The escalating rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has alarmed foreign policy experts who believe that it could further destabilize the region. But feminists have reason to rejoice. In the competition between the two regimes to earn the mantle of the more moderate Islamic alternative, women have been the beneficiaries.
When Saudi women earned the right to vote, drive or run for office, Iranian women did not pay much attention. Women in Iran had always enjoyed those rights, and their Saudi counterparts were simply catching up. But when Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on women’s presence in sports stadiums, Iranian women got angry at their own government. The timing of the Saudi announcement in late September was perfect — if inflaming Iran’s civil society was the goal. Only a few weeks earlier, Iranian women were barred from attending the qualifying World Cup match in Tehran between Iran and Syria, while Syrian women were permitted to enter the stadium.
“When I see reforms in Saudi Arabia, I am doubly elated: happy for Saudi society and women especially,” said Mariam Memarsadeghi, a co-founder of Tavaana, a website dedicated to civic education in Iran, “but also 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.”
Iranian activists have always looked to the West to pressure Tehran to respect human rights. But the appearance of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the scene could shift the attention to Saudi Arabia. Whatever his long-term intentions, he is robbing Tehran of narratives it has long relied on. Citing the Saudis’ poor record in engaging and educating women, Iran has easily deflected Western criticism of its own practices.
Which nation had the most oil, the richer elite, the greater influence or the mightier military may have occupied the headlines, but not the minds of ordinary citizens. The routines that make everyday life easier — driving, working, traveling — were what concerned people. No amount of oil reserves can make up for the limitations on women’s movement and activities.
Adjusting to this reality has been more difficult for Iranian women, who had experienced a feminist renaissance under the Pahlavi dynasty.
In 1936, Reza Shah, an autocrat whose vision for Iran bore some resemblance to Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 for Saudi Arabia, banned the hijab. Watching the women in his family go out without their heads covered, his relatives recounted in memoirs, had been painful for the shah, but he believed it an essential step toward modernity.
By the time the Islamic revolution of 1979 swept through Iran, women had the experience of four decades of relative freedom. After the revolution, returning to a life without the right to divorce, to have custody of their children or legal protection to equal inheritance was hard on Iranian women. (Saudi women never had those rights.)
One way to view the Middle East quagmire is that it is less a byproduct of mismanaged economies or radical religious views than a problem engendered by entrenched misogyny. The differences that distinguish Iran from Saudi Arabia, including the Shiite-Sunni divide, vanish in light of what they have in common: Their women live under abject conditions. When it comes to economic participation, health, political empowerment and access to education, both Iran and Saudi Arabia are among the 10 countries at the bottom of the World Economic Forum measures.
Westerners often point to Iran’s lax rules on the hijab to make the case that it is more tolerant. The truth is that after 40 years of resistance, the regime is simply tired. And with a population that grew to over 80 million from 40 million in that time, and an overstretched military, it has also lost some measure of control.
Now a Saudi prince is following in the footsteps of the shah. This similarity is not lost on the Iranian leadership, which argues that Prince Mohammed will be likewise doomed because of modernist ambitions that go against his people’s traditions. But Iranian feminists are seeing their country’s rival do more for women’s advancement than all of Iran’s female-friendly laws have in the years since the 1979 revolution.
Signs of “Saudi envy” are beginning to appear. An Iranian feminist and founder of a campaign against the mandatory hijab, Masih Alinejad, distributed posts by joyous Iranian women drawing inspiration from their Saudi counterparts, illicitly slipping the scarves off their heads, walking the streets of Tehran and recording video messages. To allay some of the anger, Tehran made this compromise recently: Female weight lifters will be allowed to compete internationally, a first for Iran.
While the Saudi-Iranian hostility causes the world to worry, women have benefited. A timeless lesson proves true once again: Though governments may be enemies, sisterhood is global.
Roya Hakakian is the author of Assassins of the Turquoise Palace.