The gender norm: Breaking the gender romance

Breaking the gender romance: Critical view on gender norm and paradigm in development


And when he asked Ashanti male elders why he had been unaware of the important political role played by women, he was told: ‘The white man never asked us this; you have dealings with and recognize only the men; we supposed the European considered women of no account, and we know you do not recognize them as we have always done’ (Rattray, 1923, p. 84; cited by Peters, 1997, p. 135)

The above excerpt by an Ashanti male elder in Ghana gives an insight on how one’s own assumption about what is “normal” can influence others on how to interpret certain things. In this case, Europeans whose patriarchal system was embodied in their life experience may unconsciously have imposed men-centred views in their actions which the Ashanti elders thought as distinctive from their own actions. Later, Europeans brought the new norm with them after realising women should also be the part of the important political roles assuming Ashanti people, in this particular case, did not realise it yet. Not only does it show that people from patriarchal gender relations struggle to understand the matrilineal society, but it also points out the arrogant assumption that the society is more civilised when it considers “gender” seriously. Ironically, though, it was Europeans who changed the “gender” into men-centred society, in the case quoted above.

Nonetheless, gender equality is an important agenda in contemporary societies and it certainly deserves much attention as it affects in every dimension of people’s lives—social, economic, and political. Since development interventions target those dimensions as areas to improve, it is thus no exception for development to consider gender seriously. Gender issues are now being addressed as one of the most important concerns in multilateral and bilateral development agencies. Gender mainstreaming in development, as a result, has become a crucial strategy to ensure the aim of achieving gender equality (Elgstrom, 2000, p. 457). Gender mainstreaming is the now internationally embraced strategy that involves “the integration of a gender perspective into the preparation, design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies, regulatory measures and spending programmes, with a view to promoting equality between women and men, and combating discrimination (European Institute for Gender Equality).”

Gender mainstreaming, however, is a much contested concept and it elicits tensions and dilemma in its processes as it contains two different frames of reference, “gender equality” and “mainstreaming” (Walby, 2005). It is also a complex concept to be applied universally without discourses, as the contextual factors practically determine the effectiveness of the initiative (Woodward, 2003). The often criticised aspect being lack of contextual awareness, gender-centred frames in every stage of implementation can be challenging without the high level of contextual awareness. Having said that, I do not intend to simply argue here that gender development should be understood to be more dynamic and heterogeneous, rather I would like to question the very creation of the gender as a norm and the paradigm it generated in development sector in which the norm is a given fundamental component. Often, the advocacy of gender-sensitivity goes with the abolition of harmful practices in developing countries. The practices may include traditions or customs as violent as female genital mutilation/cutting, and as practical as women’s economic participation. The aim of the paper, however, is not to criticise the effectiveness of the policy or the quality of gender programmes. I mainly question the sanctity of gender norm in hope that approaches in gender issues are not simply based on “modern” or European-led ideas but also to be addressed from “traditions”, whose ideas tend to be the target subject for re-education. This will be elaborated further with the concept of agency which I argue is often too narrowly defined. Overall, I intend to avoid assuming gender development as a given global norm that is currently considered to be universal. In doing so, I will also avoid seeing gender discourse as something that can only be expanded on the same horizon but can be explored vertically.

The norm and the “gender”

“Racial superiority,” “imperialism,” and “slavery” all share something in common other than the fact that they are politically incorrect in a current socio-political environment. Those were once the powerful norms that people advocated or accepted for varying reasons such as education or peer pressure. What these terms signify nowadays carry completely different meanings from what they did in the past due to the change of the context through time. Apart from “right” or “wrong”, those norms were certainly powerful and influential in some areas of the world. Not only were they domestic norms that one or two countries shared, they were international norms that various countries, especially those that have the similar vantage points, shared and accepted but later rejected with the “logic of appropriateness”—logic of inappropriateness in this case. Norms are created and stabilised through stages of process, in which some of them perish for different reasons. In fact, many international norms begin their lifecycle as domestic norms which are also intertwined with existing international norms (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998, p. 893). Women’s suffrage, for instance, did not start as a universal norm. Instead, the domestic demand for change among several countries led to the international suffrage later on. Even, the beginning of the movement to break the existing norm was certainly not easy because the widely accepted norm that women do not vote was the context of that time.

