Women’s Rights and the Social Status Within Saudi Arabia and Iran

Abstract

This paper will discuss the past and current situation regarding women’s rights and the social status of women in both Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both of these countries are similar in that they both have been structured in a way that blatantly caters to men. This structure has changed and will continue to change by means of sociological, institutional, and governmental change. This change has been seen historically, and will continue to evolve in a similar fashion. As of now, there are still a great deal of nonsensical barriers in place that discriminate women for the sake of maintaining authority.

Introduction

Women around the world advocating for equal rights and social status share many common struggles, however what is most appalling is the collective marginalization of a group that occupies almost half of the world’s population. Particularly in Iran and Saudi Arabia, women face even greater obstacles on the plight for equality. While progress has certainly been accomplished over time, the current issues that are still standing are unparalleled. These issues can be generalized into one categorization: unfounded discrimination in order to maintain control. Patriarchal ideologies have been the most damning attack on feminist movements globally (and arguably account for the existence of disparities in the first place), and this includes both the feminist movements in Iran and Saudi Arabia. This discrimination is propagated by the need to be in control, more specifically to retain control over the actions and lives of women. Women’s rights movements face a particularly difficult challenge, especially in a region as conflict-riddled as the Middle East. The region as a whole (the Middle East and North Africa) faces numerous (and often intertwined) conflicts, and when trying to add an entire movement (including ample progress) to the mix is sure to lead to further conflict. Despite that notion, those who fight for improvement in social status and equal rights in the middle east understand the vitality of this issue. Even facing institutional opposition, these activists persevere in order to achieve the progress seen in current times.

One pertinent opinion of this issue comes from Nayereh Tohidi. Her work focuses on Iran and provides an in-depth examination of the social status and rights of women in Iranian society. Iran has provided women with a unique situation regarding their rights and social status, as things are quite conflicting. On the surface, empirical data shows tremendous progress and achievement for women compared to previous data. Iran successfully lowered birth rates, and Iranian women make up a large percentage of those who participate in attaining higher education. Despite these monumental successes, women make up a small fraction of the labor force, and an even smaller percentage in parliament. Disparities like this remind one of how discriminatory legislation can arise and thrive, as there is barely any representation. Problematic legislation aimed at control by means of discrimination have existed prominently throughout Iran. These issues are much more deep-rooted than they seem on the surface because of the turmoil and conflict that has plagued Iran since its inception. Prior to 1979, a family planning program was found throughout Iran, but was dissolved after the revolution due to its relation to the West (Tohidi).

While Iran was never directly impacted by colonization, a great deal of influence was received from Great Britain and Russia. This propagated angst toward the West, and influenced many Iranians to detest and reject things associated with the West, and this very much includes women’s rights and an equal social status. This is just one barrier that impedes the efficacy of the women’s rights movement in Iran. Tohidi includes how Iranians struggle with nationalistic-related issues, and also their distaste for colonialism or “anti-imperialistic sentiments,” (Tohidi).  This problematic mix of issues that would be difficult to deal with on their own becomes even more chaotic when an entire women’s rights movement is included as well. Regarding Iranian nationalism, Iran became an official Islamic Republic in 1979, meaning interpretation of Shari’a is too often misguided in efforts to possess control. The word of the Qur’an is law, but it becomes an issue when this word is interpreted in such a way that caters to some and not others. One cannot be surprised by actions like this coming from an authoritarian government, especially when a religion is also involved. Regardless, the worth of a kind of human is still contested.

Luckily, globalization has aided massively with the efforts of the women’s rights movement in Iran. With the help of technological development, this process is sped up. People are now able to reach each other from all over the world with the click of a few buttons, and this has been an immense asset to the cause. This, along with international support have been two significant driving factors for the progress seen for women in Iran. With the current President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, in command, not much progress has been seen for the movement directly. In fact, Tohidi even includes how conditions have almost remained stagnant. Because of the previous administration being extremely conservative in comparison, this makes sense politically. When considering the humans getting discriminated against and marginalized for circumstances out of their control, it makes much less sense.

Ralph Slovenko offers a glimpse into the lives and treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. While this source was published in 2003 and a great deal of change has occurred since then, it still offers vital information that allows one to understand the social status of women. Until recently, women in Saudi Arabia were not permitted to drive. This article gives a framework for why this impediment exists in the first place, and how it and women can be used as a mere tool in Saudi Arabian Society. Prior to the legalization of women driving, Slovenko discusses a protest event where women duped their drivers and took over the wheel themselves in objection. Slovenko discusses how women were once seen as one’s possession, a mere object, and the progress after this event (not including the legalization of women to drive) was weirdly not linear in the least bit. He notes how women have made the sad jump from object to “chauffeur” of the family. This is referring to the idea of having a family car, and women being the drivers of the children while the man is at work during the day. This is a sad phenomenon, as it will clearly take more action for women to be seen as equal. The entire fight for being able to drive in Saudi Arabia was to derail the notion that women had lesser power, and for that to be translated into women becoming a mere mechanism to complete chores rather than achieve equality is disheartening.

