Global Authoritarianism, Women’s Rights and the Power of Feminist Organizing

The United States was officially designated a backsliding democracy in late 2021—a full six months before the fall of Roe v. Wade. At the time, journalists warned that such a descent is precisely when “curbs on women’s rights tend to accelerate.” But can a country that has never truly addressed women’s equality ever be a thriving democracy? And are democracies that have abysmal records on gender equity destined to falter? Explore “Women’s Rights and Backsliding Democracies“—a multimedia project comprised of essays, video and podcast programming, presented by Ms., NYU Law’s Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network and Rewire News Group.

Melissa Murray, Yifat Susskind, Christine Ryan, Alejandra Cárdenas, Negina Khalili, Meg Satterthwaite and Jennifer Weiss-Wolf at the “Women’s Rights and Backsliding Democracies” Symposium. (Brooke Slezak / NYU Law)

This is an excerpted transcript from a panel discussion that took place on April 14, 2023, in New York City at the NYU School of Law symposium, “Women’s Rights and Backsliding Democracies.” On that date, the state of play for abortion, in particular, was chaotic; multiple rulings were being issued in real-time on mifepristone. So, too, were state legislatures roiling with controversy, from Tennessee to Florida to Texas.

The panel was moderated by Meg Satterthwaite, NYU Law professor and faculty director of the Robert L. Bernstein Institute for Human Rights. She also currently serves as U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers. Panelists who participated in this discussion include:

  • Alejandra Cárdenas: senior director of legal strategies, innovation and research at the Center for Reproductive Rights
  • Negina Khalili: visiting professor, Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. She is the former chief prosecutor of elimination of violence and harassment against women in the attorney general’s office in the Republic of Afghanistan; and is a former professor of law at Rana University in Kabul, Afghanistan.
  • Christine Ryan: legal director of the Global Justice Center
  • Yifat Susskind: executive director of MADRE

The full discussion can be heard on our corresponding video link.

Meg Satterthwaite: For the purpose of this discussion, we’re using the terms ‘democratic backsliding’ and ‘autocratization,’ which invoke a continuum. It is important to think about that big picture, from democracy over to authoritarianism. 

Many organizations that rate and use indicators and quantitative data to determine the state of democracy have said that we’re in a global decline. By 2022, 58 percent of all countries had experienced a decline in checks on government power and two-thirds saw regression of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Change happens over time, though. It is not an on-off switch. So conversations like this are crucial. Democracy and autocracy emerge out of trends, and they can be identified, named and changed. What might begin with leaders who lack commitment to the democratic process, who disrespect fundamental minority rights, and who demonize their political opponents, may end with frank authoritarianism or fascism. 

With those terms, we made a political strategy, or a toolset, or a political regime that prefers ultra-nationalism over individual freedom, that constructs external and internal enemies that it demonizes, and that divides the polity in order to gain power and hold onto power. Other key elements include morally rationalized violence, the shunning of personal freedom and individual dignity, embracing structures of oppression, and glorifying heterosexual patriarchal families. This includes limiting the roles of women, especially limiting their public role and defining their private roles. 

Negina Khalili: My last job was addressing violence and harassment against women in the attorney general’s office of Afghanistan. We had women judges, women prosecutors, women leaders—even women professors, local leaders and members of Parliament. Of course, there were many problems, but after 1996, it was a huge improvement for women in Afghanistan. And then, in 2021, all of these achievements, all of these developments, went to zero. Women no longer have rights in Afghanistan; they’ve been erased from public life. I hope today I can bring their voice here. 

Alejandra Cárdenas: I am both a U.S. citizen and Colombian, raised by a feminist. Besides my activism, I started becoming involved in human rights litigation and social and economic rights litigation. 

Colombia went through an extraordinary process of envisioning democracy and was pushed to change its constitution that was created at the end of the 19th century into one that really incorporated human rights. It has been a model for many other nations. I am excited to share with you all today. 

