Living in the Middle East is notoriously categorized as an unfortunate fate – full of terroristic tendencies and oppressive rights for citizens during what seems to be an endless war between countries. Iran and Saudi Arabia, self- and worldly-proclaimed Middle Eastern nemeses, have been infamously opposed on many issues: divergent branches of Islam, the wars in Syria and Yemen, Lebanese politics, and relations with the United States.
Two countries that have fought for generations now appear to be engaged in a more progressive battle: which can be quicker to overhaul its repressive rules regarding women?
Due to rising pressure from domestic as well as international influences, both Iran and Saudi Arabia are currently beginning to adopt a more forgiving stance on the topic of women’s rights.
According to Tehran’s police chief Gen. Hossein Rahimi, the infamously self-titled “morality police” who patrol the capital city would no longer unquestionably arrest or punish women seen without the proper hijab head-covering in public – an offense commonly referred to as “bad hijab.” The announcement is directly related to the re-election of President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, by the young and reform-minded Iranians earlier this year.
Though a step in the right direction, in lieu of detainment, women will be required to attend counseling by authorities.
On the other side of the same coin, Saudi Arabia has always been one of the most restrictive countries for women; women could not travel alone, hold a wide variety of jobs, show their hair in public, or even drive. In a series of attempts to “westernize” the East by young ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, young people of Saudi Arabia – specifically women – are reaping the benefits.
In a bold move by Salman, authorities allowed female contestants at an international chess tournament to play without the full-body garb known as an abaya. Although, according to Mohammed’s supporters, he is “simply taking the drastic measures needed to turn around the kingdom’s graft-ridden and oil-dependent economy while pushing back against Iranian aggression.”
Why does it matter now? Compared with members of older generations, young Saudis have grown up with unrestricted and unregulated exposure to the rest of the world. Saudi Arabia is home to a predominately young population, with about two-thirds of its 22 million citizens under 30 years old. In Iran, nearly 60 percent of the population is 30 years old or under. Hundreds of thousands of these young people have traveled to the United States and experienced Western culture. Social media, television, and the internet have made even those who remain at home familiar with other Western and European societies.
However, it is unclear whether the changes in Saudi Arabia have led directly to the unintended impact of changes in Iran, and vice versa. Some women’s rights advocates have seen a connection. Roya Hakakian, an Iranian-American journalist who co-founded the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center in New Haven, Connecticut, wrote in a New York Times opinion column 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.”
Though the rivalry between the two countries may be resulting in positive changes for repressed women in both countries, there are still many freedoms to be won, and many old laws left to be overturned.
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