Social norms structuring masculinities, gender roles and stereotypes: common misconceptions of Iraqi men and boys about the participation and empowerment of women and girls – Iraq


Oxfam in Iraq is currently implementing a Women and Girls for Iraq Reconstruction project funded by Global Affairs Canada (GAC). The project contributes to the development of policies, decision-making mechanisms and peacebuilding processes at all levels to ensure that women and girls play an important role in the development of the new rehabilitation program and of development. It engages women and girls in two governorates, Kirkuk and Diyala, which have long suffered from protracted conflict and are now facing reintegration from different war-affected groups. An added value of this initiative is the community outreach component, which aims to ensure the engagement of community members, especially men, to push boundaries and challenge accepted social norms and cultural beliefs that limit the participation of women and girls in policymaking, decision-making and peacebuilding.

Between November 15, 2020 and January 25, 2021, a team of experts with the support of Oxfam and its local partners the Iraqi Al Amal Association (IAA) and Youth Activity Organization (YAO) conducted a study on social norms surrounding masculinities. , gender roles and stereotypes to identify common misconceptions of men and boys about the empowerment of women and girls. In addition, an “edutainment” awareness-raising and context-specific toolkit by and for men and boys has been developed.

This toolkit was tested during an initiation workshop for male models which took place from January 19 to 21, 2021 in Sulaymaniyah with 24 participants (21 men and 3 women) from 10 communities in Kirkuk and Diyala. To inform the implementation of this workshop, a study using a largely qualitative research methodology gathered information from 117 community respondents and Oxfam project participants (59% men and 41% women) through discussions of group (FGD) and selected key informant interviews (KII). Additional information was gathered from Oxfam and implementing partner staff through an online survey.

The study sought answers and ideas for the following questions:

a. What are the dominant masculinities and femininity in the Iraqi context, in particular in Diyala and Kirkuk, and what are the respective social norms associated with them?

b. How do norms and stereotypes about masculinities and femininity affect the daily lives of women and girls in the private and public spheres, and in particular, how do they affect the participation of women and girls in decision-making?

vs. How do norms and stereotypes that reproduce harmful masculinities maintain gender inequalities and intersect with other social inequalities, such as age, religion, sect and disability?

D. How can the shift from negative masculinities to positive masculinities materialize in Diyala and Kirkuk, and how to adapt conceptions and practices of power?

e. How can male role models promote positive masculinities to advance gender equality?

The main findings were as follows:

  • In Diyala and Kirkuk, the idea that men should make decisions and occupy positions of authority and leadership has been normalized at the household and community level. It is a historical model which is visible through the widespread expressions of the rights and privileges of men. This hegemonic and context-specific model of domination is maintained by interwoven ideas of male superiority and female subordination that translate into tribal, religious and everyday attitudes, practices and behaviors that present these gender arrangements as “normal.”

  • The most stigmatized and rejected masculine traits are those that go against customary and cultural norms. For example, “allowing women to control men”, “treating your wife equally” or “depending entirely on your wife’s salary” are considered unmanly practices. When men fail to live up to established standards of authority, they are ridiculed, ridiculed and looked down upon by other men and women. Therefore, men and women in households and larger kinship structures as well as at the community level actively participate in the stigma and rejection of men who do not conform to accepted gender norms. There are no notable differences between the governorates of Diyala and Kirkuk in this regard.

  • Constructions of idealized femininity center on the role of women as devoted mothers and good wives. To be considered respectable, women must demonstrate the values ​​of loyalty and dedication. Women suffer reputational damage and become undesirable in society and their families when they do not respect the gender norms of femininity.

  • While women and men face costs for breaking established gender norms, the consequences are more severe for women. Women of all ages are controlled and punished disproportionately compared to their male peers.

  • Gender norms are linked to tradition and are seen as a source of stability. Therefore, study participants describe them as “immobilized” or immutable. However, decades of armed conflict compounded by multiple humanitarian crises, complex dynamics between IDPs, remaining people and returnees, exposure to programs of international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), and capacity building sessions. capacity, awareness and community engagement have generated a willingness to change, especially among the younger generation.

  • Several different factors explain the evolution of attitudes on gender roles and norms, including intergenerational changes, changes related to modernization, urbanization and technological advancements, and external factors such as occupation by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the role of INGOs and the influence of new information and communication technologies, television, Internet and mass media.

To understand how gender norms and prevalent attitudes undermine women’s active engagement at the community level, a series of interwoven elements need to be addressed.

  1. The rigid gender division of labor, which places women and men in different roles and links women to domestic responsibilities, thus acting as one of the major constraints to the empowerment of women in the public and private spheres.

  2. The multiple ways in which men control women’s lives, whether done by individual men asserting dominance or imposed by tribal or religious tradition.

  3. Attitudes towards women’s contributions, including stereotypes and assumptions that belittle the role of women, trivialize their contributions and undermine their voices, thus undermining women’s active engagement in community affairs.

  4. Violence against women, including domestic and intra-partner violence, which, besides early marriage, is among the most important constraints for women and girls in the private sphere.

  5. Depression caused by the pressures of everyday life and societal expectations, which were commonly reported by study participants.

  6. Gossip and peer pressure related to the fact that women are active outside the home, which effectively limits women’s activities in the public sphere.

  7. Tribal and religious traditions that justify men’s control over women and restrict women’s participation at the community level.

  8. Attitudes towards women and sex which result in a vicious cycle in which women within the household must be protected, while attacking women outside the household is considered permissible.

Therefore, overcoming barriers to women’s participation involves different strategies such as engaging tribal authorities, sensitizing communities and recognizing women’s contributions.

  • In order to advance men’s engagement, Oxfam needs to plan and implement a scalable outreach program that involves creating a core of dedicated male role models while protecting women from any possible backlash.

  • Change efforts must be holistic and multidimensional, addressing the internal level (personal beliefs and attitudes), the interpersonal level (the practices and behaviors of individuals in interpersonal relationships), the institutional level (institutional policies, practices and cultures), and the ideological level (social norms and belief systems).

  • Due to the dynamic nature of social change, building the capacity of male role models should be done using a flexible approach that views their personal and collective change as a journey. To stimulate personal transformation towards a more gender-equitable perspective, it is important that this journey:

    • promotes the construction of critical awareness, continuous self-reflection and self-criticism;

    • challenges privileges and the status quo;

    • encourages reflection on injustice in relation to personal life experiences of power imbalances and inequalities;

    • promotes activism within each role model; and

    • plants the seeds of hope, potential and possibility while inspiring positive change.

  • A train-the-trainer method is recommended, as part of an ambitious and holistic awareness-raising approach advancing transformative change through changes in attitudes, practices and behaviors at different levels.

  • This comprehensive advocacy approach must be strategically aligned and synchronized with other gender transformation projects implemented by Oxfam in Iraq.

About Marjorie C. Hudson

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