Abdulgader Bashir

Part 3: Representation: key concepts and definitions


People should be able to participate in politics on equal terms. For that to happen, that is to attain formal representation, legal barriers to political participation must be removed. In Sudan, women gained the right to vote and stand for election in 1964 following the October revolution. In 1965, Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim became the first woman elected to the Sudanese parliament and the first in the Arab world. Formal access and opportunity, however, do not guarantee that underrepresented groups will vote, run, or rise in the ranks of political leadership. Despite making up half the world's population, women’s representation in legislative assemblies remains low, including Sudan.

In addition to being able to participate in politics either as candidates or voters, it is important to consider whether governing bodies reflect the key demographic characteristics of those who elect them; that is to say, are these institutions descriptively representative.[i] In Sudan, women’s descriptive representation has always been low despite formal barriers to political participation being removed in 1964. Before 2005 women held less than  10% of the national assembly seats. This proportion jumped to 18% following the passing of the comprehensive peace agreement and later to 25% after the introduction of the gender quota in 2008.[ii] The 2019 Constitutional Charter, a negotiated agreement between the military and the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), promised a 40% women’s quota, but the legislative assembly was never appointed before the military October military coup.

There are several well founded arguments for increasing women’s descriptive representation. The presence of marginalized groups in leadership positions, for example gives those who were previously excluded groups a feeling of being involved and heard.[iii] Their presence also helps counter the perception that marginalized groups are “not fit to rule.”[iv] Female politicians send a strong signal to men and boys that also women can lead. A shared set of visible characteristics with the voters, such as gender can also increase trust in politicians. 

Research shows that women politicans act as role models for young girls. They increase girls’ career aspirations, educational attainment, civic engagement, and self-esteem.[v]   In India, exposure to women’s leadership leads to less gender bias towards women in public life and better chances of voting for women in future elections.[vi]

Voters who share descriptive characteristics with their political representatives sometimes practice ‘blind loyalty’ by evaluating politicians on nonpolicy grounds.[viii]  Sharing descriptive characteristics with politicians can create a false sense of security with voters thinking their political preferences are being represented when, in fact, they are not. It would be dangerous, for example, to assume that all women politicians pursue a feminist agenda. Women representatives represent different ideological platforms, which translate into different ideas about what are women’s interests.[ix] 

In contexts where religion is a dominant cleavage, conservative women can be mobilized against the feminist push for gender equality. In the Sudanese context, women represented in the parliament have typically come from privileged backgrounds; Muslim women from certain ethnic groups with higher education. Women outside of urban centers and from marginalized regions and ethnic and religious groups did not necessarily feel well represented by female parliamentarians. In the context Bashir’s authoritarian regime (1989-2019), most women who entered the parliament had a certain Islamist ideological standpoint which has increasingly been contested, most recently in the December revolution.[x]

Beyond the impact of descriptive representation on voters, it also significantly affects women politicians and their behavior once in office. National legislatures tend to be masculine spaces that have particular norms associated with them. Parliamentary ceremonies and rituals are gendered, often in men's favour­– sitting hours tend to be  family unfriendly and debate styles combative. Women parliamentarians in Turkey and Zambia, for example, have faced pushback for wearing trousers in the legislative chambers,[xi] while women in the House of Commons have been reprimanded for bringing their children to work (BBC 2021). The presence of more women legislators in these governing institutions is, therefore, important for feelings of empowerment and camaraderie.[xii] Women legislators are better able to control policy discussions and make themselves heard when other women are in similar positions of power.[xiii]

It is important to increase the number of women in parliaments, but such an increase is not enough for women’s interests to be served. Politicians must also advocate for causes and interests of those they represent.[xiv] Whereas descriptive representation is about who a representative is, substantive representation is about what a representative does, including crafting legislation, and voting on bills. Research shows that women have different policy preferences than men.[xv] These different preferences sometimes translate into differences in law. Women’s interests are those that affect women as women (e.g. reproductive health and gender based violence); are connected to women’s traditional roles as caregivers (e.g. motherhood and children); or are tied to the social sphere they occupy more broadly (health care and education).

