🌈  The effects of autocratisation on women’s rights: a contradictory picture

Autocratising governments in countries from Hungary to Turkey and Russia are eroding women’s rights. While this is indeed a worrying trend, Aili Mari Tripp argues that autocratisation looks different depending on a country’s historical legacies and geopolitical situation. This influences the types of women’s rights a regime might seek to undo

In their inaugural piece for this series, Conny Roggeband and Andrea Krizsán highlighted the ways many autocratising regimes are undermining women’s rights. Yet concerning as these trends are, there remains considerable variation between and within authoritarian regimes. Such regimes do not target all women’s rights legislation or policies.

Poland, for example, enforced stricter laws on abortion in 2021. However, it has improved its representation of women in parliament, up from 20% in 2006 to 28% in 2022. In Hungary — where homosexuality is legal and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is banned — same-sex couples do not enjoy the same legal rights as heterosexual married couples. In 2021, the Hungarian government passed a law banning gay education and advertising deemed ‘homosexual and transexual propaganda’. At the same time, Hungary has consistently improved the status of women in employment.

Communism was certainly no panacea for women in Eurasia. Yet after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, women suffered tremendously. In the early post-communist years, women lost job security, the gender wage gap widened, healthcare and welfare benefits, and low-cost childcare services, declined precipitously.

Virtue signalling with women’s rights

Even as some authoritarian regimes take away women’s rights, others promote them to signal modernity and progress. Countries in Africa and the Middle East instrumentalise women’s rights by promoting women to cabinets, judiciaries and ambassadorships. They adopt gender quotas to increase women’s parliamentary representation. Morocco does this to attract trade partners, the United Arab Emirates to encourage foreign investment and reduce oil dependence. Rwanda did it to divert attention from human rights abuses; Uganda to maintain vote share after moving from a one-party to a multiparty system.

Even as some authoritarian regimes take away women’s rights, others promote them to signal modernity and progress

All these countries perceive women’s rights as having internal and external appeal. Thus, we need to distinguish regimes that promote women’s rights from those that are retracting them.

Regime type and historical trajectory

Dominant party-based regimes appear more conducive to women’s rights than military, personalist, monarchical, or oligarchic regimes. African countries with ruling parties in power through more than three electoral cycles are also more likely to promote women leaders.

Authoritarian and democratic legacies impact differently on women’s rights. Eurasia and East Europe were once authoritarian under communism. Today they are less authoritarian, but the East European countries that joined the European Union have been subject to different incentives than Eurasian countries to improve women’s rights. Communist legacies still weigh heavily, since there never was enough space or time for emerging women’s movements to push for fundamental change.

In Africa, by contrast, most countries remain authoritarian or semi-authoritarian. The 1990s shift from one-party to multiparty systems also saw the rise of civil society and women’s rights activism. This brought significant improvements to laws and practice in education, healthcare, economic empowerment, and political representation, even under authoritarian and semi-authoritarian rule.

Established democracies under the influence of populism

Established democracies have not been spared the regressive pull of right-wing populist parties and movements. Such movements often pit immigrants against women and LGBTQ people, while posing as defenders of women’s rights. Some conservative groups like GoFF: the Group of the Friends of the Family, have even formed international coalitions of member states within the United Nations to promote their anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ platforms. The coalition of UN member states around this agenda included the US (under Trump), the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Uganda and Malaysia.

Some authoritarian countries have mostly historically authoritarian legacies; others primarily democratic ones. Still others, like Brazil, have a mix. Under Bolsonaro, for example, Brazil experienced a retreat in some areas of women’s rights but an expansion in welfare provision under which women were the primary beneficiaries.

Internal contradictions

We also need to disaggregate areas of reform within a country from areas of stalemate or reversal. Gender quotas for parliaments and improving market/labour related provisions are often relatively easily adopted. However, provisions relating to family law, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ rights are generally much more difficult to pass in countries with weighty religious and conservative cultural legacies, often bolstered by right-wing populist parties. The unevenness in areas of reform has multiple dimensions.

Parliamentary gender quotas and employment-related legislation are relatively easy to pass into law. Provisions relating to reproductive and LGBTQ rights tend to be more contentious

One factor that can exert a positive or negative influence on gender rights is a declining birthrate. Nordic countries have responded to this challenge by improving daycare, parental leave, and enacting other pro-parent provisions. Finland has welcomed immigrants to bolster its workforce. Hungary and Poland, by contrast, have sought to ban abortions and restrict LGBTQ rights, which their leaders perceive as a threat to population growth. At the same time, they have pursued anti-immigrant policies. These looming population concerns may intersect with religious and culturally conservative norms, along with right-wing populist influences.

Can authoritarian regimes be pro-woman?

There is a lot to disentangle here. Authoritarian regimes are not all the same and their anti-woman rhetoric is not always motivated by the same misogynistic sentiments. Moreover, not all authoritarian regimes see themselves as anti-women’s rights.

In the UAE, a monarchy, women hold 50% of parliamentary seats, and the country regards itself as a world leader in gender equality

United Arab Emirates, a monarchy, is striving to be one of the world’s most gender-equal countries, increasing the number of women in government, the diplomatic service, and the judiciary. Women in UAE hold 50% of parliamentary seats and 30% of cabinet seats. From 2015 to 2019, the speaker of the parliament was a woman. The UAE sees itself as a regional and world leader in gender equality, referring to itself in press releases as a ‘shining model’ and ‘stupendous’ example to the rest of the world.

Their success in all these endeavours may be questioned. However, their rhetoric is very different from that of an Orbán, Putin, or Bolsonaro. Scholars need to disaggregate authoritarianisms and their different legacies and chequered outcomes.

No.6 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 Aili Mari Tripp
Aili Mari Tripp
Vilas Research Professor of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Aili's research has focused on gender/women and politics, women’s movements in Africa, transnational feminism, and African politics more generally.

Seeking Legitimacy Why Arab Autocracies Adopt Women's Rights

Seeking Legitimacy: Why Arab Autocracies Adopt Women’s Rights
Cambridge University Press, 2019

Women and Power in Postconflict Africa

Women and Power in Postconflict Africa
Cambridge University Press, 2015

African Women's Movements Transforming Political Landscapes

African Women’s Movements: Transforming Political Landscapes
Cambridge University Press, 2009, with Isabel Casimiro, Joy Kwesiga, and Alice Mungwa

Women and Politics in Uganda

Women and Politics in Uganda
University of Wisconsin Press, 2000

She has served as the President of African Studies Association and Vice President of the American Political Science Association.

She currently is an editor of the American Political Science Review.


She tweets @ailitripp

Read more articles by this author

Share Article

Republish Article

We believe in the free flow of information Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Loop

Cutting-edge analysis showcasing the work of the political science discipline at its best.
Read more
Advancing Political Science
© 2024 European Consortium for Political Research. The ECPR is a charitable incorporated organisation (CIO) number 1167403 ECPR, Harbour House, 6-8 Hythe Quay, Colchester, CO2 8JF, United Kingdom.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram