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Global landscape of women’s empowerment: A case of bolstered parochial bargains

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By Mahalakshmi Pavani

Gender equality is a basic human right, and it is also fundamental to having a peaceful, prosperous world. The last century witnessed movements and overall activism for realisation of such basic human rights, from the right to vote; access to reproductive healthcare, education and exploration of economic opportunities. Though, women’s economic empowerment rises on the global fora, the skeletal support to this development imperative is shifting. New and innovative initiatives that offer the potential to grow economies unlock barriers to women’s economic potential.

Senior Advocate Mahalakshmi Pavani

Most economies have acknowledged how women need safe, fulfilled and productive lives, to reach their full potential, contributing their skills to the workforce and can raise happier and healthier children. They are equally competent to fuel sustainable economies and benefit societies and society at large. Economic empowerment of women is central in aiding women towards self-realisation in social, political and cultural spheres. It bolsters women’s autonomy and self-belief, while granting agency and the power to enact that agency.

Access to finance, access to markets, access to technology and information, et al, are problems faced by women because of the legal and regulatory environments in which they operate. The force of resistance too is stronger than ever. Perhaps, the quest for gender equality in domestic and international domains to an extent sent waves of democratisation of women’s rights, paving a limited way for them to enjoy perhaps a fraction of what remained from parochial bargains. Nevertheless, authoritarian leaders have launched multiple assaults on women’s rights and democracy in toto, the rise of fundamentalist tendencies have proved to be an insidious blow to decades of progress. Parochial backlash has consumed an entire spectrum of authoritarian regimes, from totalitarian dictatorships, to party-led autocracies to illiberal democracies headed by strongmen. 

For instance, Russian President Vladimir Putin rolled back reproductive rights whilst promoting traditional gender roles at the cost of limiting women’s participation in public life. Under North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, women were spurred to seek refuge abroad at roughly three times than men, whereas in Egypt, President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s introduction of a bill pertaining to reassertion of paternity rights of men, practice of polygamy and right to influence the spousal choices of women relatives has turned the clock back. Women still cannot marry nor avail healthcare without a man’s approval. A pivotal incident in global history is the Taliban’s reign over Afghanistan which has erased 20 years of progress in women’s education, their representation in public workforces, leaving the human rights of women in an overall disconcerting situation. 

The wave of parochial authoritarianism, needless to say, is pushing well-established democracies towards an illiberal direction, manifesting authoritarian-leaning leaders towards railing the socio-cultural landscape in the said direction. Countries like Brazil, Hungary and Poland have seen the rise in right-leaning movements that bolster traditional general roles whilst promoting gender ideologies that rollback years of activism that suffragists and their allies spent in achieving. 

The United States experienced a perceivable slump in progress towards gender equality and neutrality in terms of reproductive rights which had improved from the 1970s onwards. Donald Trump, during the course of his presidency, was observably working with anti-feminist promoters, including Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, towards halting the expansion of women’s rights around the globe. Regardless of the Biden administration’s fidelity towards gender equality, however, Republican-ruled states seem more inclined towards reversal of the constitutional right to abortion, a more vulnerable and volatile topic than what it has been over the course of the passing years. 

Fundamentalism and reversal in women’s socio-economic recognition  

The rather troubled relationship between sexism and democratic backsliding becomes imperative from a feminist focal point. Well-established autocrats and fundamentalist leaders in contested democracies stand unified in their employment of hierarchical gender norms to shore up nationalist, top-down, male-dominated rule. 