Breaking the existing norm and introducing the new norm takes time and effort. Often, it requires negotiation and compromise in the process between actors and between systems (Elgstrom, 2000). Finnemore and Sikkink (1998) illustrate the stages of norm influence; first, the norm emerges mainly by actors who strongly advocate their opinions about what appropriate or desirable behaviour in their community should be like; once the tipping point is reached, other countries begin to adopt the new norm even without the presence of the domestic demand. Advocating for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be one of the examples in which countries adopt a new global norm with or without the participation in the direct decision-making process, due to the context of international politics and socialisation. In this stage, the main actors involved in norm making shift from individuals to institutions. Finally, the norm is widely accepted and simultaneously internalised after periods of the norm presence. At this stage, it becomes both powerful and indiscernible as the behaviour according to the norm is not questioned and the conformity is not an option anymore for individuals to choose. It becomes compulsory with internalisation.

Table 1. Stages of norms (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998, p. 898)

Looking into how norms are developed on international level is crucial in this paper in that it can explain how global gender paradigm was shaped and why it should be questioned in development interventions. The following section discusses the way gender development was first formulated within EU foreign aid policy and how the paradigm may influence on women and men living in other contexts. In addition, I will use an ethnographic account by James Ferguson that illustrates the institutionalisation of the norm applied in the different context.

Making of the gender paradigm

Elgstrom, in his article explaining how the new gender norm was constructed and negotiated in EU foreign aid policy, stated that “it was generally accepted that attention to women’s rights was an integral part of the development cooperation identity of developed Western aid donors and that it was impossible for the EU not to integrate gender aspects into its development thinking (2000, p. 458).” That is, as women’s rights was considered an important identity in EU countries, it was “assumed” that it should also be important in other countries. The gender equality had already been developed into a global norm by the early 1990s, and the European Commission did not have much reason to determine that gender equality was an inappropriate policy development within EU (Elgstrom, 2000, p. 462). As it is almost impossible to change the existing norms that are constitutive part of organisational culture, it is also extremely difficult to openly question the introduction of the norm to their policy, in the circumstance where the overarching norm, gender equality in this case, was already widely agreed to be “good for all”. Thus, even when the norms are questioned, it is only from the problems arising on the same horizon named gender equality, rather than questioning whether gender equality itself is appropriate in foreign development policy.

In this sense, the introduction of norm itself, whether introducing norm in the name of aid is appropriate or not is as important as what the norm is about. Finnemore and Sikkink (1998) argue that norms are created by strategic actors in highly contested processes. Thus, it would be a huge mistake, in this respect, to think that current gender norm was naturally and timely born by the universal demand. In the case of EU, specific gender policy was not developed until when EU had to participate in Women’s Conference in Beijing. According to Elgstrom (2000), only little was said about gender in EU aid documents before the preparation for the conference. By this time, decision was made to formulate women-oriented documents based on the sense of appropriateness for the occasion, and on the calculation to provide themselves with a platform to be used at the conference (p. 463). As a result the preparation for the conference, Women in Development (WID) was framed by 1993 which was succeeded by Gender and Development (GAD) later on. The norm, which can be considered as a common knowledge, emerged as a consequence of this event. Finnemore and Sikkink (1988) suggest that the common knowledge, or commonly accepted knowledge, is not static nor automatically given. Instead, it is precisely and strategically constructed by actors. After all, according to the authors, the common knowledge about the suffrage system, the rules of war, and the slavery has changed over time through strategic construction of different common knowledge. They continue,

Institutionalists in sociology have also argued that norms making universalistic claims about what is good for all people in all places (such as many Western norms) have more expansive potential than localized and particularistic normative frameworks like those in Bali described by Clifford Geertz (p. 907).

The universalistic claims of gender equality as typically advocated by Western scholars, have thus more advantage to make them as a global norm than the claims that it should vary depending on local contexts. It may be that the universalistic norms tend to have more overarching values and that claims coming from so-called advanced countries, which can be easily interpreted as a better, modern option, may obscure the fundamental differences in socialities and cultures in different places.

