Reflections on the PhD Conference on Gendered Autocratization

This past March, LawTransform hosted a two day conference for the UiB PhD course on Gendered Autocratization. This student lead course allowed PhD candidates an opportunity to meet with other experts in their fields and present and discuss their work, and broaden their network. It proved to be a very engaging two days, filled with interesting discussions and debate.

Our keynote speaker Satang Nabaneh delivered a fantastic presentation on the Gender Politics of Autocratization in Africa which is available to watch now on our YouTube here:

Satang’s keynote speech also formed part of LawTransform’s RDV seminar series with the Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism.

The programme from the conference is also available here.

Below you can read the reflection notes written by Ianira Vieira, one of the course participants. Ianira is a Master’s student at Politics and Governance of Global Challenges (UiB) and part of LawTransform’s student group.

Gendered Face of Autocratisation: Insights from the Gendered Autocratisation PhD Course

by Ianira Vieira (2024)

In national and international spheres, gender has emerged as a versatile instrument in the playbook of populist politicians and autocratic leaders. The recent international two-day conference-format PhD course titled “Gendered Autocratization” placed these issues at the centre of the debate, providing an in-depth insight into the instrumentalisation of gender in political processes. Organised by LawTransform on the 21st and 22nd of March, the PhD course, attended by PhD and Masters students from the elective course GOV360-3 Global: Gendered Autocratisation as a Global Challenge, consisted of student presentations, roundtable discussions and keynote presentations.

A notable development is the increasing cross-border collaboration between groups that oppose gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights, often referred to as “anti-gender” movements. Ultimately, these groups are becoming established politically and influencing policies and discourses at national and global levels, with autocratic regimes and democracies ruled by populist leaders pursuing a systematic push against women’s and LGBT rights, particularly in the form of restrictions on reproductive rights and access to healthcare.

Simultaneously, certain authoritarian leaders display support for gender parity, particularly in the Parliament, a phenomenon referred to as “pinkwashing”. In the keynote presentation “Gendered Autocratisation: A Possible Research Agenda” this concept was explored as a vehicle for regime legitimacy. In addition, the repercussions of opposition to gender equality, or “gendered autocratization”, on gender studies programmes in universities were emphasised.

Satang Nabaneh’s keynote address, ‘Gendered Power Dynamics in the Context of Autocratisation in Africa’, presented a comprehensive overview of the African continent, demonstrating that despite the increasing presence of women in politics in various African countries, this advance frequently conceals a more profound autocratic control, in which women’s participation is used as a facade rather than an actual democratic development.

Through several case studies from countries such as South Africa, The Gambia, Rwanda, Uganda and Ghana, the presentation provided valuable insights into the resistance to reproductive health rights, articulated through cultural and religious rhetoric.  In the African context, under autocratic regimes, LGBTQ+ rights and reproductive autonomy are commonly associated and politicised as part of a broader resistance to Western influence, appealing to traditional cultural values under the pretext of preserving African identity. Additionally, it was noted that transnational advocacy campaigns on these issues have attracted attention in the region, evident in the cases of contestations that comprehensive sex education has ulterior motives disguised in the form of HIV prevention and teenage pregnancy prevention programmes, and the organisation of the World Congress of Families in Ghana.
Based on his expertise, Neil Datta expanded the discussion on “Gendered Autocratisation: Global Trends and International Actors,” situating the phenomena in a broader global context by describing the influence of international organisations and transnational networks in supporting gender-repressive autocratic regimes. The presentation explored the increasing contestation of gender rights in politics, particularly with the rise of nationalist and populist movements in Europe. It analysed various examples of transnational anti-feminist and anti-gender networks cooperating to subvert women’s and LGBT rights around the world, which in turn demanded an analysis of the financial structures behind these anti-gender movements by naming the companies and associations that are funding them.

To conclude, various points of view were exchanged during the PhD course, such as cases of gender backlash and political representation in democracy, in order to address global trends and political shifts from Latin America to Africa and Europe and to point to possible research agendas and strategies to counter this trend.