In recent weeks, the world has watched in awe as Iranian women rise in peaceful protest against their country’s violent and patriarchal theocracy. Their courage is at once extraordinary and familiar, paralleling other inspiring episodes of women-led nonviolent activism. Indeed, women have played central roles in many of the world’s most impressive nonviolent campaigns.

Sudanese demonstrators march during antigovernment protests in Khartoum. April 22, 2019. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)
Sudanese demonstrators march during antigovernment protests in Khartoum. April 22, 2019. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

What explains this potent historical legacy of women’s nonviolent activism? Studies have shown that women’s commitment to nonviolence and regime reluctance to use violence against women are two important factors. Less understood, however, is how women’s participation shapes public perceptions of nonviolent campaigns.

Women Are Committed to Nonviolence and Can Restrain Violent Responses

Earlier studies contend that women are particularly effective nonviolent activists for at least two reasons. First, women are highly committed to nonviolence — women are typically less supportive of violence than men, and women’s political advocacy often revolves around efforts to reduce the role of force in society. Because maintaining nonviolent discipline is crucial to avoid alienating supporters and legitimizing repression, a steadfast commitment to nonviolence likely helps women-led movements succeed.

Second, regimes are more reluctant to use violence against women. In many countries, deeply embedded cultural norms hold that violence against women is exceptionally inappropriate — women are seen as less threatening and more vulnerable. Women on the front lines can subvert these gendered narratives to provide a “moral shield” that protects movements from violent crackdowns, a major cause of breakdowns in nonviolent discipline. Women can also exploit their stereotypical “weakness” and masculine honor norms to shame passive bystanders into joining protests. And in cases like Iran, where brutal regimes have fewer compunctions about violence against women, repressing women is likely to magnify backlash, sparking moral outrage and fueling greater protest participation.

These claims are backed by substantial evidence linking women’s participation to campaign success and decreased violence. For instance, USIP case study research reports that in Bangladesh, “putting women in the front lines has become standard operating procedure” to avoid violence from police. Similar tactics played out in the Philippines, where nuns put themselves between protesters and tanks to prevent a brutal crackdown. And a recent cross-national empirical study found that women’s participation is associated with campaign success and less violence overall.

Yet there has been little effort to experimentally investigate the causal processes driving these relationships. In particular, scholars have yet to explore whether protesters’ gender shapes how observers perceive campaigns, relative to other factors like tactics or demands. This is an important topic of study, as how movements are perceived determines their ability to mobilize supporters and achieve their goals.

Women’s Participation and Public Perception

To address these questions, USIP fielded a series of three online survey experiments with respondents from Nigeria, India and South Africa. Each experiment took the same basic approach, with respondents reading about a hypothetical protest event, various details of which were experimentally randomized (including whether protesters were primarily men, women or both). We then asked questions to measure whether respondents perceived women or gender-diverse protests differently than others.

Three core findings emerged from these studies:

1. (Women) Winners Win

First, women or gender-diverse protests are viewed more positively than majority-men events. In our main study, we find weak evidence that women are viewed as more peaceful than men (this relationship holds only in Nigeria). However, we find strong evidence that women and gender-diverse protests are viewed as significantly more likely to succeed and as more deserving of support — movements that clearly feature women are received well, but not necessarily because they are more peaceful. These effects hold in all countries, even accounting for other factors like protest goals, size, tactics, protester violence and regime repression.

This result suggests an underappreciated explanation for the link between women’s participation and success: Observers expect women to win. People are more likely to join movements that they support and think will succeed. In turn, widespread participation is an important contributor to campaign success. Thus, women’s perceived success may be self-reinforcing, driving the mobilization and popular support that fuels movement success — women are winners, and winners win.

2. Nonviolent Discipline Is Imperative

Another clear lesson from the data is the overriding importance of nonviolent discipline. Any level of violence from protesters — be it property damage or fighting with police, in either a single sporadic episode or more frequent occurrences — powerfully decreased perceived movement peacefulness, likelihood of success and popular support. Breakdowns in nonviolent discipline also significantly increased respondents’ approval of repression. These effects are remarkably huge, dwarfing all others in the study — in some cases, they exceed 10 times the size of the gender effect.

This finding provides critical context for studies of demographic or identity-based framing effects in nonviolent movements. As described above, women may enjoy an identity advantage as nonviolent protesters. But this bonus is modest relative to actual movement behavior, as even a single instance of violence can profoundly impact how movements are perceived. Having women at the frontlines likely makes little difference if the movement is not actually committed to nonviolence in practice.

3. Women’s Attitudes Toward Violence

Lastly, we sought to quantify the extent to which women differed from men in their support for violence. In a second survey experiment, we asked Nigerian and Indian respondents to answer abstract questions about the morality and practical necessity of violence. Surprisingly, we did not observe any consistent differences between male and female respondents — in principle, women were no less supportive of violence than men.

Approaching this question from a different angle, we also asked these respondents to evaluate tactics that hypothetical protesters could pursue in the future, ranging from continued nonviolent protest to alternative, more violent tactics. Again, we find no obvious trends across gender. Women in India were more supportive of continued nonviolent protest but did not significantly differ from men in support for violent tactics, and no differences appeared in Nigeria.

In short, we find little evidence that women are more averse to violence than men. This result contrasts with the prevailing wisdom, and so should be interpreted with some caution. Still, the data casts doubt on blanket assertions of women’s principled commitment to nonviolence. One possibility is that women in Nigeria and India differ from other countries in their support for violence. Another is that women are attitudinally similar to men but behaviorally different, due to habituation into gender roles — women may approve of violent tactics, but still view the performance of violence as a task for men. However, this study lacks the data to test these theories.

In sum, our findings offer a further explanation for why women have been such pivotal players in successful nonviolent action campaigns. In addition to their nonviolent discipline and moral shield advantages, women can help campaigns cultivate an image of success that ultimately self-actualizes.

The story is not entirely rosy. Protester violence can undermine movements whether or not women are involved. And though not discussed here, various cultural and economic barriers frustrate women’s efforts to join nonviolent campaigns. Nevertheless, and fortunately for all of us, the women of Iran are living proof that even the most repressive regimes cannot silence women forever.

The research detailed above was part of a two-year project conducted by USIP’s Nonviolent Action and Peacebuilding team in partnership with USAID’s Center for Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance.

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