“Women, Life, Liberty”: Women Against the Authoritarian Regime

There are many different criteria that can be used to assess the state of a political regime. One, if not the most important criterion is whether the regime respects and actively protects the fundamental human rights of its subjects. Women’s rights are human rights. Women, like men, have a human right to pursue happiness. Like men, they have the right to physical and mental self-determination, to decide for themselves who and what they want to become and what kind of life they want to lead. The right to self-determination includes the right to make life-defining decisions such as choosing a partner and whether or not to have children. And a woman also exercises her freedom of self-determination when she chooses what job she wants to do or decides what to do with her free time and how to dress when she goes out.

No country has a perfect human rights record. Autocratic systems systematically and blatantly violate human rights. They have a strikingly masculine and misogynist character: they tend to restrict women’s rights far and wide and impose binding regulations on women in society. Of all the autocratic regimes that trample on women’s rights, one of the most brutal ones is that of Iran. Its so-called “morality police” is responsible for the violent death of twenty-two-year-old Mahsa Amini (known as Jina in Kurdish). In September, the young woman, who was visiting relatives in Tehran from the Kurdish region, was taken into custody by police for improperly wearing a headscarf. According to witnesses, she was then assaulted in a manner that caused her death. This sparked a series of mass protests held under the slogan “Women, Life, Liberty” in well over a hundred municipalities in Iran. The events, inspired by women and led primarily by women, quickly turned into a general wave of protests against social oppression (acute wealth inequality, unequal access to health care, unjust restrictions on freedom, etc.).

Unlike the Iranian government, Putin’s Russian regime did not, in the past, use daily repression. But the introduction of “partial mobilisation” has prompted more than half a million conscripted men to leave the country. Putin’s order has also mobilised women as wives, girlfriends, sisters and mothers who have protested on the streets of Moscow, Novosibirsk and many other cities against the war, the draft and other restrictions on freedom. Protesters exercising their freedom of speech and assembly have been treated by the Russian autocracy in the same way as protesters in Iran: they face arrest, police abuse, coercion, unfair trial, imprisonment, and other reprisals, coupled with escalating censorship and loud propaganda.

There has been a history of failed Russian military aggression, against which women have vigorously protested. In the 1990s, human rights activist Maria Kirbasova was decisive in ending the first Chechen war by founding the Committee of Military Women of Russia. Members and supporters of the commission, which opposed the war from the outset, held vigils in Red Square for the Chechen people who had fallen and spent weeks in the Chechen military zone bargaining with Russian military leaders to save thousands of conscripted soldiers from death. It is worth recalling the march from Moscow to Grozny, where soldiers’ wives, holding in their hands banners reading “The Chechen war is a disgrace” and similar slogans, demanded an end to the war. Earlier still, Soviet military propaganda and morale in Afghanistan was adversely affected by the fact that women had drawn public attention to the habit of bullying (dedovchina) new recruits into the Russian army.

Likewise, in the face of restrictions on the right to abortion by the authoritarian Polish and Hungarian regimes, mass protests have ensued. In Poland, the state intervened openly and radically by introducing a near-total abortion ban. Massive demonstrations were held in several Polish cities after a young woman, Agnieszka T, died of sepsis during her twin pregnancy. One of the foetuses had died in her womb and the doctors refused to intervene because, at that time, the other foetus was still alive.

In Hungary, the government has intervened stealthily, in small steps. The latest step was a decree of the Minister of the Interior requiring the abortion-seeking pregnant woman to listen to the “heartbeat” of the foetus, that is, the 5-9-week-old embryo. The decree sparked a public protest. Thousands of women marched on Kossuth Square and in front of the Ministry of the Interior to protest against the new regulation. The protesters did not just include those who could be personally affected by the new rule; those who took to the streets were stating that it is unacceptable that the government regards women merely as a means to stop the demographic decline and not as autonomous persons. They protested because the government is blatantly interfering in the most private sphere of women by further tightening already strict regulations on abortion and practices that often humiliate women and even impose impossible conditions.

Of course, the Polish and Hungarian systems are far from the violent Iranian and Russian autocratic regimes. However, what these regimes all share is the nationalism that defines their identity, the political practice of distorting and using a religion as “state religion” to privilege some and exclude others, the suppression of political opposition, the silencing of dissent, the denial of women’s equality and the equality of people with various other gender identities. These autocratic regimes blame “Western-funded agents and terrorists” for the minefield of discontent while constantly restricting legal forms of advocacy and protest, which in turn increases regime opponents’ feelings of oppression.

