A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Amman, on Jan. 23, 2013 in Jordan’s parliamentary elections. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

Although some analysts have criticized the focus of Western governments and NGOs on goals such as trying to increase the number of women in parliaments, enhancing women’s representation remains a central objective of many international democracy promotion efforts in the Arab world. But the impacts of these efforts are more complex than they might appear. Lila Abu Lughod’s provocative recent book, “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” challenges what she refers to as a Western “moral crusade to rescue oppressed Muslim women from their cultures and their religion [that] has swept the public sphere.” She notes that international, and especially U.S., pressure on Muslim governments to improve on certain measures of gender equality could actually undermine the local legitimacy of feminist causes.

Is she right? In “Anti-Americanism, Authoritarian Politics, and Attitudes about Women’s Representation: Evidence from a Survey Experiment in Jordan,” an article published by International Studies Quarterly in July, we report on a unique experimental study that examines how U.S. and domestic endorsements of women in politics affect local attitudes about women’s representation in Jordan.

We focus on Jordan for several reasons. First, the international community – including the United States – has strongly pressured Jordan to improve women’s representation, including through the adoption of measures such as gender quotas for its elected national parliament and local councils. Although Jordan is a monarchy that is strongly allied with the United States and European countries, it has been subject to the same international democracy promotion efforts pushing for the adoption of gender quotas that have occurred globally. Second, anti-American attitudes are widespread in Jordan, which heightens the possibility that foreign support for women’s representation could engender a local backlash.

Our study draws on evidence from a nationally representative survey of the political attitudes of 1,650 adults in Jordan in November 2010. The survey contained a randomized experiment that was designed to help us understand the effects of foreign support for gender equality on local attitudes. The experiment contained three conditions. We first told a group of randomly selected respondents about Jordan’s quota and the support of a U.S. government-funded organization for women’s political participation in Jordan. Then, as a point of comparison, we told a group of randomly selected respondents about Jordan’s quota and the support of some Jordanian imams for women’s political participation. Finally, a control group received only information about Jordan’s quota. After obtaining their experimental treatments, all respondents were asked questions about their support for women’s representation, including women running for parliament and serving as municipal councilors.

Our findings about the effects of the endorsements were surprising. Although few respondents expressed trust in the United States, providing them with information about a U.S. organization’s support for Jordan’s gender quota did not depress their support for women’s representation on average when compared to the control group. For example, 64 percent of respondents in the control condition expressed willingness to vote for a woman running for parliament, whereas 66 percent of respondents in the U.S. treatment did so – a small increase that was not statistically significant. Our analysis suggests that this null finding is not driven by respondents’ preexisting beliefs about the endorsers’ support for gender equality, their preexisting trust in the endorsers, or their levels of political knowledge.

Moreover, although most respondents expressed trust in local imams, we found that providing them with information about these religious leaders’ support for Jordan’s gender quota did not increase their support for this issue on average. Both local and international reformers often seek out endorsements from trusted religious leaders for their policy goals. It is not clear, however, from this evidence that such strategies will always pay off. For example, an identical 64 percent of respondents in the control and religious endorsement conditions expressed willingness to vote for a woman running for parliament.

Finally, our study uncovered some preliminary evidence that both U.S. and religious endorsements reduce support for women’s representation more among women who opposed the monarchy than supported it. That finding holds even though regime opponents and supporters have similar attitudes about gender. To interpret those unexpected findings, we argue that, in autocracies, disposition toward the incumbent regime is an important cleavage that shapes citizens’ receptivity to endorsements. This interpretation dovetails with research by Dan Corstange and Nikolay Marinov that shows how foreign endorsements polarized domestic attitudes in Lebanon.

These findings challenge much of the conventional wisdom about international democracy promotion in the Middle East. Some observers after the Arab Spring urged the United States and other foreign actors not to undermine the legitimacy of local reformers’ efforts. According to Al Jazeera’s former director general, Wadah Khanfar, for example, “what is most important about the Arab spring is that it is coming from Arabs themselves.” At least in the case of gender quotas in Jordan, however, the results suggest that foreign endorsements of political reforms will not necessarily delegitimize the cause, even when delivered by American groups that publics might generally distrust. As we note in the article: “If American support has no average negative impact on public attitudes toward women in politics, the net effect of active American efforts to promote women’s representation is more likely to be beneficial.”

Sarah Bush is an assistant professor of political science at Temple University and a senior fellow with the Project on Democratic Transitions at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Amaney Jamal is a professor of politics at Princeton University as well as director of the Bobst Center for Peace and Justice and the Workshop on Arab Political Development. She co-directs the Arab Barometer project.