discussion of the general issues re M/FGM will not be published unless they are posted on these dedicated pages. Thanks.

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