Why this source is vital is because of its background it gives on why certain rules for women exist, and it sheds light on why this movement needs to fight even harder. A woman is legislatively seen as possessing less worth than a man, even to the point where two women witnesses are seen as equivalent to one male witness. These problematic ideologies are incredibly deep rooted, and the only way to see further progress is to see them to the root. The driving regulations for women in Saudi Arabia only arose when horses were the primary means of travel. First, it was seen as a physical issue, that women would not have the strength to pull the reins and control the horse. From that point, the notion of women being one’s property was allowed to flourish, being the roots of the issues seen even in current times (Slovenko).

Homa Hoodfar offers further insight into the depth of the issues preventing efficacy of the women’s rights movement. This article points out that Iran was constructed in such a way that leaves little to no room for gender equality and equal social status. This country has institutions put in place that systematically defer progress and maintain control over the lives of women. The greatest challenge in Iran comes from the rejection of democracy, because this leads to a cascading set of issues. Without democracy, government officials with significant authority can make incredibly important decisions without having to face any sort of accountability. Another fault that hinders progress with gender equality has to do with the fact that Iran was founded as a religious state, so the interpretation of that religion has a tremendous impact on governance. It seems as though Iran is filled with different colliding ideological perspectives causing the pushback on the plight for women’s rights and gender equality (Hoodfar).

One win that women in Iran directly championed by means of lobbying in both 1967 and 1973 were pivotal law reforms that for once, were written in better interest for women. The Family Protection Act finally gave women more say when it comes to matters of the family, including the marriage and the situation of the children. This decades-long fight improved a women’s decision regarding divorce; what was previously only an option to a husband, women were granted the right to have the decision be based off of a family court ruling. Polygamy in a marriage decreased, as the first wife now had the power to decide if that is permitted. This act also benefitted women with children after divorce, as custody was now to be decided based on the “child’s best interest,” (Hoodfar).

What is most dangerous about the movement for women’s rights and gender equality in both Iran and Saudi Arabia is the fact that these rights have been politically weaponized. Rights for a human are politicized as if these were questionable matters, and this ultimately creates even further intertwined conflict in an already conflict-riddled region. This is not to say that this movement is not worth it, by any means. It simply means that a massive amount of institutional, governmental, and societal changes will need to take place in order to both increase and maximize the efficacy of the women’s rights movement.

Sifa Mtango provides a thorough analysis of what human rights are denied to women in Saudi Arabia, including the Saudi Arabian response as to why this is happening. This article is from 2004, so a significant number of things have changed since then, however the comparison of the conditions for women and human rights treaties allows the reader to get a gauge on how things truly are. To be clear, the critiques on human rights violations are not against Islam, as denying freedom of religion in order to achieve gender equality is preposterous. The critiques are towards the problematic interpretations of what certain things mean. For example, Saudi men are able to marry up to 4 wives, all due to a misinterpretation of a passage in the Qur’an. The 4 wives are only to be had if they can be treated the same, so the phrase strangely means the exact opposite of the interpretation made from it. Also, Islam comes up so often because Saudi Arabia refers to the Qur’an as their constitution, as it is considered to also be an Islamic state. Mtango prefaces by clearly defining what a human rights violation is, compared to smaller things in the culture such as gender segregation. Things turn into a human rights violation when the segregated schools show great disparities between the two. Because men and women cannot be in mixed workplaces, this transcends to places to study as well. In University, the conditions between male and female areas are substantially unequal. Women’s class sizes have a considerably higher volume, as there are few women teachers educated enough to work in that sector. In one example, Mtango also includes how at university, women are only allowed to use the library one day of the week, and only in the morning. The rest of the time belongs to the men (Mtango).

Mtango also explains what treaties and conditions specifically apply to Saudi Arabia, as they can only be held accountable for treaties they have ratified. The amount of ratified treaties in place for protecting women are scarce. Thankfully, in 2000, Saudi Arabia ratified the well-known Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This is quite self-explanatory, as this treaty was enacted in order to eliminate gender-based discrimination. Saudi Arabia also enacted what they call The Basic Law, which has no benefit to the rights of women whatsoever. In fact, those responsible for the inception of this law have said “According to the Council, equality between men and women is against God’s law, the Shari’a, and the law of nature dictated by women’s physiology,” (Mtango).

Education in Saudi Arabia is offered at a disadvantage to women, as the primary subjects they would even be allow to study are those deemed as “feminine.” These subjects traditionally revolve around the teachings of the Qur’an, and limit women from pursuring another subject they might otherwise enjoy, while also limiting any chance of one day finding a job and having financial freedom. It is clear that these systematic roadblocks have been put in place for a reason, and that reason is to blatantly retain control over women as if they are a less valuable human. On the topic of work, women cannot work in an environment with men, so this leaves even more room for disparities. Yet, Saudi Arabia has signed and ratified the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) treaty regarding discrimination and work. There are clearly blatant legislative rules that account for workplace discrimination against women, yet there is no accountability. Women in Saudi Arabia have to be chaperoned as if they are an incapable toddler, limiting personal freedom once again. Mtango’s article comes from 2004, before Saudi Arabia legalized the right for women to drive, but the author explains how there is no explanation by means of Islam for the prohibition. There are marriage restrictions in place only for women, as a woman cannot marry outside of her nationality or faith, a limitation that does not apply to men at all.

In Iran, the politicization of women’s rights and social status has done considerable harm to the movement. Arzoo Osanloo explains the problematic-nature of seeing society as black or white, hot or cold. There are too many limitations that arise when something can only go one way or the other (Osanloo). This is especially the case with the women’s rights movement, as it compared to the previous manifestations of interpretations of Islam would be seen as radical. Because of this, it is no question as to why progress takes so long to be seen. Islam is not the barrier preventing women’s rights to be achieved; rather, it is the problematic interpretations that are weaponized in order to preserve supremacy over women.

Manal al-Sharif’s first-person account provides insight as to what it is like to be woman who has grown up in Saudi Arabia, and faced a major shift in her beliefs. She discusses significant childhood events that shaped her into an extremist mindset. She even notes in the writing how Osama bin Laden was seen as a hero to she and her peers, as this was what they were coerced into believing. After 9/11, major change in Saudi Arabia began to occur, along with al-Sharif’s mindset. An expansion of women’s rights and social status had very clearly happened, as for the first-time women were finally given identification cards. Around the same time, the internet was coming of age, and this led Sharif to expand her thinking and expose herself to different beliefs and mindsets. This connection led to greater education, and eventually led to something even greater: what al-Sharif refers to as the Saudi Woman’s Spring. She herself became an activist, even being responsible for a viral video of her driving a car (before it was officially legal for women to drive). She found a platform and began to use it to reach others. This spike in involvement and advocacy for women’s rights and equal social status is responsible for the change seen in policy over time. The greater involvement, the greater change that has been made. The greatest success is the improvement in recognizing women as greater than previously seen (al-Sharif).

A similar first-hand account can be seen in Rouhangiz Shiranipour’s writing on experiencing regression of women’s rights and social status in Iran. The author discusses various manifestations of discrimination against women, but most importantly discusses the causation for this behavior. After the Revolution, one of the most important set of protections regarding women’s rights and social status in Iran was repealed. This was the Family Protection Law, as previously stated in this paper. This law accounted for a significant increase in social status of women in Iran. Shiranipour notes one facet of Iranian law, that blatantly exhibits a disparity in worth between men and women. Women are continually marginalized society, institutionally, and governmentally. If the law shows citizens that a woman has less value than a man, then that directly translates into society and the livelihoods of women. What is even worse is that the repealing of the Family Protection Law after the revolution impacted a great deal of women who participated in the revolution. They fought for their country, yet they were treated as though that meant nothing. Another personal account Shiranipour includes is a childhood memory, an early exposure to clearly visibly disparities in treatment based on gender. She recalls a family member, who recently had given birth to two children, a boy and a girl respectively. The woman was breast-feeding her son, and her daughter was in the hands of another woman being fed via a bottle. When Shiranipour asked for an explanation for this inequality, she was met with a response explaining how the better milk (the mother’s breast milk) was essentially the right to her literal newborn infant son, while her daughter was getting the short end of the stick beginning in mere infancy (Shiranipour).

Conclusion

To conclude, women’s rights and gender equality in both Iran and Saudi Arabia have seen significant progress, but progress takes so long because rights are continually weaponized as a political gambit. More progress in this realm will surely increase over time, but it is because such a great amount of modifications needs to be accomplished beforehand. Intertwined conflicts account for a great deal of the lack of efficacy of women’s rights and social status as well. It is too much to say women’s rights and gender equality cannot exist in the same realm as Iranian and Saudi Arabian society. However, changes will need to be made societally, institutionally, and governmentally. This includes closing the gap on sociological disparities based on gender, which would only be able to occur by a major shift to the system. Blatant human rights violations can no longer be disregarded, especially when treaties have been signed. There is a desperate need for greater opportunity for women, as seen with Saudi Arabian gender disparities with schooling. This is not to say segregation needs to end, but the playing field certainly needs to be even. Women have little to no representation in governance, which leads to horribly biased laws and rules that are deliberately discriminatory. Not only would representation assist the efficacy of the women’s rights movement in Iran and Saudi Arabia, but greater accountability with government officials would be another asset to the cause. Until extreme changes are made in these sectors, women in Iran and Saudi Arabia are going to be subject to the same kind of discrimination they face in current times.

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