Research shows that as women’s numbers rise in legislative bodies, they tend advocate more frequently for children, families and the poor.[xvi] In Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, the higher the number of women legislators the more likely policies crafted target women, children, and families.[xvii]

The success of substantive representation depends on legislators having certain attitudes and preferences when acting as representatives; their activities increase the likelihood of institutional and policy transformation.  Substantive representation is both a process – lawmakers’ efforts to set agendas and advocate for policies—and an outcome—lawmakers’ ability to win changes in law.[xviii]


[i] Norris, P., & Lovenduski, J. (1993). ‘If only more candidates came forward’: Supply-side explanations of candidate selection in Britain. British Journal of Political Science23(3), 373-408; Campbell, R., Childs, S., & Lovenduski, J. (2010). Do women need women representatives?. British Journal of Political Science40(1), 171-194; Mansbridge, J. (1999). Should blacks represent blacks and women represent women? A contingent" yes". The Journal of politics61(3), 628-657.

[ii] Abbas, Sara (2010), “The Sudanese Women’s Movements and the Mobilization for the 2008 Legislative Quota and its Aftermath”, IDS bulletin, 41:100-108.

[iii] Burrell, B. (1996). A Woman's Place is in the House: Campaigning for Congress in the Feminist Era. University of Michigan Press.

[iv] Mansbridge, J. (1999), p. 649

[v] Barnes, T. D., & Burchard, S. M. (2013). “Engendering” politics: The impact of descriptive representation on women’s political engagement in sub-Saharan AfricaComparative Political Studies46(7), 767-790; Campbell, D. E., & Wolbrecht, C. (2006). See Jane run: Women politicians as role models for adolescentsThe Journal of Politics68(2), 233-247.

[vi] Bhavnani, R. R. (2009). Do electoral quotas work after they are withdrawn? Evidence from a natural experiment in IndiaAmerican Political Science Review103(1), 23-35.

[vii] Fenno, R. (1978) Home Style: House Members in the Districts. Boston: Longman

[viii] Mansbridge, J. (1999), p. 640

[ix] Celis, K., & Childs, S. (2012). The substantive representation of women: What to do with conservative claims?. Political Studies60(1), 213-225.

[x] "I'm against all of the laws of this regime": What Sudan's women want | African Arguments

[xi] Ballington, J. (Ed.). (2008). Equality in Politics: A survey of Women and Men in Parliaments (No. 54). Inter-parliamentary union.

[xii] Grey, S. (2006). Numbers and beyond: The relevance of critical mass in gender research. Politics & Gender2(4), 492-502.

[xiii] Bratton, K. A. (2005). Critical mass theory revisited: The behavior and success of token women in state legislaturesPolitics & Gender1(1), 97-125.

[xiv] Box-Steffensmeier, J. M., Kimball, D. C., Meinke, S. R., & Tate, K. (2003). The effects of political representation on the electoral advantages of House incumbents. Political Research Quarterly56(3), 259-270; Rosenthal, C. S. (1995). The role of gender in descriptive representationPolitical Research Quarterly48(3), 599-611.

[xv] Chattopadhyay, R., & Duflo, E. (2004). Women as policy makers: Evidence from a randomized policy experiment in India. Econometrica72(5), 1409-1443; Swers, M. L. (1998). Are women more likely to vote for women's issue bills than their male colleagues?Legislative Studies Quarterly, 435-448.

[xvi] Mendelberg, T., Karpowitz, C. F., & Goedert, N. (2014). Does descriptive representation facilitate women's distinctive voice? How gender composition and decision rules affect deliberation. American Journal of Political Science58(2), 291-306.

[xvii] Devlin, C., & Elgie, R. (2008). The effect of increased women's representation in parliament: The case of Rwanda. Parliamentary Affairs61(2), 237-254; Yoon, M. Y. (2011). Factors hindering ‘larger’representation of women in parliament: the case of SeychellesCommonwealth & Comparative Politics49(1), 98-114.

[xviii] Franceschet, S., & Piscopo, J. M. (2008). Gender quotas and women's substantive representation: Lessons from ArgentinaPolitics & Gender4(3), 393-425.

Additional Open Access Resources

  1. Women's Representation Visually represented
  2. Why history matters for women's political representation
  3. Female political representation and substantive effects on policies
  4. Challenges of Women's Representation in Latin America