Having long fought against social hierarchies that consolidate power in the hands of a few, feminist movements are a formidable weapon against authoritarianism. While women are pigeon-holed into traditionally feminized roles, patriarchal authoritarian leaders trumpet their power with gratuitous displays of masculinity. Putin posing topless is the viral version of this public peacocking, but casual misogyny, carefully staged photo-ops, and boastful, hyper-masculine rhetoric also fits the bill. Think of Trump’s oversize red tie, aggressive handshake, and claims that his nuclear button was bigger than Kim’s—or Bolsonaro’s call for Brazilians to face Covid-19 “like a man.” This kind of talk may seem ridiculous, but it is part of a more insidious rhetorical repertoire that feminizes opponents, then projects hyper-masculinity by criticizing women’s appearance, joking about rape, threatening sexual violence, and seeking to control women’s bodies, all in order to silence critics of patriarchal authoritarianism.

Implementation of gender equality has always been a course of hesitation, an insidious growth of sorts with ornamental changes with only piecemeal representation in national parliaments. The assault on women’s rights in this regard coincides with the broader assault on democracy. Keeping aside the North-South dichotomy in terms of representation of women, countries such as Brazil, Hungary, India, Poland and Turkey have cascaded into burgeoning autocratic political ideations; whereas Russia has completely assumed an autocratic system. 

Rhetoric of violent paternalistic misogyny

Past demands for women’s emancipation along with political and economic inclusion have catalyzed democratic transitions, especially when women were at the frontline of mass movements. Democratic movements in Eastern Europe, Latin America, all throughout Southeast Asia throughout the 1980s-1990s were driven by mass movements in which women played key roles. All major resistance movements in the postwar period featured women, such as providing food, shelter, intelligence, funds, or other supplies. 

However, in the first half of the twentieth century, women were seen playing more active roles in anti-colonial liberation struggles across Africa and in leftist revolutions in Europe and Latin America. Pro-democracy movements in Myanmar and the Philippines saw nuns positioning themselves between the security forces and civilian activists. 

On the other hand, amidst the first intifada, Palestinian women proved pivotal in the non-violent resistance against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, where they organized strikes, protests, and dialogues alongside other Israeli women. In the United States, the Black Lives Matter movement saw Black women lead the resistance into a global phenomenon. They echoed the activism of Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, who mobilised, and coordinated key aspects of the US civil rights movement. 

On the other hand, efforts to bring peaceful democratic transitions through non-violent resistance, and negotiation witnessed Bouchamaoui and Tawakkol Karman in the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Yemen, respectively. In fact most repressive dictatorships witnessed women ranging from tea-sellers, singers in Sudan to grandmothers in Algeria to women in Chile demanding the return of their disappeared loved ones outside Augusto Pinochet’s presidential palace.

However, the response of authoritarian leaders to threats of women’s political mobilization has been to reverse progress on gender equality and women’s rights. Their motivation is not all strategic rather their worldview is self-serving.

In comparatively lesser autocratic settings, overtly sexist policies could not simply be decreed, authoritarian-leaning leaders and their political parties use sexist rhetoric to whip up popular support for their regressive agendas, often cloaking them as populism. Not only do they promote misogynistic narratives of traditionalist “patriotic femininity” but also encourage the subjugation of women, demanding that men and women conform to traditional gender roles out of some conceited patriotic duty. They also distort concepts of equity and empowerment to tend to their own ends. Though such efforts reassert a gender hierarchy, where right-wing settings and cultures share a common tactic, by making the subjugation of women seem desirable, even aspirational, not only for men but also for conservative women. 

Female bodies are targets of social control for male lawmakers, who invoke ideal feminine purity and welcome mothers, daughters, and wives to reproduce an idealised account of the nation. Autocratic and illiberal leaders make gender hierarchy palatable to women by politicizing the “traditional family,” which becomes symbolic for reducing women’s value and worth to childbearing, parenting, and homemaking in a nuclear household and rolling back their claims to public power. Across authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes, sexual and gender minorities are targeted for abuse. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people are undermined by the binaries as celebrated by most authoritarians. As a result, they are marginalised and stigmatised through homophobic policies: for instance Poland’s “LGBT-free zones,” or Russia’s ban on “LGBTQ propaganda” and same-sex marriage. Beijing banned men from appearing “effeminate” on television and social media in attempts to enforce China’s “revolutionary culture.”