The universal gender narrative, which by its nature is affected by the hegemonic and political role in shaping and limiting women’s role in society, risks the danger of denying women—even human—as cultural, social, and historical beings on varying levels. That is, one’s fight against gender inequality means one challenges the current position against the system that imposes unequal distribution of power on women in that society. Since what constitutes gender discourses has more sociological and anthropological nature, it is important to point out the possibilities for different roles and understandings towards gender relations in different social environment. For the position and the dynamic are not monolithic world-wide, the application of universality as a norm, the value how one should be, potentially intends to ignore the complexities of “the rest” of the world and form a acultural, asocial, and ahistorical figure of women as an ideal. For instance, Mohanty (1984) warns about the Western feminist discourses that construct the singular form of “sexual difference” regardless of the cross-cultural differences. She writes that like most other scholarship, feminist scholarship also is not the mere production of knowledge but in its purpose and ideology, it is a political and discursive practice. Consequently, the practices of gender scholarship is inclined to be about power relations which those scholars, Western scholars in this case, counter and resist (p. 334). The problem is when the homogeneity of the sociological and anthropological circumstances leads to the construction of “women” as a category of analysis (Mohanty, 1984, p. 337).

The problem of orienting the discourse is that what Western feminist scholars encounter in their political and power context may differ from what women in other places face. Even though I do not argue that the Western gender discourses intentionally exclude the views of women from the rest of the world by undertaking their own view of gender, the power of Western hegemony through policies and practices is already undeniably influential in national politics, not to mention development. For instance, the way women in the “Third World” are portrayed in relation to their arguably harmful cultural practice often implies that these women are victims of “feudal residues” or “traditions” who need to be educated in order to reclaim their dignity and the rights as a human woman (Amos & Parmar, 2005). In this regard, Amos and Parmar in their essay, originally written in 1984, criticises the idealism and culturalism in anthropological works in relation to gender studies;

For instance, the book Women United Women Divided looked at women’s solidarity in cross cultural perspectives and ‘discovered’ that solidarity was no unitary concept. The authors defined feminist consciousness and then proceeded to judge other cultural situations to see if they are feminist or not. While acknowledging that there are problems about uncritically accepting women as a universal category, this is purely on the basis of ‘differential relations in class and status hierarchies as well as factors such as age and kinship affiliation.’ . . . By adopting the research methods and frameworks of white male academics much academic feminist writing fails to challenge their assumptions, repeats their racial chauvinism and is consequently of less use to us (2005, pp. 47-48).

What they elaborate in this example is that Western feminists who defined their feminist perspectives within West context, try to apply them to other cultures or at least see other societies through the lens they constructed.

Even though I acknowledge that the studies of Mohanty and Amos and Parmar elaborated above are from 1980s, which makes them more than 30 years old from the point of this writing, I want to emphasise despite the time gap that the tendency of how earlier paradigms were made and how the basis of the idea is sustained through development or institutional interventions. In the following sections, I will point out two main problems that come with the universal gender norm: the issue of contextual awareness and the issue of agency used in development and institutional interventions.

The contextual awareness

Regardless of the varying gender perspectives by different stakeholders, the very idea that assumes gender as a norm has relatively not been contested with reasons regarding the organisational value and the indiscernibility as mentioned above. The fact that it was impossible to question the norm that is already the value of the organisation, such as the EU, has led the organisation to formulate its foreign aid policy with gender in mind. Along with EU foreign aid policy, gender issue has become an essential or “cutting edge” element that now competes with poverty reduction and human rights in development programmes. In fact, gender and Development (GAD) is now a recognised sub-discipline and it has been institutionalised in many ways such as training courses, advisory posts in development agencies, and master courses in universities (Cornwall et al., 2007). Most of development projects and programmes include gender in varying degrees and forms due to its importance for their organisational values, and the global commitment for gender equality as stated in the SDGs. When it comes to application in practice, however, the term gender tends to carry different images due to the domestication by development agencies (Cornwall, 2007). Due to the difference of forms that organisations take, the gender equality may invoke women’s economic participation in some places and frame women and girls as a vulnerable group in other places. The interventions that follow the framing can be institutional, educational, economic, and political. I would like to use the example from “Expectations of Modernity” by James Ferguson, in which he describes the moment of conflict emerged from the institutional intervention aimed at improving women’s rights.

