Why Dictators are Afraid of Girls: Rethinking Gender and National Security


In 1987, Argentinian mothers gathered to protest the disappearance of their sons and husbands at the hands of the authoritarian military junta. The movement served as a catalyst for a successful pro-democracy movement in Argentina that ended the Videla regime. Similarly, through public demonstrations of maternal grief, the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, which began in 1989, during the Soviet-Afghan War, raised public awareness of the corruption and human rights violations occurring in the Soviet Military. Arguably, this movement exacerbated concerns about the Soviet system, which in turn contributed to its collapse. 

Now, a powerful protest movement is gaining momentum in Iran that was sparked and carried forward by women and girls. Russia is using notions of hyper-masculinity as a key vehicle for both maintaining regime control domestically while promulgating disinformation across Western publics. As Xi consolidates his power in Beijing, the Chinese Communist Party is fomenting concerns that boys are being “feminized,” a move that appears to contradict decades of Chinese policy promoting gender equality.

The common thread between all these examples: gender. Gender plays a powerful role in the construction and promulgation of power and identity that is particularly meaningful in authoritarian regimes. As history shows, when those gender-based power structures are challenged by everyday citizens, profound societal change becomes possible. Gender therefore appears to be a key, if underappreciated, fault line in the authoritarian societies with which the United States and its allies are strategically competing. While considerable scholarship is dedicated to understanding the role of gender in social relations and social sciences, what has not been sufficiently developed is an application of gender as an analytic tool to better understand hard national security problems, such as strategic competition, gray zone operations, and how best to challenge the rising tide of authoritarian states in the international system. If that isn’t enough, there is another important reason for the national security community to start paying more attention to gender: adversaries like Russia are weaponizing gender in order to justify invading Ukraine.  



Gender is a way to express and promulgate core notions of identity and power at individual and structural levels. Although women often play important roles in challenging authoritarian power structures, as recent events in Iran demonstrate, they do so in opposition to the traditionally conservative gender roles prescribed for all citizens by many of today’s authoritarian regimes.  While women are often drivers for thinking about gendered aspects of security questions – if not catalysts for social change – analytically focusing on one gender misses the bigger societal and structural pictures of which gender is a key part. “Gender” as a conceptual lens is therefore not limited to women and women’s representation. Rather, it also allows us to explore – among other things – how men perceive their roles and identities, how those identities and roles are expressed at individual and structural levels, and how those ideas shape strategic cultures and national policy decisions. Further, because it is so core to human existence, gender creates pathways for understanding and exploring intersections with other identities – ethnicity, religion and so on. In other words, gender affords us a mechanism to better appreciate the human dimensions of war and statecraft – if we allow it to do so. 

In fact, this opening of the aperture on what “gender” encompasses is exactly what academic scholarship has been advocating for decades since scholars like Cynthia Enloe and J. Ann Tickner started to question how failures to discuss patriarchy and gender skewed the entire study of global politics. There remains a vibrant academic community in international relations built around constructivism and post-structuralism that sees gender as one of many identities people use to make sense of the world and advance their interests. Today, feminist literature is integral to international relations, adapting how scholars look at everything from war initiation and misperception to terrorist recruitment, counterinsurgency and drone warfare. The latest literature has moved beyond second and third wave feminism to explore discourse, Judith Butler’s ideas about performative identity, and even Donna Haraway’s Cyborg manifesto. Haraway’s work in particular is especially important to understanding current national security challenges in which gender is performed through online personas and troll circulated simulacra-like memes. As more of our lives are lived online, the roles we assume in social media become part of national security and a target for propaganda. Unfortunately, these and other scholarly insights have only partially been translated into policy or policy frameworks that would afford strategists a more nuanced understanding of hard national security problems such as strategic competition.

The lack of a practical national security-oriented framework for assessing and exploiting gender-based societal fault lines is particularly acute when considering the need to develop and apply tailored integrated deterrence strategies in the context of political and gray zone warfare. What might be achieved if the United States explored the intersection of gender and power structures within authoritarian regimes and incorporate those insights into, for example, its theater and campaign planning – or even the latest National Defense Strategy which is silent on gender?  Instead, it argues that the United States ought to compete with adversaries using traditional realpolitik notions of power – and misses way identity plays a role in framing authoritarian politics. 

Brass Tacks

All this discussion of theory leads the practical policymaker to a fundamental question: how is gender – broadly conceived – playing out in the strategic competitive space? Moreover, why does all this stuff matter? In the first instance, autocrats around the world are rushing to embrace patriarchal totalitarianism and wage a whole new form of information warfare. It is no longer enough to control speech or assembly. Dictators manipulate identify and discourses – especially powerful ones like gender norms – to justify their grip on society. This patriarchal backlash takes place at a particularly difficult time for democracies, where societies are negotiating new, often controversial, understandings of gender identity and traditional values. This tendency puts the contest to define gender roles and identify at the center of a new era of great power competition.

In Iran, there is a long history behind the recent wave of protests led by women. The regime has used gender norms and identity as a central instrument of repression for decades. Traditional values have long served as a justification for denying basic freedoms and a platform to mobilize supporters. Yet, the struggle for women’s rights and individual rights are intertwined in Iran. Gender has become a space of resistance, making the latest wave of protests especially challenging to the authoritarian regime and increasingly putting women at the forefront of the resistance. 