It is not a coincidence that women’s equality is rolled back at the cost of an uprising of authoritarianism. Aspiring autocrats and patriarchal authoritarians have cogent reason to fear women’s political participation. Women-driven mass movements succeed leading to an egalitarian democracy. Fully free, politically active women actively challenge authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning leaders thus leaving room for leaders who have a strategic reason to be bigoted. 

Why fully free, politically active women are a threat to authoritatian leaders

Generally, movements seeking to topple autocratic regimes or win national independence are more likely to prevail when they mobilise large numbers of people; shift the loyalties of at least some of the regime’s pillars of support; use creative tactics, such as rolling strikes, in addition to street protests; and maintain discipline and resilience in the face of state repression and counter-mobilization by the regime’s supporters. Large-scale participation by women helps movements achieve all these things. Consequently, movements that sideline women reduce their potential pool of participants by at least half. Resistance movements must achieve broad-based support to be perceived as legitimate. Larger the mobilization, the more likely the movement is to disrupt the status quo. General strikes and other mass actions can bring a city, state, or country to a standstill, imposing immediate economic and political costs on a regime. Mass mobilization generates a sense of inevitability that persuades holdouts and fence sitters to join the resistance. 

Significant participation by women and other diverse actors also increases the social, moral, and financial capital that a movement can use to erode its opponent’s support system. When security forces, business elites, civil servants, state media, organized labour, foreign donors, or other supporters or enablers of a regime begin to question the status quo, they signal to others that it may be possible to defy that regime. For example, during the People Power Revolution in the Philippines in 1986, the then President ordered the security forces to attack large crowds of demonstrators who were demanding his ouster. But nuns participating in the protests put themselves between the tanks and other demonstrators. The security forces could not bring themselves to follow through with the assault, averting a massacre that could have altered the course of the revolution. High-level defections followed, and Marcos eventually fled the country, leading to a democratic transition. 

With women’s participation mass movements become more effective by expanding the range of tactics and modes of protest available to them. Everywhere it has been studied, diversity has been found to improve teamwork, innovation, and performance, and mass movements are no exception. In particular, diversity enhances creativity and collaboration, both of which help movements tap into broader information networks and maintain momentum in the face of state crackdowns. Women’s participation also makes possible culturally gendered tactics, such as marching in full beauty queen regalia, as women did in Myanmar’s pro-democracy protests in 2021; cooking food at the frontline of demonstrations, as women did during an uprising of farmers in 2020 and 2021 in India; or protesting naked, as women in Kenya, Nigeria, and many other countries have done in order to stigmatise or disarm their opponents. Some protest movements have relied on social shaming. For example, during anti-government protests in Algeria in 2019, grandmothers told riot police to go home, threatening to report the officers’ bad behaviour to their mothers. In Sudan that same year, a women’s Facebook group named and shamed plainclothes policemen: its members outed their own brothers, cousins, and sons as members of the shadowy militias that were trying to terrorize the opposition into submission. 

Women have also developed other forms of gendered noncooperation that can benefit mass movements. Perhaps, the origin of the term “boycott” could be a topic to consider. In the late nineteenth century, women cooks, maids, and laundresses in County Mayo, Ireland, refused to provide services and labour to an absentee British landlord named Captain Charles Boycott. They encouraged others to join them, making it impossible for Boycott to remain in Ireland and inspiring a new name for their tactic. Women have pioneered other forms of social noncooperation, as well. Although the antiwar sex strike in Lysistrata was fictional, it is likely that Aristophanes had some historical precedent in mind when he wrote the comedy. Women activists have organized sex strikes over the millennia: Iroquois women used this method, among others, to secure a veto over war-making decisions in the seventeenth century; Liberian women used it to demand an end to civil war in the early years of this century; Colombian women used it to urge an end to gang violence; and on and on. 