Christine Ryan: What ostensibly might look like a functioning democracy often has elements that are autocratic, particularly for women. Ireland, where I am from, is a serious case study for that.

The abortion ban that existed in Ireland was inserted into the constitution by a 1983 fetal personhood law. So it was a relatively recent phenomenon. The drafters of the amendment were in very close contact with Americans United for Life; at the time, they felt that Roe could never be overturned, but if they could enshrine fetal personhood into law, it might be a harbinger of things to come. They succeeded in doing so in Ireland with relative ease.

What was interesting was that it was essentially a preemptive strike on liberalization in the country. It came on the heels of final recognition for the right to contraception in Ireland, though just for married couples. So, in response to the possibility of a changing society, right wing actors and those who were stalwarts of Catholic theology and nationalism created an abortion ban that was so severe it wasn’t replicated anywhere in the world for years. It was very clear that these restrictions on abortion were attempts to [entrench] certain forms of ‘gender ideology’ into the state.

That term has been weaponized by anti-rights actors to describe freedoms for women and LGBT people– but that’s essentially what they are. These are legislative tools to prescribe the role of women and to punish women who try to resist those roles; in the Irish case it was exile abroad for those who wanted to realize their freedom. 

Yifat Susskind: If you want a vibrant pro-democracy movement, then the people with the fewest democratic rights really need to be at the center, to be leading. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that lack of intersectionality and inclusivity watching the movement that has recently taken hold in Israel, where I am from, against backsliding democracy. Of course, in Israel, extreme nationalists are allied with a theocratic agenda that is working to roll back rights for women, for LGBT people, and for that reason Israeli feminists are very much at the forefront of the pro-democracy demonstrations we’re seeing. 

The work that I do at MADRE sees the centrality of intersectional feminism to every single social movement that we want to succeed: How do we organize so that we are creating something more transformative than an oppressive status quo? I think it requires a lot of discernment to be able to do something better than just turn the clock back. 

If you want a vibrant pro-democracy movement, then the people with the fewest democratic rights really need to be at the center.

Yifat Susskind

Meg Satterthwaite: We know that fascist governments, authoritarian governments hate women. They use that discourse. They put in place anti-women legislation. They take away the law licenses of women in one fell swoop as an example. But we also know that women’s rights are attacked in democracies as well. How does that impact and how can we use the intersectional lens to think about allies, to think about movement strategy?

Yifat Susskind: I’m thinking here of work we did with women in northern Iraq who were under ISIS control a few years ago. We were working with women’s organizations who were resisting really violent forms of policing of gender expression by ISIS which were almost universally condemned. It was hard to find a government that would stick up for ISIS—and yet when we would talk to women in the rest of Iraq, in the nominally democratic parts of that country, they would say, “Yeah, it’s great that everyone is criticizing ISIS. But what about what happens to women and LGBT people all the time in the rest of Iraq?” They were able to very saliently make these connections about the continuity between violations like sexual enslavement under ISIS and forced early marriage, which like in Afghanistan happens routinely in Iraq, and is not just tolerated but institutionalized in many ways by the government. 

Same with the killings of LGBT people or people perceived to be not gender-conforming by ISIS. Organizers were able to do this brilliant thing, which was to leverage that near universal condemnation of ISIS to say to their own government: “If you don’t like what ISIS is doing, then you should be pressuring the Iraqi government.” Those demands for women’s rights, in particular, were incorporated into the pro-democracy movement that culminated in 2019 in the ouster of the Iraqi prime minister. 

The Iraqi Parliament now has before it the first-ever draft law to criminalize domestic violence. These are some of the outcomes of that organizing and offer important lessons for us. It is really important to think about authoritarianism from the perspective of people who are most in the crosshairs of those violent movements, because that’s how we can best see the continuity that exists, that we’re talking about.

The thing the Iraqi women did—at great risk to themselves—was insist on rights for LGBT people. That community in Iraq is so under attack that you can’t even really speak of an Iraqi LGBT movement; we’re in a bit of a pre-movement moment for LGBT organizing. But the women’s movement there has done something instructive for all of us—which is to leverage this very small margin of safety that women have. Because while women are not allowed to have rights, they are at least allowed to exist, which is not true for LGBT people. 

