Gender Norms, Stressful Stigma, and the “Critical” Role of Families.

The Global Impact Collaboratory has had a very busy month. The core team (Roseanne Schuster, Peggy Ochandarena, and me) have been in the West Bank of Palestine working on developing new tools to allow rapid evaluation of social norms around gender-based violence.  Peggy is currently Chief of Party for a USAID human rights project based in Ramallah. It gave us the amazing chance to work with USAID program and a range of amazing Palestinian NGO partners (pic, with Peggy) to develop and test a new cultural survey tool to help with gender assessments of development projects more broadly.

The process of developing the tool precipitated fascinating team discussions around the expected role of women in regard to marriage in the contexts of Sharia law and Palestinian social norms. Adult women are meant to be married, and the families (who arrange the marriages) are highly invested in supporting this gender norm. Divorce is initiated by men, who can then pretty easily marry again. Being divorce is by contrast extremely hard on Palestinian women —  both financially and (especially) socially. They are seen in Palestinian society as rejected, unwanted, and low value – i.e., are highly stigmatized.

As one divorced woman explained to me, even though she was young there was little chance she felt that she would ever be able to remarry because men (and their families) ‘hated’ her. In this way, it isn’t surprising the idea of tolerating even serious and chronic gender-based violence (GBV) for the sake of staying married (to avoid the expected stigma of divorce) was something we heard from many women, over and over again.

Yet, some women still make the active choice to divorce regardless, and it can work adequately for them. Another woman told me the story about her and her husband, who had an arranged marriage in the US.  Her family in Palestine had supported her getting divorced, and it was an amicable decision with her husband. So, she moved back to her family and Palestine (despite the difference in general ideas about the prospects of divorced women), and was doing pretty well. She felt her family had her back (so to speak), and — despite for stigma of divorce — life for her was good.

Immediately after our amazing visit to the West Bank (bottom pic – what great food!), Roseanne and I flew on to Austin, Texas to the Human Biology Association Annual Meetings. One of the more interesting talks was biocultural anthropologist L Zachary DuBois.  He has been working in the US for some years documenting stress across transgender transitions (mostly female to male). The talk highlighted an interesting point about gender norms, stigma, and stress: after women in his study had transitioned to male stress often reduced. But, it would activate again when past and present social worlds collided. Post-transition life was most especially stressful when their friends (who know them as transitioned men) interact with their natal families (who often still reacted to them in terms of their pre-transition female gender markers (e.g., using feminine pronouns).

All this coalesced for a key point about why stigma is such a powerful tool for reinforcing gender norms: family reactions are the crux of the stress and fear such norms violations engender. Don’t ever think stigma is just something that is created by and doled out by “the public”. In regard to many stigmas (gender, but also weight and mental illness are other good examples) the real suffering of stigmas can both start and stop with one’s own family. By feeling that those they are closest to consider their identities flawed and so their contributions less-than, the damage of stigma can be too easily home-grown and home-nurtured. So give extra heed to what you say to “crazy” Aunty Brenda, “wierd” cousin Al, and your divorced sister about the need to “fit in”.  Be more critical of stigma, less critical of your relatives.

Middle pic: Data collection, April 2018

Bottom pic: Roseanne and Alex, enjoying Palestine.