I had a useful conversation with a social psychologist last month. What follows below is what I have distilled from my notes.
Violence against women is closely linked to individual attitudes and social norms on women’s and men’s roles in society.
Societies construct and are built on implicit norms that define differences, e.g. between men and women, and between young and old. We are socialised to function according to these norms; they are “hard-wired” in our brains. Neurologists estimate that only 40 out of 1,000,000 actions a person undertakes are preceded by a conscious decision. Everything else happens without any thought – reasoning often comes after an action has been taken.
Deeply internalised norms are hardly ever questioned; in the opposite, they tend to be reinforced in social interaction. For example, when tennis player Boris Becker stated, “I played like a woman”, he contributed to reinforcing perceptions about the difference between the sexes: “real men” being posited as aggressive and tough, as opposed to sensitive, soft, “feminine” behaviour. The many forms of violence against women are powerful instruments to reinforce implicit gender-inequitable norms, and thus reinforce social acceptance of “male dominance” vs. “feminine submissiveness”. But even well-meaning research with survivors of VAW is likely to contribute to deepening inequality when it posits women as victims and men as (potential) perpetrators. Both men and women are victims of social norms that lock them into opposing roles – and both are perpetrators in that they enact and enforce these social roles with others, including children, who may soak up these norms as absolute truths.
One of the founders of social psychology, Kurt Lewin, defined three key steps in attitude change: "unfreeze" - "change" - "freeze". That is, “frozen” internalised social norms must be “unfrozen” – i.e. something hitherto “obvious” and “natural” must be recognised as a social construct, a man-made thing that can be changed. Then, change can happen. Subsequently, to prevent individuals from sliding back into “old ways”, the new, changed attitudes must be reinforced (“frozen”).
When several people behave in a “new” way, they contribute to changing the “old” social norm. When others react positively to “new” behaviour, “new” behaviour becomes more desirable and practicable. If “new” behaviour is repeated by many over an extended spell of time, new social norms are built; the new behaviour becomes part of the repertoire of “natural” behaviour.