How Autocrats Instrumentalize Women’s Rights

Women’s Rights
Rwandan President Paul Kagame meets with participants at a conference on the role of women at the nation’s parliament, in Kigali, May 2010.

By Daniela Donno

How Autocrats Instrumentalize Women’s Rights

In October 2018, Abiy Ahmed’s new government in Ethiopia announced a gender-balanced cabinet, in a move met with fanfare in the international media. Many examples hint at the reputational boost that autocrats enjoy when they advance women’s rights, as when Kuwait allowed women to vote in 2005; Morocco introduced family law reforms in 2004; and when Saudi Arabia announced an end to its ban on female drivers in 2018. A mounting body of research now shows that women’s rights can be employed by autocrats to enhance their legitimacy abroad and their support at home. In the eyes of the international community, gender-equality reforms can even be viewed as substituting for broader moves toward democracy.

Many contemporary autocrats advance women’s rights with gusto. In a recent article, my co-authors and I present data on women’s rights reforms in a range of social, economic and political issue areas. Strikingly, there is now little difference between democracies and nondemocracies on this metric of de jure change. The gap has closed over time. Today, authoritarian regimes are enacting gender reforms at a rate similar to democracies in the developing world.

This contrasts with the widely-held idea that women’s rights are dangerous for autocrats, or that it is necessarily the suppression, rather than the advancement, of women’s rights that enables autocratic survival. The fact is that a number of contemporary autocracies have sought to cultivate a gender-progressive profile. And while this trend has increased in recent decades, there are deeper roots as well. In Latin America, modernizing military regimes in the 1960s and 70s enacted reforms to women’s civil status and property rights. In the Muslim world, the mantle of “modernization” was assumed by Ataturk in post-Ottoman Turkey; secular-nationalist regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Iraq in the 1960s; and more recently by monarchs in Morocco, Qatar and Jordan (among others). Uniting these disparate cases is the view that women’s rights are integrally linked to modernity and its attendant benefits, including international prestige and economic development.

Unpacking the motives

Reforms to advance women’s rights reflect political calculations on the part of the autocrat. Domestically, granting women greater equality and political representation can increase women’s support for the regime, co-opt the women’s movement, and may even be used as a wedge to peel support away from more conservative opposition movements.

International incentives have also intensified—a point that helps explain the rise in gender reforms in dictatorships in recent decades. Since the end of the Cold War, advancing women’s rights has provided a way to align with (Western) democratic norms without having to engage in more politically costly forms of liberalization. In other words, as pressure for democracy increased, autocrats sought ways to signal adherence with Western values without introducing competitive elections.

In support of this idea, my research finds that autocracies that are highly dependent on Western foreign aid enact more women’s rights reforms, but they avoid electoral reforms that are more immediately threatening to their grip on power. We also now have direct evidence that (Western) policy makers reward women’s rights even in otherwise unfree regimes. In an experimental study on a sample of international development professionals, my research with Sarah Bush and Pär Zetterberg finds that these policy makers are willing to reward reformers with greater foreign aid. More to the point, they perceive regimes that advance women’s rights as more democratic, even though ample evidence tells us that women’s rights are often perfectly consistent with autocratic rule.

Window-dressing or windows of opportunity?

How meaningful are reforms for women’s rights in dictatorships? Legal implementation problems are rife in autocracies, raising concerns about whether de jure advances toward gender equality are examples of mere “gender-washing,” with little impact on the lives of women in practice.

Research on state feminism in Africa find that the proliferation of new ministries and agencies devoted to women’s advancement typically does not translate to effective policy implementation. Or consider the policy tool most fervently advocated by the international community: electoral gender quotas. The vast majority of developing countries has now adopted some type of quota, but evidence of their impact in authoritarian regimes is mixed. The number of women in parliament has surely increased. But what does this mean in a context where the legislature plays little role in crafting policy, or where politics is dominated by patronage networks in which women hold little sway? Moreover, quota seats in authoritarian legislatures tend to be populated by loyal regime supporters, often with family or economic ties to the ruling elite.

Yet, we should not dismiss the longer-term potential of de jure reform. New laws are often the starting point for processes of societal mobilization and norm change. In more open autocracies, civil society mechanisms do exist to help women claim the rights granted to them by the law, as studies on women’s movements show. When it comes to economic activity and political representation, decades of gender-focused legal reform in autocracies like Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda have brought greater opportunity than in more democratic countries like Kenya and Nigeria. Advances in women’s rights may indeed be strategic, even insincere, and progress slow; but they should not be easily dismissed as meaningless.

About the Author

Daniela Donno is associate professor of political science at University of Oklahoma. Her research focuses on international norms, elections, democracy and women’s rights. Her book, Defending Democratic Norms, was published by Oxford University Press. She holds a PhD from Yale University.

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