Power in numbers, the persuasion of opponents, and tactical innovation all help facilitate a fourth key factor in the success of nonviolent people power movements: discipline. When movements maintain nonviolent resistance in the face of violence or other provocations by security forces, they are more likely to mobilise additional support and, ultimately, succeed. And movements with women on the frontline, it turns out, are less likely to fully embrace violence or develop violent flanks in response to regime crackdowns. At least in part, that is likely because having large numbers of women on the frontline moderates the behaviour of other protesters, as well as the police. Gendered taboos against public violence against women and against violent confrontations in the presence of women and girls may explain part of this phenomenon. So might the higher political costs of violently repressing women who are participating in sit-ins and strikes.

As an engine of genuine democratic progress, activism by women and gender minorities threatens authoritarian leaders. Although many autocrats, and aspiring autocrats, no doubt believe the sexist and misogynistic things they say, their campaigns to restrict women’s empowerment and human rights also seek to undermine potential popular democratic movements that would oust them. 

Why authoritatian regimes are a massive red flag for democracy

As tolerance for misogyny in general increases, other shifts in the political and legal landscape occur: protections for survivors of rape and domestic violence are rolled back, sentences for such crimes are loosened, evidentiary requirements for charging perpetrators are made more stringent, and women are left with fewer tools with which to defend their bodily and political autonomy. For instance, in 2017, Putin signed a law that decriminalized some forms of domestic abuse, despite concerns that Russia has long faced an epidemic of domestic violence. On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump famously minimized a video that surfaced of him bragging about sexual assault, dismissing it as “locker room talk,” despite the fact that numerous women had accused him of sexual assault and misconduct. Once Trump became president, his administration directed the Department of Education to reform Title IX regulations to give more rights to those accused of sexual assault on college campuses.

Finally, many autocrats and would-be autocrats promote a narrative of masculine victimhood designed to gin up popular concern about how men and boys are faring. Invariably, men are portrayed as “losing out” to women and other groups championed by progressives, despite their continued advantages in a male-dominated gender hierarchy. In 2019, for instance, Russia’s Ministry of Justice claimed that reports of domestic violence were overstated in the country and that Russian men faced greater “discrimination” than women in abuse claims.

In a similar vein, aspiring autocrats often maintain that masculinity is under threat. Among Trump supporters in the United States, such claims have become commonplace. For instance, Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, recently blamed leftist movements for redefining traditional masculinity as toxic and called for reviving “a strong and healthy manhood in America.”

The way forward

Organizers and supporters of mass movements for democratic change need a gender-inclusive agenda to attract women to the frontline and to leadership roles. Supporters of democracy at home and abroad should focus on assisting, amplifying, and protecting civil society groups and movements that are pushing for gender equity and work to make sure they are included in any negotiations or transitions that follow mass uprisings or democratic movements. Pro-democracy groups and organizations must understand that truly inclusive movements—those that transcend class, race, gender, and sexual identity—are the most likely to achieve lasting change.

Those who wish to combat the rising tide of authoritarianism will need to make promoting women’s political participation central to their work. Domestically, democratic governments and their supporters should model and protect the equal inclusion of women, especially from diverse backgrounds, in all places where decisions are being made—from community groups to corporate boards to local, state, and national governments. Democratic governments should also prioritize issues that directly affect women’s ability to play an equal role in public life, such as reproductive autonomy, domestic violence, economic opportunity, and access to health care and childcare. 

If history is any guide, authoritarian strategies will fail in the long run. Feminists have always found ways to demand and expand women’s rights and freedoms, powering democratic advancement in the process. But unchecked, patriarchal authoritarians can do great damage in the short run, erasing hard-won gains that have taken generations to achieve.

Mahalakshmi Pavani is Senior Advocate, Supreme Court. She is President, SCWLA and Senior Executive Member, SCBA

(Views expressed are personal)

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