Transitional Masculinity, Violence and Prevention

About the project

Gender inequitable and violence-supportive masculine norms are one of the root causes of violence against women. This project investigates the mechanisms that construct aggressive and controlling masculinity in (post)conflict-affected environments in order to support the construction of alternative masculinities. Specifically, the research sets out to understand from men themselves how they define masculinity and what ‘manhood’ is to them in the context of Kurdistan-Iraq. In doing so, the project facilitates critical and creative dialogues with men about the socially constructed boundaries of masculinity that seek to inspire a process of learning and un-learning towards alternative masculinities.

This project took place in the context of increased backlash and retrenchment of women’s rights in Kurdistan Iraq. Whilst there have been important legal reforms in the region in relation to women’s protection from violence, family law, and political participation, there is an increasing backlash against the development of gender studies, the visibility of women’s rights and increased harassment of activists.

Project approach

Group conversations are facilitated with men from different backgrounds in Kurdish society, responding to and challenging each other about what manhood and womanhood mean. Specific focus groups have been held with Imams and religious leaders, with military personnel from the Peshmerga forces, policemen, lawyers, men from the markets, and men who are employed as manual labourers, including goldsmiths and blacksmiths, with varying levels of income from working class to wealthy.

An arts-based approach is employed throughout the research. Images have been used in the focus groups that depicted both activities that reinforced and went against traditional masculinity – such as men being violent, and men in protector and provider roles, though to men caring for children and doing housework to inspire discussion amongst the participants. The images include women as victims of political and domestic violence and in leader, protector, and provider roles. Poetry writing workshops are utilised – where participants ‘define the difficult’ in what masculinity means, as well as photo-text workshops, and violence prevention workshops for couples.

The use of multiple layers of creativity and critical discussion creates space for the participants to strip away some of the misconceptions and assumptions they have about gender and masculinity, not in an academic way, but in a human way.

You are sowing some seeds in the community. You may not see the outcome immediately, but you could see the impact in the long run. Because in this context if you just sow seeds, just leave them like this, some of them may grow.

Key findings

Some men acknowledge that ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are socially constructed and that by nature, men are not violent.

However, these voices that challenge masculine norms are in the minority within the focus groups. Most groups believe in intrinsic natural characteristics of men and women and often conflated sex with gender. Some men express that they are burdened with expectations of masculinity, and this is not who they are or what ‘manhood’ is.

Persistent patriarchal views.

Men’s control over and ‘ownership’ of women is engrained in the language men use, the cultural norms and proverbs they cite, their practises, and in the arrangements of daily life, marriage, and kinship structures. There is largely the perception that if a woman defies societal expectations, then a man has the right to use violence against her. There are however indicators of change and a crevice in the arguments and the discourses of patriarchy. Some of the men express that some of these customs and traditions require change and that alternative ideas and norms are emerging.

Contradictory responses when looking at the impersonal vs the personal.

When looking at sets of image-based prompts, men make statements about femininity and masculinity affirming that male and female characteristics are not inherent and that roles do not need to be ascribed. When these are applied to their own lives and family beyond the pictures, they often take a different and contradictory view.

Stereotypes remain strong.

It is difficult on an emotional and psychological level to change entrenched stereotyped views. There is a group tendency to make exceptions and justifications to rationalise gender inequality. For example, female combatants in Rojava are seen as exceptions as they defended their homeland, so exceptions are made in certain contexts, but not others, for example within their home environments or their communities.

Despite the challenge of entrenched social norms about gender roles, some participants show meaningful changes in their understanding of gender, equality, and masculinity.

There are noticeable changes in the way some participants are willing to challenge their previously held beliefs. This indicates such gender norms, while powerful within society, may only be held at a surface level for some individuals and that when placed in more gender equality supportive environments, men may be willing and able to change.

The women’s rights movement faces major obstacles.

There is a lack of genuine will by the Kurdish authorities to improve women’s rights; failure of the judiciary system to implement reformed laws, specifically in cases where perpetrators are politically or tribally connected; failure of the education system to promote gender equality; with the media contributing to discrimination, reproducing gender stereotypes, and siding against the women’s movement.

Increased threats and harassment of women’s rights activists.

Directed by sexist and politically motivated (social) media, patriarchal and conservative religious norms, or misconceptions of feminism, the backlash and defamation campaigns against feminist activists becomes particularly visible whenever there is an incident of gender injustice.

There is a diverse array of perceptions and beliefs towards masculinity and femininity in Kurdish society.

Engagement with diverse groups within Kurdistan shows that there is not a singular Kurdish masculinity, but rather a range of masculinities shaped by diverse perceptions, experiences, and social norms.

Despite the many ways it harms them, some women believe and uphold patriarchal norms.

Some women have internalised narratives about gender inequality and accept that inequality is natural and they see their characteristics and social role as different from men’s.

It’s very difficult to be hopeful, but I believe if the ideas we share are resonated from other places – from the education system, from the media, from cultural events, art objects, schooling, the mosques – if they are reflected and reiterated and echoed again, they will become very effective.


All sectors of society

  • Coordinated responses. Achieving gender equality is not the responsibility of NGOs and activists alone, and it will not be possible without the engagement of the larger community. An effective approach necessitates coordinated responses from the government, the NGO sector, funders and donors, the media, and the larger community.

Regional Government of Kurdistan-Iraq

  • Support community programmes and non-violence training. More support for programmes that focus on engaging men, specifically those in positions of power, is needed to bring about change. Men have an important role to play as allies in addressing and transforming patriarchal norms.
  • Embrace the arts to educate. This research shows that educating through the arts can be effective in empathy raising and consensus building by fostering a less confrontational learning environment. This encourages the process of un-learning, making space for encounters with new ideas, and the re-shaping of identities and harmful norms.

Local communities

  • Community ownership is crucial. It is important that solutions come from the community rather than external contexts. More community level conversations led by local leaders, Imams, educators, and activists are needed on social norms, masculinities and femininities and their exploration, as well as community led responses and solutions.
  • Engage men and continuously work with them. Men are increasingly interested in issues about gender equality and ready to be engaged. Local communities should support them with outreach and education programmes that can lead to the men not only changing their own views but having a positive impact in their broader social and familial circles.

Formal and informal educators

  • Education is the key conduit for social change, especially with younger generations. Gender equality education is needed in formal and informal spaces including with the media, schools, mosques, NGOs, civil society, and the government itself through training and other capacity building work. Work with the younger generation at university level because they are more open to be challenged and to shift gender norms. Changing youth perceptions and practices on gender norms can support long-term and multi-generational change where education programmes play an essential role in introducing and normalising new ideas about masculinity and gender roles.

Researchers and academics

  • Maintain contact and support with research participants who are eager to continue learning. Continued contact with research participants who are interested in learning more and supporting gender equality can be a powerful way to increase the potential impact of your research. Sustained engagement with men is particularly important because once participants leave the supportive context of the research, they may return to social contexts in which there are strong norms against gender equality. These social pressures might lead to decreases or full reversals of positive gains made during the programme.
  • Practice cultural sensitivity. Engaging men in gender equality requires contextual knowledge of the local context and a sensitivity to the ways issues such as gender and religion intersect. Researchers don’t have to address all issues at once – you can focus on gender and masculinity and be aware and responsive to the impact of religion while not addressing it directly.

One of the things we have learned from Rojava, is the importance of ownership. The importance of coming up with solutions from your own community rather than having somebody else bring this solution to you.