UN Women and Promundo’s “Understanding Masculinities”: A Shift From Fact-Based to Social Construction-Based Analyses of Gender Issues?

UN Women and Promundo recently published “Understanding Masculinities,” the nearly-300 paged result of the International Men and Gender Equality Study (IMAGES) conducted in the Middle East and North Africa, conducted in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Palestine. The angle adopted in the Study is quite interesting. Studies on gender inequality often concentrate on statistics, such as on the education of girls, child marriage, the presence of women in specific professions, and so on. This research takes on representations of, and perspectives on masculinity, a social construction. It recognizes that increased gender equality is not only accomplished through women accessing different spheres of the society in which they were previously prohibited from, but also through changed social relations and perceptions.

IMAGES MENA - Understand Masculinities

Both UN Women and Promundo are organizations dedicated to gender equality, UN Women is a United Nations organ while Promundo is a civil society organization originally based in Brazil. In each country, local research partners participated to the study (in Egypt: El-Zanaty and Associates and the Social Research Center of the American University in Cairo (AUC); in Lebanon: Connecting Research to Development (CRD) and ABAAD; in Morocco: the Association Migration Internationale (AMI) and independent researchers; and in Palestine: the Institute of Women’s Studies at Birzeit University).

The innovative character of this research project emanates from the fact that it constitutes “the first study of its kind in the MENA region to take a wide-angle, comparative lens to the lives of men – as sons and husbands and fathers, at home and at work, in public and private life – to better understand how they see their positions as men, and their attitudes and actions toward gender equality,” (see the Study, at p. 14) adding to this reflection perspectives of women.

The Study revealed, amongst other interesting findings, three elements that were common in both men and women holding more equitable views on gender: greater level of education, greater level of education for their mother, and a father that performed “traditionally feminine household tasks.” Wealth was also a factor for men; economic insecurity is offered as a hypothesis to explain why younger men did not, as their female counterparts, support more equality between women and men than older participants. Education was not always an element leading to more positive results; based on the information given by participants, men with higher education levels participated more in street sexual harassment and women with higher education levels were more on the receiving end.

Although constant majorities of men reported that they “support the notion that a woman’s most important role is to care for the household” and “expect to control their wives’ personal freedoms,” gender-equal perspectives are not inexistent. Indeed, “on any given issue, one-quarter or more hold more open, more equitable views.”

This research report does not ignore the fact that gender equality has been criticized as a “Western” value, stating that significant numbers of both women and men “agreed that gender equality is not part of their traditions or culture.” As with any study of a specific region, one must not turn a blind eye to the oppressions at home. A constant in all studies conducted under the IMAGES umbrella research project point towards the same conclusion: “violence creates violence and care creates care.”

The Study targets, for its recommendations, governments, UN agencies, researchers, and civil society to “engage key sources of social influence to change social norms that uphold inequitable masculinities”; “engage men in supporting a comprehensive policy agenda for women’s rights”; “change the way boys and girls are socialised, from the home to the school system”; “empower youth as agents of change for gender equality”; “break cycles of gender-based violence by implementing and scaling up evidence-based prevention”; “promote men’s caregiving and women’s full involvement in the workplace”; “engage the health sector as a point of entry for engaging men as allies in gender equality”; “increase attention to men and women affected by displacement and conflict and their gender- and conflict-specific needs”; and “carry out additional applied research on men and masculinities.” Rather than insisting on legislative change or enforcement of existing laws, for example, these recommendations mostly point towards actions that can be taken in order to change social perceptions, of both women and men, and both femininity and masculinity.

Studies on gender inequality seem to be turning more and more towards a social construction-based analysis and away from a uniquely fact-based analysis. Social construction-based analyses adopt the point of view that social interactions construct and transform realities, in a fluid and inter-subjective manner, coherently with constructivist theory developed namely by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in The Social Construction of Reality.

Fact-based analyses are of course crucial for documenting oppression and raising awareness. An example of a fact-based analysis is the March 2016 “The State of Women’s Rights in the Arab World” feature published by the World Bank. The information presented concerns political quotas, representation in the justice system as well as laws, implicitly painting a portrait of the state of women’s rights only through this data. However, gender oppression cannot always be grasped exclusively through data. Rather, social perspectives, such as those collected by the Study, can participate in a more holistic social discussion on gender, especially when contributing to considering gender oppression as not only defined by biology, but also by social constructions of what is feminine, and thus devalued, and what is masculine, and thus valued. Studies looking at gender perspectives and how these construct (and resist) oppressive social norms also contribute to the realization that laws aimed at increased gender equality do not automatically translate into social change, as too many examples illustrate.

Perhaps a shift is occurring in the way in which we conceive of relevant data to analyse the situation of women’s rights or gender equality in a region, considering a player as big as UN Women has engaged in a study such as “Understanding Masculinities.”

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