In his study of the Zambian Copperbelt, Ferguson illustrates the matrilineal society and an encounter with an institutional intervention which could have perhaps contributed to women’s rights. He refers the passing of a new inheritance law in 1989 which was designed to give legal rights to nuclear families. It acknowledged the right for the wife and children of a man to inherit the share the property (Johnson, 2016; Ferguson, 1999). This was the first time that the Zambian civil law recognised the legal standing for a nuclear family in matters of inheritance law. However, Ferguson (1999) writes that the law only worked in theory and it did not have much impact in practice;

In practice, the ability of the members of a conjugal group to exercise their legal rights are by no means clear. Widows are routinely stripped of virtually all household property, and sometimes even personal property such as their own clothing, by the relatives of their deceased husbands (with little regard for legal niceties), and I was told that women normally make no effort to prevent this for fear of beatings or worse (p. 184).

The reason the law was not effective on ground was because that was not the way people lived. In a matrilineal society like this area in which Ferguson conducted his study, the heirs of a deceased man are not his wife and children since they belong to the wife’s matrilineal lineage which is different from that of the man. Ferguson writes that the locals still “believe” that the heirs of the deceased man are his matrilineal relatives, not their direct children.

Pensions from the Mukuba Pension Scheme were sometimes paid on a monthly basis to widows of deceased mineworkers. Yet I was told by the secretary of the scheme that widows who received such payments commonly also received monthly abuse and beatings from male relatives of the deceased who came to collect what they considered their pension money. So serious was this problem that several widows had asked the pension scheme to discontinue the payments altogether rather than continue to be hounded. . . . On being told that the Mukuba Pension Scheme would provide for benefits to be paid to his wife and children in the event of his death, he demanded to know: “But what about my sister’s children? (pp. 184-185)”

Matriliny is a unilineal kinship system in which only one side of the parents are traced. One who is familiar to nonunilineal system, such as bilateral kinship in which all individual’s relatives are included, might expect that the primary attachment is one’s “own” children (see, “Is Matriliny Doomed in Africa?” By Mary Douglas, 1969). Writing down the names of nephews and nieces on the pension contract is the system, not just belief. The assumption that one’s “own” children mean more than one’s sister’s children is similar to the assumption that every woman will need the same kind of equality regardless of the historical and socio-cultural context. It is important to note that, however, this very intervention may work effectively in non-matrilineal part of Zambia. The main purpose of using this contrasting example of the matrilineal society in Zambia and the worsened situation for widows is to highlight the conflict which could be caused by contextually not sensitive interventions. However, it raises the question whether the intervention, then, should be universal or contextual. Moreover, how do we interpret the agency of the widows who refused to receive pension? Are they contributing to gender negative society by presumably conforming to the traditional rule? Although it is difficult to answer this questions with certainly, the following section will discuss how certain interpretation of agency is related to universality of action.

Universality of action and the agency

By nature, gender—specifically feminism— and development shares the philosophies of transformation. Thus, the subjects discussed under these topics are often contested and continuously up for debate (Cornwall et al., 2007). Moreover, the concept of gender and development or women empowerment, which has become a largely accepted but rarely questioned “goal,” is in practice too vague to have a unitary agreement (Sharp et al., 2003, p. 281). Consequently, a number of issues arose regarding gender and development both in theory and in application, including issues of representation and interpretation. What I would like to stress among the issues are specifically the universality of the norm and of the action that are imposed in the process of the application. The norm, as I argued throughout this paper, does not necessarily coincide with what represents women living in different socio-cultural, economic, and political environment. In the process of development interventions, people, including project staff and target population of the project, are trained and educated to be gender sensitive. The distinction between social roles and equality, however, is not made clear. Village chiefs, women, teachers, and children are invited to meetings and given good examples of being gender sensitive. Even in remote rural areas, people living in small villages talk of “gender” to development workers. Development workers working in the field are trained to always split the the data into two fragments labelled “male” and “female” in excel sheets, for the data will be used for analysis of gender indicators. All these routine practices do not require fundamental questions, neither in the headquarter office where policies are formulated nor in the project sites where policies are implemented. The very fact that different gender relations were formed in different places are rarely discussed or explained, and rather it is taught that gender inequality is bad for development. The gender norm, then, is applied universally, only in varying degrees depending on women’s emancipation in society, which is often measured by the Western standards.

