🌈 Autocratic backsliding in 'gender-washing' regimes

Women's rights can be decoupled from other civil and political rights in backsliding regimes, says Daniela Donno. To understand these cases, and how to engage them more effectively, we need to pay attention to relations between autocrats and the women's movement

Under conservative populist governments, democratic backsliding is often accompanied by regression in women’s rights. Yet, as contributions from Aili Mari Tripp and Elin Bjarnegård in this series make clear, this is not a universal trend. 'Gender-washing' regimes adopt the mantle of women’s rights as a way to improve their international reputation and expand their support at home. Sometimes, this may actually support autocratic stability.

In other cases, advancements in women’s rights may coincide with backsliding. This implies a decoupling of women’s rights from other political and civil rights. To understand how this can occur, it is helpful to consider the regime’s approach toward civil society and the women’s movement in particular.

Roughly speaking, there appear to be two modes of 'decoupled' backsliding, one based on repression, the other on co-optation of the women's movement.

Repression and women's rights

In this model, gender reforms are purely a 'top-down' affair and are accompanied by repression of feminist activists. Such regimes may prevent the development of an autonomous women’s movement, shut it out of the policy-making process, or actively repress it.

Saudi Arabia is one such example. Since taking power in 2017, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) has ushered in a range of changes to Saudi Arabia's guardianship system, limited the power of the religious police and, perhaps most famously, has allowed women to drive. For MBS, it is essential that Saudis understand these changes as having flowed down from above. Reforms are an instrument with which to enhance the personalist nature of his regime, which has imprisoned scores of female activists. Indeed, the regime has swiftly nipped in the bud nascent signs of an autonomous women’s movement.

In Saudi Arabia, gender reforms are a way to bolster the regime, while that same regime imprisons scores of female activists

A pragmatist would note that such improvements in women’s de jure status are nevertheless welcome. Legal reforms, even if accompanied by civil society repression, may ignite longer-term processes of social and normative change. Yet, the repressive model is concerning because it decreases the likelihood of effective implementation of these de jure reforms.

Descriptive representation

In ongoing research with Elin Bjarnegård, we identify weak civil society as a barrier to the implementation of laws related to women’s social and economic rights in autocracies. When allowed to flourish, civil society groups perform essential functions. They pressure governments to respect their legal commitments and assist women in claiming their rights. In the area of violence against women, for example, legal aid organisations initiate cases, counsel and assist women victims, and educate women about their rights. These key functions are limited or wholly absent in autocracies where the women’s movement is suppressed.

Weak civil society is a barrier to the implementation of laws related to women's rights in autocracies

In such contexts, we are likely to see improvements in women’s descriptive representation and de jure change, but less actual improvement in women’s lived experience. In Jordan, advances in women’s political representation have not led to improvements in, for example, women’s participation in the workforce. Religious courts regularly bypass a law raising the age of marriage. In Tunisia, president Kais Saied, soon after appointing the country’s first female prime minister, oversaw a complete dismantling of democratic institutions. He has also, notably, opposed measures to enable women to effectively claim their inheritance rights.

Co-opting the women’s movement

Another way autocratic and hybrid regimes enact gender reforms is via co-optation. Regimes using this model grant the women’s movement representation and voice in the political system. For example, Aili Mari Tripp describes how landmark reforms to family law in Morocco and Algeria were the product of sustained interaction between the regime and women activists.

However, for the women’s movement, policy gains often demand costly compromise in terms of autonomy. For example, in Cameroon, 'state feminism' requires women’s associations to pursue their goals solely through the ministry of women’s affairs in order to obtain recognition and resources.

While we might hope that women leaders will stand as a bulwark against backsliding, this is not always true. Loyalty to the government, which ensures continued access to power, may win out over loyalty to broader democratic values.

Loyalty to the regime

Dominant-party systems often select women legislators for their loyalty to the regime. Consider Uganda and Tanzania, which are exemplars of co-optation. The women’s movement has a stake in the political system, and landmark reforms to women’s economic rights have been enacted. Female legislative representation is high. As in Rwanda, leaders in both countries have embedded support for women’s rights into the very identity of the ruling party. And yet, over recent years, both countries have seen alarming retrenchments in other civil and political rights.

Dominant-party systems often select women legislators for their loyalty to the regime

In Tanzania, repression of opposition party leaders and activists has increased and electoral integrity declined as the regime seeks greater hegemonic control. In Uganda, an exceedingly harsh anti-LGBTQ bill passed through parliament in May 2023 with only one dissenting vote. The bill mandates the death penalty for certain same-sex acts and a 20-year sentence for promoting homosexuality. This represents a sweeping rollback of civil liberties for a vulnerable population. It has been met with seemingly little pushback from women legislators.

Implications for backsliding

The contemporary landscape of democratic backsliding is varied. In some cases, suppressing women’s autonomy is front and centre. In others, however, women’s rights enjoy the support of the regime and are decoupled from other civil and political rights. Fundamentally, unlike 'gender-bashers,' 'gender-washing' regimes pay at least lip service to liberal norms. For democracy advocates, this should be welcomed, supported and recognised as a potential foothold for broader liberalisation in the long term.

But it is still lip service. Where regimes utterly repress feminist organisations, advancements in women’s rights tend to be top-down and symbolic. In these cases, we must pay greater attention to the implementation of laws. The key question here is how (and whether) women can effectively claim and experience their de jure legal rights.

Meanwhile, a co-optation model is more congruent with real gains for women. However, the nature of the system makes it unlikely that women leaders will be at the forefront of opposition to the regime. Therefore, we must pay attention to nuance when considering how to formulate engagement with gender-washing regimes.

No.10 in a Loop thread on Gendering Democracy. Look out for the 🌈 to read more in this series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Daniela Donno
Daniela Donno
Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Oklahoma

Daniela's research centres on international norms, elections, authoritarian politics and women’s rights.


She tweets @DonnoDaniela

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