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How do culture norms and expectations either support or belie safety?

Recent research survey from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research conduct provides an intriguing look at cultural expectations for women's attire in a set of Muslim countries. This article stimulates a lot of questions around culture and safety:

Photo of David Price
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To set the context for this question, I'm not interested in whether or not these perceptions are right/wrong, conservative/liberal, etc. I think this is a good example that stimulates more substantial questions to research further, especially for those of us who don't understand or live in this type of culture for women:
  • What happens when individuals don't fit within the margins of cultural norms? 
  • How are norms reinforced by a culture and it's people?
  • Are norms reinforced differently for men and women?
  • Is it 'unsafe' for a woman to not fit within a cultural norm?
  • In this specific case, do a majority of women understand what the cultural expectations are? And if so how have they been 'educated'?
  • Which provides more benefit to the individual: 1) adhering to cultural expectations (even when restrictive) or 2) resisting expectations as a way to bring change (especially when they are restrictive)?
  • When, if ever, do cultural norms and expectations intersect with issues of safetly for individuals.
  • Is it ever a good idea to attempt changes in culural norms for the majority in order to benefit a subset of the population? When might it be the case either way?

Please note: I am by no means trying to correlate anything here between religion and women's safety. Yes, the two can intersect. But in this case I am attempting to constrain the exploration of questions to the characteristics of cultural norms at large and their benefit and/or hinderance. Better said --> how can we better understand cultural norms as a framework for designing solutions.


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Photo of Ashley Jablow

Glad to see you joining in David – and great points here. It's going to be key that we consider cultural norms, and differences, as we design together.

Photo of Suzanne Kirkpatrick

Great discussion topic, David. And very relevant to the thinking I've done about designing culturally appropriate reflective garments for women:

I've also wondered to what extent not adhering to cultural norms -- in clothing for example -- puts a woman at risk. As you move along the spectrum from left to right, I think that the risks posed by deviating from the norm decrease as you move to the right. On the far right (#4 and #5) the practice of covering one's head is primarily about religious and cultural considerations where deviants from those norms are less at risk in terms of personal safety. On the far left (#1 and #2) the practice of covering one's face, head, and body, is oftentimes intricately linked with considerations of safety and bodily protection, religious and cultural norms.

I would be glad to invite you to join the reflective garments team to build on this line of thinking and help develop this concept further.

Photo of Meena Kadri

Great provocations for reflection, David. When I spent a couple of years living in India, in a devout Muslim neighbourhood, I was surprised to find that most of the women there preferred to wear something like the most popular covering in the graphic you've shown here when they were travelling beyond their local neighbourhood. It was a good lesson in reflecting on my own cultural norms – having been born and lived most of my life in New Zealand. Something friends often asked me there is why I would wear something as ridiculously impractical as high-heeled shoes. Again – was a good call to make me reflect on cultural norms :^)

Photo of David Price

Thanks, Meena. And I also wonder, in the context of this project, what happens in situations where there is an amalgamation of cultural norms. If a) norms are quickly mixed together in b) a different context, could the result have 'unsafe' effects? And if so, maybe there's something important about finding solutions that address not how to undo norms but actually how to support and integrate them in a new context.

Am I making any sense?


Photo of Meena Kadri

Not sure I quite get it. Can you share a scenario of the kind of thing you're thinking of?

Photo of David Price

My thought process was a bit of an isolated case and not necessarily in line with this challenge target scenario.

I’m thinking of particular events where large groups of people are displaced -- natural disasters or political/social instability -- and temporary refugee camps are formed, which can consist of a diversity of people.

When new 'cities' are formed quickly in a new context, people will bring their existing cultural norms and expectations and behave accordingly. But what happens when different norms and expectations collide like this?


Now that I dig a little deeper, I'm not sure whether my quick thought is applicable. Displacement from rural to urban is happening, but at a much slower rate. And in that case the urban context will already have established cultural norms -- the requirements won't be to establish a 'new' set of norms for people, but instead for the people new to the urban context to understand and adapt to the norms already in place.

Hmm... carry on. Not sure this is adding much to conversation :)

Photo of Karolle Rabarison

Rural-to-urban migration is slower than the natural/social calamity you had in mind, but I'd argue it's not too slow for there not to be notable collision.

On the contrary, a city is ever-so-rich with friction. True that to some extent the migrant and displaced must adapt to the "urban" way of life, but many also hold on to their home culture. This is especially notable/tangible in the way neighborhoods in some major cities are clumps of people from a particular country or village, of a particular religion, etc. etc. And the lines where these areas meet can experience friction or conflict.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Interesting research and great questions.
The whole issue of perception and cultural norms is crucial to keep in mind as we move to ideation.

Some of these questions reminded me Jamie's post:

The research reminded another study I read:

Photo of Kasey Hurlbutt

David! Great questions. I'm going to tease some of those out with my friends here. Will get back when I have some perspectives. In the meantime, here's a personal anecdote about when my clothing made me feel uncomfortable and borderline unsafe. Last year I had a business trip to UAE/Qatar. On my return leg I had connections through Bahrain. It was late at night and my flight was long, so I was wearing my yoga pants. The second I stepped off the plane to go through security for transit, I felt uncomfortable, out of place, and possibly a little unsafe. No one was looking at me. But I felt very exposed and vulnerable. Clothing, appearance and norms do matter. I think they can be a symbol of courageous defiance or a source of vulnerable exposure depending on the situation....

Photo of David Price

Thanks, Kasey. Did you all get a chance to put together and post the perspectives/ideas? Let me know as I'd enjoy reading them.