So to extend support and protection to LGBT people has been really, really critical. What that does also is expand the tent that you’re working with and create more allies, even if those allies are so much at risk that they can’t be public about who they are.

Christine Ryan: Part of why I was asked to talk about the Irish abortion movement is because it is a success story. For decades, the feminist movement had no allies in Ireland—and, in part, that was because the state and the Catholic Church had been so successful in stigmatizing this issue and denying any space to talk about abortion as a right or as an issue of economic justice, social justice or gender justice.  

But what was really different about the last five years of the campaign was that feminists were able to get other movements on board—from the labor movement working very closely with migrant justice groups, to those who had campaigned for marriage equality in the country successfully in 2015. They transferred their lessons and their energy to abortion.

At the time, people didn’t think that that was going to be possible, but those who were at the center of the movement and those who were most impacted by the abortion ban knew that this was not an impossible task—and that it was necessary to draw upon the experiences of a wide range of people in society, whether that was people at the margins, or as sometimes happens in feminist campaigns for abortion, those who are more palatable to the public eye, who have equally experienced horrendous abuses of their human rights.

I think that was the strength of the movement overall. There will be fault lines at different points and there’ll be division in movements, but I think that the evidence is pretty clear: If you are fighting for a type of liberalization and real democracy, you have to prioritize those who have the least access and the ability to exercise their democratic rights in the first place. 

The Irish abortion movement is a success story. … Feminists were able to get other movements on board—from the labor movement working very closely with migrant justice groups, to those who had campaigned for marriage equality in the country successfully in 2015. They transferred their lessons and their energy to abortion.

Christine Ryan

Alejandra Cárdenas: Colombia also had a complete abortion ban, full criminalization. 2006 saw a step toward liberalization and then last year, activists reframed the whole system to become one of the most progressive laws in the entire world. Abortion is now not just legal in up to 24 weeks, and after that with some exceptions, but it is part of a state obligation to provide healthcare. It doesn’t matter who you are or the status of your healthcare insurance. You will get access. 

Argentina also went from having a law that was very restrictive, to allowing more access for women who were victims of rape in 2012, to starting one of the biggest social movements in Latin America in 2018, and to finally a law in 2021 that allows for abortion on request. Argentina was under a dictatorship for a long time. All these mothers and older ladies with white handkerchiefs came out day after day to protest the dictatorship and demand the bodies of their missing kids show up. Then in 2018, a teen was assassinated by her boyfriend when he found out she was pregnant. Very quickly, women from all backgrounds and ages took to the streets, connecting domestic violence, femicide and abortion. 

Chile, too, had laws that criminalized abortion with no exceptions. How did they go from that to a 2017 law that allows for some exceptions– and a couple of years later being in the process of rewriting their constitution to fully reimagine reproductive health? The activist awakening was similar, with huge student protests making demands for universities to de-patriarchalize the curricula and the professorial body.

This is all part of the Green Wave movement, which has become more emboldened and stronger and more intersectional and democratic in its approach. To me that says there just can’t be any type of revolution without feminism. 

Women from all backgrounds and ages took to the streets, connecting domestic violence, femicide and abortion. … There can’t be any type of revolution without feminism. 

Alejandra Cárdenas

Negina Khalili: Even before the collapse of Afghanistan, there was no woman as a deputy of government in the provinces, no women on the Supreme Court. There was huge advocacy and movement and we later convinced the government and especially the president to accept women’s leadership.  

Now of course we face elimination and banning of education, work, and freedom. But one thing that we see now, even with all of the challenges of a totalitarian government and of the Taliban dictatorship, is that the people on the frontlines of this fight are the women of Afghanistan. 

It is incredible that they are coming into the streets to fight for fundamental freedoms. I think this is a big lesson for all of us, even for those in the United States and others in the international community, to see these women now. This is the new civil society. 

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