Social Norms Structuring Masculinities, Gender Roles, and Stereotypes: Iraqi men and boys’ common misconceptions about women and girls’ participation and empowerment



Oxfam in Iraq is currently implementing a Women and Girls Rebuilding Iraq project funded by Global Affairs Canada (GAC). The project contributes to the development of policy, decision-making mechanisms and peacebuilding processes at all levels to ensure that women and girls play a significant role in shaping the new rehabilitation and development agenda. It engages women and girls in two governorates, Kirkuk and Diyala, which have long suffered from protracted conflict and now face the reintegration of different war-affected groups. An added value of this initiative is the community awareness-raising component, which is aimed at ensuring the engagement of community members, especially men, in order to push boundaries and challenge the accepted social norms and cultural beliefs that constrain women and girls’ participation in policy-shaping, decision-making, and peacebuilding.

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

This toolkit was piloted during an induction workshop for male role models that took place between January 19– 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 largely qualitative research methodology captured information from 117 community respondents and Oxfam project participants (59% men and 41% women) through focus group discussions (FGDs) and selected key informant interviews (KIIs). Complementary information was collected from Oxfam and implementing partner staff through an online survey.

The study sought answers and insights for the following questions:

a. What are the prevalent masculinities and femininities in the Iraqi context, particularly in Diyala and Kirkuk, and what are the respective social norms associated with them?

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

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

d. How can a shift from negative to positive masculinities materialize in Diyala and Kirkuk, and how do conceptions and practices of power need to be adapted?

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

The main findings were:

  • In Diyala and Kirkuk, the idea that men should make decisions and hold positions of authority and leadership has been normalized at both the household and community levels. This is a historical pattern that is visible through prevalent expressions of men’s entitlement and male privilege. This hegemonic and context-specific pattern of domination is maintained through intertwined ideas of male superiority and female subordination that are translated through 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 run counter to custom 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 comply with the established norms for authority, they are ridiculed, made fun of, and disrespected by other men and women. Consequently, men and women in households and larger kinship structures as well as at the community level actively participate in stigmatizing and rejecting men who do not comply with accepted gender norms. There are no notable differences between Diyala and Kirkuk governorates in this regard.

  • Constructions of idealized femininities center on the role of women as dedicated mothers and good wives. To be considered respectable, women are expected to demonstrate the values of loyalty and dedication. Women are subjected to reputational damage and become undesirable in society and their families when they fail to live up to gendered norms of femininity.

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

  • Gender norms are linked to tradition and are considered a source of stability. Consequently, study participants describe them as ‘set in stone’ or unchanging. However, decades of armed conflict compounded by multiple humanitarian crises, complex dynamics between displaced peoples, remainees, and returnees, exposure to programs by international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), and capacity building, awareness-raising, and community engagement sessions have generated a certain disposition for change, particularly among the younger generation.

  • Several different factors account for changing attitudes about gender roles and norms, including inter-generational shifts, changes related to modernization, urbanization, and technological advances, and external factors such as the occupation by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the role of INGOs, and the influence of new information and communication technologies, TV, the internet, and mass media.

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

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

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

  3. Attitudes around women’s contributions, including stereotypes and assumptions that belittle women’s roles, trivialize their contributions, and undermine their voices, thereby undermining women’s active engagement in community affairs.

  4. Violence against women, including domestic and intra-partner violence, which, in addition to early marriage, are among the most significant constraints for women and girls in the private sphere.

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

  6. Gossip and peer pressure related to women being active outside the home, which effectively constrain women’s activities in the public sphere.

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

  8. Attitudes about women and sex that result in a vicious circle wherein women within the household need to be protected, while preying on women outside the home is seen as permissible.

Therefore, overcoming the barriers to women’s participation involves different strategies such as engaging tribal authorities, generating awareness among communities, and acknowledging women’s contributions.

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

  • Efforts toward change need to be holistic and multidimensional, addressing the internal level (personal beliefs and attitudes), the interpersonal level (the practices and behaviors of individuals within 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, capacity building for male role models should be done using a flexible approach that views their personal and collective change as a journey. To stimulate personal transformation toward a more gender-equitable perspective, it is important that this journey:

    • fosters critical consciousness building, ongoing self-reflection and self-critique;

    • challenges privileges and the status quo;

    • encourages reflection upon injustice in connection with personal life experiences of power imbalances and inequality;

    • fosters activism within each role model; and

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

  • A training-of-trainers method is recommended, as one part of an ambitious and holistic outreach approach advancing transformative change through changes in attitudes, practices, and behaviors at the different levels.

  • This holistic outreach approach needs to be strategically aligned and synchronized with other gender-transformative projects implemented by Oxfam in Iraq.