Iran and Saudis’ Latest Power Struggle: Expanding Rights for Women

Iran and Saudis’ Latest Power Struggle: Expanding Rights for Women

Roya Hakakian, an Iranian-American poet and journalist who co-founded the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center in New Haven, Conn., wrote in an opinion column published on Wednesday in The New York Times that women in Iran and Saudi Arabia had benefited from “competition between the two regimes to earn the mantle of the modern moderate Islamic alternative.”

She quoted Mariam Memarsadeghi, a co-founder of Tavaana, a civil education website about Iran, who now lives in the United States, as saying that she was not only happy for Saudi women, but “thrilled that the Iranian regime’s false moral superiority is punctured, that the Iranian regime’s laws and actions against women’s rights are made to look backward even by a country long seen as the region’s most backward.”

Others do not necessarily see a link, attributing the changes in Iran to other causes. They say Iran’s young population has proved far more resistant to the government’s societal restraints compared with their parents. The relaxed enforcement of a women’s dress code in Iran may be partly rooted in the impracticality of prosecuting, fining and imprisoning violators.

“Arresting the women and trials in court proved to be too time-consuming,” said Nader Karimi Joni, an Iranian journalist in Tehran. The law has not changed, he said, but now, “cash fines and lashes are at times substituted by ‘educational classes.’”


Women at Draft Cafe in Riyadh this month. The government says that in June, women will be allowed to drive cars, trucks and motorcycles.

Tasneem Alsultan for The New York Times

Others pointed out that Iran still requires women to wear head coverings in public. Shahrzad Razaghi, a 24-year-old Tehran artist arrested in 2012 for not wearing her hijab properly, said the new enforcement policy “doesn’t mean I can go on the streets without a hijab.”

And in Saudi Arabia, the granting of driving privileges to women, while seen as a quantum leap there, is a right long held by women in Iran, elsewhere in the Middle East and the rest of the world. What women are permitted to wear outside, another issue in Saudi Arabia, is hardly a question in many countries.

“I am sorry to say, we are in 2017 and we are still talking about wearing and not wearing,” said Suad Abu-Dayyeh, a Palestinian who is the Middle East and North Africa consultant for Equality Now, a global women’s advocacy group.

Still, she said, “we’re hoping that what is going on in Saudi Arabia will be continuing.”

While she was cautious about concluding that the changes in Iran were related to the Saudi relaxation, she said each was obviously watching the other.

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