Tunisia has its first-ever female prime minister. That’s not as good for democracy as it sounds

Tunisian Prime Minister Najla Bouden Romdhan takes the oath during the country's new government swearing-in ceremony on Oct. 11, 2021, in Tunis. (Tunisian Presidency/Via Reuters)
Tunisian Prime Minister Najla Bouden Romdhan takes the oath during the country's new government swearing-in ceremony on Oct. 11, 2021, in Tunis. (Tunisian Presidency/Via Reuters)

On Sept. 29, Tunisian President Kais Saied named Najla Bouden Romdhan the country’s new prime minister, making her the first woman to serve in that role in Tunisia — and in the entire Arab world.

Romdhan’s appointment came after Saied launched a political crisis in late July when he dismissed the prime minister and shut down the parliament, followed by his Sept. 22 issuance of Decree 117, in which he gave himself extraordinary powers and suspended most checks on his authority.

Arab autocrats have long used support for women’s rights to deflect criticism of authoritarian rule. Yet, since the Arab Spring launched there a decade ago, Tunisia had made a successful transition to democracy. Our research finds that “pinkwashing” works not only for autocrats trying to stay in power but also for politicians trying to undermine democratic institutions.

A history of pinkwashing

Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, ruled the country for three decades — and made women’s rights a cornerstone of his modernizing agenda, adopting some of the most progressive legislation in the Arab world. In a recent book, political scientist Aili Mari Tripp shows how other rulers in North Africa have similarly sought international and domestic legitimacy by supporting some pro-women measures.

Egyptian first ladies Jehan Sadat and Suzanne Mubarak, during the 1970s and the 1980s to the 2000s respectively, fashioned themselves as advocates of women’s rights — even as their husbands trampled on the civil and political rights of all Egyptian citizens, men and women. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was credited for his country’s legalization of women driving in 2018 — the same year in which the CIA alleged that he ordered the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Appearing to be pro-women has been one way to make authoritarianism more palatable to Western allies, pacify liberal voices domestically and vilify Islamist opposition. Political liberalization and democratization, these autocrats signaled, could bring to power Islamists who would strip women of their rights, cover them up and banish them from public life. Their brand of authoritarianism, they implied, protected women’s advancement.

How does pinkwashing work in democracies?

In democracies, women can also appear as the friendly face of anti-democratic policies, a purpose Romdhan may now serve. In our ongoing research that includes large-scale surveys in Germany, Israel and the United States, we found that respondents perceived democracy-eroding policies, including policies aimed at weakening checks and balances on the executive branch, as particularly “masculine.” People seem to apply gender stereotypes not only to individuals, but also to political parties and even to political agendas.

In several survey experiments, we wanted to see whether perceptions of the same policies would change if presented by a woman politician rather than a man. We wanted to see whether the proto-authoritarian parties around the world whose policies were eroding democratic institutions might be placing women center stage to soften their image and make their policies more palatable to the public. In brief, the answer is yes.

Testing the theory

In our first published paper about this research (more are forthcoming), we focused on our survey experiment in Israel that included a nationally representative sample of about 500 Israeli Jews. Respondents were randomly assigned to read a Facebook post by either a female or male politician proposing an anti-democratic policy — legislation that sought to curb the Israeli Supreme Court’s ability to check executive power. The language of the text in each case was identical except for the pronoun of the politician.

And indeed, respondents, particularly women and regardless of political orientation, who read that a woman proposed the bill were more likely to support the policy than those who read that it was made by a man.

Why? We asked respondents to rate the politician proposing the policy on several items pertaining to gender stereotypes. On average, respondents who read about a female politician promoting the legislation rated her as “warmer” than their counterparts rated the man advocating the same agenda. In other words, they applied a feminine gender stereotype to the female politician.

But remember that anti-democratic policies are perceived as overly masculine. Keeping that in mind, we can understand how a politician’s perceived femininity might moderate people’s perception of a democracy-eroding message, making it more palatable to a wider audience who may otherwise be put off by a too-masculine agenda. We are still analyzing larger versions of this survey experiment, conducted in Israel, Germany and the United States. But initial results point to a similar pattern. Participants, particularly liberals and regardless of gender, were more likely to accept anti-democratic policies when presented by a female (rather than a male) politician, because they saw the female politician as more “liberal” — another gender stereotype about women in politics.

The implications

These studies suggest that pinkwashing democratic backsliding is probably an effective tool that bestows some legitimacy on democracy-eroding policies, even in different kinds of democracies. Feminine stereotypes about female politicians help blunt the off-putting masculine image of anti-democratic policies.

While Israel, Germany, the United States and Tunisia are vastly different settings, looking at them together offers a warning. Tunisia’s president has not simply adopted a long-standing legitimating tactic of Tunisian and Arab autocrats; he also seems to have picked up a technique from the democratic backslider’s handbook. Appointing a woman as prime minister will not ensure women’s political representation or Tunisian democracy. On the contrary, it could help legitimize the erosion of democracy.

Lihi Ben Shitrit is associate professor of international affairs in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia.
Sivan Hirsch-Hoefler is associate professor of political science in the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy, Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya, Israel.
Julia Elad-Strenger is assistant professor of political psychology at Bar Ilan University, Israel.


This project received support from the Program on Democratic Resilience and Development, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung and the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya (IDC).

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