This Loop series on 'Gendering democracy' shows how gender and authoritarianism are interconnected – but in different and unexpected ways. Elin Bjarnegård and Pär Zetterberg think the relationship between them deserves more attention in political science. Here, they expose the relationship in terms of two autocrat strategies: genderwashing and genderbashing
In their opening piece for this series, Conny Roggeband and Andrea Krizsán argue that scholars have largely ignored the gendered aspects of democratic erosion and authoritarian stability. We agree that understanding gender is essential to understanding authoritarian politics. Modern autocrats simply have to relate to gender politics. Doing so, however, they tend to use gender strategically, to serve their own overarching purpose of staying in power. Depending on their calculation, this can lead to very different strategies. We refer to these as autocratic genderwashing or genderbashing.
Some countries are fairly consistently engaging in one or the other. Rwanda, for example, has been a stable autocracy for 20 years. However, it is probably more famous for also having the highest share of women in parliament in the world. In 2016, Rwandan President Paul Kagame (above) received the Gender Champion Award. Rwanda is not the only authoritarian country that has striven to make significant gains in women’s political representation. Two-thirds of the 75 countries that have adopted gender quota laws are non-democratic.
Two-thirds of the 75 countries that have adopted gender quota laws are non-democratic
Hungary, on the other hand, is on a trail of persistent democratic backsliding. As Christina Chiva demonstrates, Hungary’s autocratisation process has included high-profile opposition to 'gender ideology' and LGBTQ+ rights, to the extent that the government now legally bans schools and universities from teaching these topics.
Again, Hungary is not a lone wolf. Many previously established democracies are now moving in an illiberal direction. This is fuelled by the rise of far-right parties who link traditional family values with patriotism. 'Gender ideology' is constructed as being in opposition to such values. Its critics portray it as an enforced and bad influence from the West, particularly the EU and the United Nations.
How can we reconcile these seemingly opposing processes of autocratic genderwashing and genderbashing? We think the reason modern autocrats must relate to gender equality may also be why they relate to it in different ways. That is, gender equality has come to be seen as intimately connected with democracy and liberal values.
This means that autocrats who stand to gain from association with democracy can achieve their goals without becoming more democratic. Instead, they adopt cosmetic gender equality reforms: autocratic genderwashing. It's likely we will see more autocratic genderwashing in stable authoritarian countries which depend upon a good international reputation in the West. Such countries are keen to maintain close linkages through aid or trade.
Autocratic genderwashing is the result of the success-story of the global push for gender equality. Autocrats have gradually ascertained that international organisations and liberal-minded donors value gender equality to the extent that it should be mainstreamed everywhere and by everyone. They have learned that they can use the inclusion of women as a substitute for introducing democratic competition. Thus, they legitimise their rule.
Autocrats have learned that they can use the inclusion of women as a substitute for introducing democratic competition, thereby legitimising their rule
The success-story of gender equality has also become a symbol for core values of the UN, the EU and western countries more broadly. Enter genderbashing. For authoritarian leaders who can gain electorally by distancing themselves from these institutions and countries, gender becomes a similarly useful symbol. The crackdown on women’s reproductive rights and on LGBTQ+ rights, as well as anti-gender discourses, also build on the strong bundling of democracy and gender. Far-right parties can legitimise their increasingly firm hold on power by claiming to protect patriotic and traditional values. They can even claim they are preventing 'colonisation' that would lead to moral deterioration.
So where do autocrats really stand when it comes to gender? Our guess is that most of them probably don’t care that much about gender politics and gender equality issues as such. They are aware, however, that it is a useful, multi-purpose tool for staying in power. Some observers describe modern autocrats as spin dictators who strategically spin the news to engineer support. Authoritarian regimes tend to be selectively responsive to the public. Strategic concerns influence their decision to pursue gender equality reform – or to do the opposite.
While autocrats probably don't much care about gender equality, they are aware that it is a useful tool for staying in power
Putin increased his rhetoric about 'traditional values' and passed a law banning LGBTQ+ 'propaganda' at the same time as he waged a war on the Ukraine. This is no coincidence; it is a strategy. Putin claims to be fighting the influence of western values. He calls these values – including LGBTQ+ rights – 'pure satanism'. But it wasn't always so. Putin has gradually shifted away from statements embracing gender equality. He has a strategic view on gender-related messaging, and chooses his words deliberately, depending on which constituency he needs to convince.
Autocrats’ strategic use of genderwashing and genderbashing calls for awareness among actors who care about democracy and gender equality. While the strategies include rhetoric, they make a real difference to gender relations if and when they are accompanied by reforms that are also passed into law. In the case of genderwashing, this means that we need to understand the extent to which reforms are mere window-dressing or whether they constitute a window of opportunity for (some) women.
In the case of genderbashing, however, the problem is the opposite. When authoritarian rhetoric leads to real, implemented anti-gender policies, it constitutes a tangible backlash against gender equality.
International actors should be aware of the important role they play in shaming autocratic leaders for crackdowns on gender equality. Yet they should also be aware of how they may, unintentionally, legitimise that autocratic rule by rewarding gender equality progress.
Finally, as we suggest elsewhere, scholars of authoritarianism need to differentiate between gender equality policy issues, to determine which ones autocrats use for genderwashing and genderbashing respectively.