Often, liberty is depicted using images of fire and flames. One can never know in advance what spark will ignite the fires of dissent. In Iran, the retaliation for one woman not covering her forehead and hair sufficiently with a headscarf has triggered a process in which at one point, masses of people have gone on strike and refused to pay taxes. Schoolgirls have rioted and torn out photos of the dictator from their textbooks in protest. It seems that the “partial mobilisation” is also taking place differently from Putin’s vision: it has mobilised hundreds of thousands of women against forced conscription.

The latest Hungarian women’s protest may remain a moral stand with no particular consequences. However, it cannot be ruled out that it is an important part of unfolding, broader anti-regime protests. Note that the currently ongoing Hungarian demonstrations in the public education sector and the previous health care protests also have a gender aspect, as these are sectors where women work predominantly, where they work for lower wages, and they work in precarious jobs.

History teaches us that the struggle for women’s rights is also a struggle for equality and equal freedom for members of the political community everywhere. The question is, where is the limit of tolerance in a political community where the government wants to control even the most personal decisions on a daily basis, where there is no real political representation, and where the main public institutions are acting contrary to their mission, which is to respect and protect the fundamental human rights of all.


An earlier version of this text appeared in Hungarian on szuveren.hu.

The Public Uses of Coercion and Force from Constitutionalism to War

War is barbaric and wrongful—at least for Kantians. For Kantians, there are no just causes for war as such. War is permissible only when it is the only way to secure peace, in self-defense. A Kantian theory of war is thus particularly interesting as it fleshes out the constitutive tensions of the use of violence. It may be seen as an alternative normative theory of war, similar but not identical to the just war theory tradition. This is interesting as in the last decades, the main dividing line among normative theorists of war has been between two wings of just war theory: Continue reading

Free and Fair Elections: The European Minimum Standards

In 2021, Germany faces important general elections both at the state and the federal level. Holding elections in the middle of a pandemic is challenging. Organizing free and fair elections is even more so. But when is the election free and fair? This piece presents the answers given by the European Convention on Human Rights (Convention) and its authoritative interpreter, the European Court of Human Rights (Court). It devotes special attention to Article 3 Protocol 1 of the Convention, which stipulates that ‘The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.’

Continue reading

Wait a Minute – Is China Really the Winner?

A response to Jürgen Gerhards and Michael Zürn

The systemic competition between China and liberal democracies has reached a new level. In addition to economic growth and development, managing the COVID-19 crisis has become a new benchmark for comparing the performance of alternative scripts. Jürgen Gerhards and Michael Zürn have called out China as the winner in containing the pandemic and mastering its economic and social consequences. They do not attribute China’s success to its autocratic system and to state capitalism. Pointing to the exceptional performance of Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, Gerhards and Zürn argue that it is the shared approach of “testing, tracking, and isolating,” which explains the East Asian success.

Continue reading

And the winner is… China

Does the management of the coronavirus crisis show the superiority of a technocratic autocracy?

For a long time, social scientists have assumed that the liberal model of society consisting of individual self-determination, democracy, capitalist market economy, and welfare state was the ideal way to social development and modernization. This belief was not only based on the claim of normativ superiority, but also on the claim of superior performance. The last decades however, liberal democracies proved to be far more unstable and at risk, as autocratic developments in the United States, Poland or Hungary have shown. And existing autocracies, such as the communist China, turned out to be enormously successful. Continue reading

An Irish Claim to Rockall

Due to Brexit, dispute has again arisen between the UK and Ireland over Rockall, a small rock in the North-East Atlantic Ocean, and its surrounding waters. On January 4th a Marine Scotland patrol boat stopped and boarded an Irish fishing trawler, forcing it to leave waters within 12 nautical miles of the rock. Scotland asserted the UK claim to Rockall in anticipation of Brexit and sent patrol boats to the area immediately upon formally exiting the EU legal order on January 1st. In response the Irish Ministers for Foreign Affairs and for Agriculture, Food and the Marine issued a joint statement saying they were engaging with Scottish authorities but that “there remains an increased risk of enforcement action being taken by Scottish fisheries control authorities against Irish vessels operating in the waters around Rockall at present.” Continue reading

Lockdown Fatigue: Pandemic from the Perspective of Nudge Theory

Some governments have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by developing policies based on ideas from behavioural psychology, especially ‘nudge theory’. But the pandemic has highlighted two important failings of ‘nudging’ – its libertarian opposition to state intervention; and its lack of any theory of psychological interiority.

First popularised by Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein and University of Chicago behavioural economist Richard Thaler, nudge theory has been credited for many policies that are common-sensical – positioning hand sanitisers in prominent locations in receptions of buildings accompanied by colourful signage will increase usage; citizens should be advised to sing happy birthday while washing their hands as this will ensure their handwashing lasts for the recommended duration; tissues might be placed within easy reach of office workers to discourage unprotected face touching; etc. Continue reading