They call each other meddlers, warmongers, religious hypocrites, zealots and sponsors of terrorism. Now Iran and Saudi Arabia, the archrivals of the Middle East, are competing in a surprising new category: gender equality. Saudi Arabia and Iran are on opposite sides in many ways — in their divergent branches of Islam, the wars in Syria and Yemen, Lebanese politics and relations with the United States, for example. They have clashed over oil production, religious pilgrimages and who is a terrorist. But both countries are responding to domestic and international pressure over women’s rights.
Tehran’s police chief announced this week that the so-called morality police who patrol the capital would no longer automatically detain and punish women seen without the proper hijab head-covering in public, an offense commonly called “bad hijab.” They will be given counseling instead. In Saudi Arabia, one of the most restrictive countries for women, the authorities this week allowed female contestants at an international chess tournament to play without the full-body garb known as an abaya. That decision is the latest in a string of liberalizing moves by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the young Saudi ruler, which includes letting women drive.
It is unclear whether the changes in Saudi Arabia have led directly to the unintended effect of changes in Iran. But some women’s rights advocates have seen a connection. Roya Hakakian, an Iranian-American poet and journalist who co-founded the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center in New Haven, Connecticut, 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.”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.
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. Whether the Saudi decision to allow female spectators at soccer matches will lead Iran to do the same is unclear at best. But shortly after the Saudi relaxation was announced in late October, Iran said it would allow female weightlifters to compete in international competitions abroad for the first time.