Abdulgader Bashir

Part 1: Women in Authoritarian Regimes


Today, unlike two decades ago, autocratic regimes outpace democracies in the level of women's political representation. In 2020, for example, the top performers in terms of women's political representation were Rwanda with 61%, Cuba and Bolivia with 53%, United Arab Emirates with 50%, and Nicaragua at 48%.[i]  This does not obscure the fact that in places like Somalia, Djibouti, and Kuwait, women are almost entirely excluded from political power. The diverse nature of authoritarian regimes means that they each have different effects on women’s representation. 

Military regimes, such as those seen in Burkina Faso and Mali, tend to occur in post-coup situations and transition into either democracies or trigger new coups that result in even more political uncertainty.  Leaders of these regimes tend to rule together with the bureaucracy and believe themselves to be the rational and non-political referees in times of crisis .[ii]  The political uncertainties associated with military rule make women’s political inclusion less likely.[iii]  In times of crisis women’s rights and political inclusion are ignored. The use of coercion and military force not only negatively affects women’s chances of political inclusion but also ends up pushing women’s rights to the sidelines. Men’s high status and dominance in the military also make women’s political inclusion unlikely.[iv] This reinforces military regimes’ negative effect on women’s political inclusion.

Personalist regimes’ (Russia, Uganda, Libya under Gaddafi) record on women’s political inclusion and representation is similarly poor due to the centralization of power within a small ruling coalition or even a dictator, and the lack of institutional boundaries. In many post-colonial states where power was centralized, women were largely kept outside dominant patron-client networks.[v] Without strong ties to such networks, women remained outside of the main avenues that lead to political influence at the center of the state.

Party regimes benefit from extending women’s rights because their party institutions extend into society. These regimes use women’s inclusion as a coalition building tool.[viii]  Political leaders in the Middle East and North Africa strategically use women’s rights provisions to counter extremist Islamist tendencies and to mobilize women's votes .[ix]   Officially sanctioned organizations foster women’s political participation and help them gain access to state patronage networks. The main purpose  of these organizations, however, is to control women and prevent them from becoming autonomous political movements.[x]  Distributing patronage to organizations’ leaders allows the state to keep women leaders focused on personal gain rather than on addressing issues that affect the broader membership[xi]. In Rwanda, for example, The Rwandan Patriotic Fund views the support for women’s civil society organizations as an “extension” of the state, rather than as organizations that are in opposition to the state.[xii] 

Ruling parties, even in autocracies, can gain legitimacy by promoting women’s political inclusion.[vi]  In some cases, increases in women’s political representation are followed by foreign aid flows. These moves are seen as signals of a  country’s commitment to international norms, despite the opprressive political situation[vii] In sum, party-based authoritarian regimes may have an incentive to place greater numbers of women in their legislatures than other types of authoritarian regimes.

Globally, an increasing number of authoritarian regimes have fast tracked women into political office. It is only in authoritarian regimes that the gender gap in politics have been reversed. However, it is particular types of authoritarian regimes, namely party-based regimes, where women are increasingly politically represented. However, one way or another women’s political representation becomes a tool for sustaining the non-democratic nature of these regimes. Although there might be short term benefits to women’s rights, it may lead to backlash effects if the regimes are overthrown as women’s political gains become intrinsically entangled with an authoritarian legacy.



IPU, Alm.del - 2019-20 - Bilag 8: 2020 Women in Parliament (ft.dk)[i]

[ii] Kailitz, S. (2013). Classifying political regimes revisited: legitimation and durability. Democratization20(1), 39-60. (p. 48) (Gated)

[iii] Pelke, L. (2020). Inclusionary regimes, party institutionalization and redistribution under authoritarianism. Democratization27(7), 1301-1323; Geddes, B., Wright, J., & Frantz, E. (2014). Autocratic breakdown and regime transitions: A new data setPerspectives on politics12(2), 313-331. (Gated)

[iv] Homophily discussion, see above.

[v] Arriola, L. R., & Johnson, M. C. (2014). Ethnic politics and women's empowerment in Africa: Ministerial appointments to executive cabinets. American Journal of Political Science58(2), 495-510. (Ungated)

[vi] Bush, S. S., & Zetterberg, P. (2021). Gender quotas and international reputation. American Journal of Political Science65(2), 326-341 (Ungated); Tripp, Aili Mari. 2019. Seeking Legitimacy: Why Arab Autocracies Adopt Women’s Rights. Cambridge University Press (Podcast discusssion) 

[vii] Edgell, A. B. (2017). Foreign aid, democracy, and gender quota laws. Democratization24(6), 1103-1141. (Gated=

[viii] Donno, D., & Kreft, A. K. (2019). Authoritarian institutions and women’s rights. Comparative Political Studies52(5), 720-753. (Gated)

[ix] Tripp, 2019, p. 25

[x] Tripp, A. M. (2001). Women and democracy: The new political activism in Africa. Journal of democracy12(3), 141-155.

[xi] Ibid, p. 1.

[xii] Burnet, J. E. (2008). Gender balance and the meanings of women in governance in post-genocide Rwanda. African Affairs107(428), 361-386. (p. 375). (Gated)


Additional Open Access Resources

  1.  Women's Representation in Authoritarian Legislatures. 
  2. Women and Leadership in Authoritarian Contexts : Case of Iran
  3. Gender Politics, Authoritarian Regime Resilience and the Role of Civil Society in Algeria and Mozambique
  4. Women lead in Sudan's clamour for good governance
  5. Women at the forefront of Sudan's transformation