The universality of actions often imposes a specific kind of agency on men and women, with the aim of transforming the society into gender positive. Often, the action is associated to “resistance”. This kind of action comes with an assumption that women in the past or women in other countries have always been victims of men. This view to an extent disregards the possibility that women do navigate and redirect situations and that they can be in a way a partner of the system despite the fact that they do not have the equal power (see, for example, Elyachar, 2010). In this regard, women empowerment approaches that ensure women’s economic participation as equal as men can only be applied in specific social settings, otherwise it may generate contradictory argument that will imply women’s unpaid work at home is not valuable. For example, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) states on its website that women’s unpaid work at home is the structural barrier for women to access paid jobs, education, and skills training (UNDP). The simple and binary argument not only determines what are good and bad for other people but it also devalues the “traditional” work of women to some extent. In this sense, the agency is narrowly interpreted as “resistance” rather than taking into account other possibilities. The following example provides a clear example of the application of universal norm and universal action in development policy. “Patriarchy is bestowed on men at birth. Whether you want it or not, you have privilege as a man, and you either fight against it and reject it by becoming a feminist man, or you enjoy the privileges that come with it,” spoke the Executive Director of UN Women at the World Economic Forum held in 2015 (UNDP, 2015, p. 9). Despite the fact that it is possible the statement may have meant to sound aggressive, it is still common to encounter rather aggressive views that contain the binary relations between men and women. The views towards gender such as this statement primarily impose agency, along with the sense of guilt and right, on both men and women while rejecting the fact that patriarchy is the product of the society in which men, and women as well, actively constructed as a norm before it stopped to be a common knowledge. The notion of agency used here is extremely narrow. The fact that it only counts only if one rigorously resists to the current norm, which otherwise is viewed as a sign of conformity, is the application of narrow definition of agency. It is common that the term agency is often used in a constrained way and to equate or associate it to “resistance,” “transformation,” and “free will” (Ahearn, 2001). However, Pickering suggests that “within different cultures human beings and the material world might exhibit capacities for action quite different from those we customarily attribute to them” (1995, p. 245). It is thus important to acknowledge that the conceptions of agency can differ culture to culture and society to society. In addition, Desjarlais’s ethnographic study of people residing in street shelter shows that the form of agency arose from the specific social, cultural, and political dynamics which take place in a specific place and time. This explains that the specific form of agency, which eventually became universal, may have played an important role in some societies in the first place, yet it may not be applicable in other contexts. Ahearn (2001, p. 113) argues that instead of imposing one fixed conception of agency, it is important to see how people interpret their own actions in the first place. Whether people attribute responsibility for events to certain things such as individuals, fate, or other animate or inanimate objects can be a varying definition of agency even within the same society as the notion of transformative action or the nobility of the action may be shifting under the changing economic and political circumstances. In this regard, requiring or at least expecting the same kind of action or even ideas for the goal of gender equality can be extremely misleading, for actions and ideas of what is equal or what is good, to begin with, differ in different contexts as suggested above.


Gender equality is without a doubt an important agenda in most contemporary societies. It has made its way to institutions such as training courses, advisory posts in development agencies, and university degrees. With vigorous institutionalisation and normalisation, however, gender equality smeared in development agenda without fundamental and un-biased discourses during the process. The reason is that when the gender norm was the fundamental value of the implementing agency such as EU, the norm is less questioned and less confronted when the norm is introduced into foreign aid policy which by design influences the social, cultural, economic, and political environment of the recipient countries. The details of the agenda can be negotiated and compromised on its course. Yet, it is not negotiable to question the value itself whether it is valuable for others and in what form it is valuable. In the process of normalisation, the viewpoints of the actor, Europeans for instance, is heavily imposed by focusing on addressing the problems they face in their own context. It is not without a good reason, though. Yet, the imposition of certain views in development interventions or development discourses in academia may shape the gender paradigm with specific orientation disregarding the view of others who are not the major part of the institutional actions. The orientation that guides “correct” actions can often be narrow because the human agency required for social transformation is more often than not narrowly defined. For instance, resistance can be a form of exercising agency but avoiding or navigating is not considered as agency. As a result, every man and woman are expected to act and resist to the current patriarchal norm while denying that patriarchy was once the product of constructing social values. On the contrary, it is important to note that agency can form different forms and motives and it is apt to change under different social circumstances.


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This is a paper originally submitted for “Development: Actors and Paradigms” at KU Leuven.

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An anthropology novice with passion for small things. A development worker in a world of imponderabilia.

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