In Russia, Putin has pushed for the re-masculinization of Russia, manipulating traditional cultural symbols and language to justify territorial expansion, nationalism, and resistance to what his inner circle views as a corrupt, decadent west. This campaign has led to a significant deterioration in the rights of women and historically marginalized groups in Russia. Putin has gone as far as saying Russians who seek gender freedoms are part of a larger anti-Russia fifth column. Russian social media is awash with hate speech groups like Male State that have become vocal supporters of Putin’s war in Ukraine. Between 2005 and 2019 Russian elite used youth groups like Nashi – a self-proclaimed “anti-fascist movement” described as Putin’s Generation – to link gender, support for Moscow and traditional values as a counterpoint to the West. The manipulation of gender roles and identity helps Putin reach a larger, global network of populists who view traditional values and society as under threat. 

Less appreciated it the role of gender and discourse about order and stability in modern China. The Chinese Communist Party increasingly views feminism as a threat to its own ideology and perception of China as a socially conservative country. Xi Jingping has been defined as a neo-traditionalist propagating a notion of cultural deficiency and degeneracy to justify centralized rule and repression. The communist party increasingly focuses on gender as a threat to stability, calling for state institutions to prevent the feminization of males and adolescents and to promote Chinese celebrities deemed masculine counterweights to “sissy men” with “abnormal aesthetics.”

The manipulation of gender roles is central to the communist party’s efforts to thwart color revolutions and any threat to their rule. According to Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother: the Feminist Awakening in China, 

China’s all-male rulers have decided that the systematic subjugation of women is essential to maintaining Communist Party survival. As this battle for party survival becomes even more intense, the crackdown on feminism and women’s rights – indeed, on all of civil society – is likely to intensify.

Xi sees traditional family values and his project of national rejuvenation as intertwined making feminism a threat to party survival. This notion of a more traditional, masculine Chinese man rising to challenge a decadent West is one display in everything from PLA recruitment videos to blockbuster films like the Wolf Warrior franchise.

In other words, gender roles and identify are a center of gravity in the information environment for autocrats seeking to limit free expression and exchange in their societies. These regimes have a critical requirement to advance an image – often using a mix of computational propaganda and censorship – as champions of traditional values under threat. Since this discourse relies on manipulating gender roles and identities, gender is also a critical vulnerability that can be held at risk to gain a position of advantage.  Any strategy designed to challenge authoritarian states that doesn’t exploit this vulnerability misses an opportunity to gain a competitive edge and win without fighting. 

Okay, So Now What?

Dictators these days appear to be afraid of girls – and women, as well as, mothers, grandmothers, and men who bristle against cartoonish notions of masculinity – becoming politically aware and active. This is because they represent the inverse of the hyper-macho, bear-riding ideal that has become so central to contemporary authoritarian power projection, both at home and abroad. So, what can the United States do to use this pressure point to its advantage?  

First, and perhaps most important, the United States should build on earlier U.N. resolutions, executive orders, and legislation that recognizes that gender is an important dimension of human existence and worthy of serious study when it comes to matters of statecraft. Many democracies realize this through the vitally important Women, Peace and Security agenda. Despite this, discussions about gender in national security tend to evoke visceral reactions. On the one hand, some embrace the notion that women play a vital role in lifting fragile societies – from education to civic and political participation. On the other hand, gender is dismissed as background noise to realpolitik and castigated as ‘soft’ or relegated to an externality. Even when gender is made part of national security programs it tends to be treated more as a “pet rock” or “add on” than a core dimension of promoting civil society and democratic values. These simplified notions prevent serious discourse on gender as an analytic lens for policy analysis and how the performance and manipulation of gender identity are key dimensions of national security in the twenty-first century.     

Second, gender ought to mean more than women and counting the number of females in leadership positions – noble goals to be sure but limited when it comes to confronting authoritarianism. In other words, representation is necessary, but certainly not sufficient. This is because although more women may be elected to legislative bodies around the world, they are at times placed in “women’s issues” and “family” committees rather than the actual decision-making bodies. Highly constrained, male-dominated notions of gender roles and stereotypes are replicated in governance institutions, reproducing, perpetuating, and reinforcing oppression.  

Rather than a thing that is achieved (representation), gender is also usefully conceptualized as a lens through which to view the search for advantage in the information environment that is central to great power competition. To that end, strategists must embrace that if gender is both a critical requirement and vulnerability, then it warrants new kinds of crisis simulations and wargames to explore the competition. This effort should follow recent scholarship and combine the best of strategic games and social science to isolate the ways competing groups use the manipulation of gender roles and identities to advance their interests and the potential effects. There is a need to understand how gender intersects with campaign and theater plans as well as competition, gray zone activities, and political warfare. These questions, by the way, form a key component of the Smart Women, Smart Power research agenda at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

Given the centrality of gender – and repression – to regime survival, understanding how gender is used to reinforce power dynamics is important to unlocking opportunities for eroding authoritarian power structures. It is high time, therefore, that policymakers and practitioners across the national security community use gender to explore core perceptions and experiences of power, roles, and identities at individual and institutional levels. Gender represents deeply embedded ideas of identity and power relationships that the national security community should better account for when, for example, building tailored deterrence strategies or theater campaign plans. 

After all, war is an inherently human activity, and gender is a core expression of what it means to be human; to ignore gender is to ignore core dimensions of war itself.  



Kathleen J. McInnis, PhD is a senior fellow and director of the Smart Women, Smart Power Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

 Benjamin Jensen, PhD is a professor of strategic studies at the School of Advanced Warfighting in the Marine Corps University and a senior fellow for future war, gaming, and strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

Jaron S. Wharton, PhD is a colonel in the U.S. Army currently serving as a military fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and at the Modern War Institute.

The views expressed are their own and do not reflect the views or positions of the School of Advanced Warfighting, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: Photo from Paval Hadzinski Catholic BelarusCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons