The recent move toward reforms in Saudi Arabia is a clear sign of the political will of the Saudi government to change the face of the country when it comes to half of its population. Central to the reforms has been the apparent break between the state and hard-line clerics. To move ahead with its reforms, the kingdom understands that it has no choice but to part ways with such voices and rather move to more tightly control them.
This has not been the case in Iran, where a strong connection between hard-line clerics and the ruling authorities still persists. Of course, one cannot separate religion and tradition from either society. But the two have much to learn from each other’s experiences with reform.
In Iran, advancement of women’s rights was state policy under the ousted Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Like King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, the last Iranian monarch was not a supporter of feminism, but believed that development was impossible without the full participation of women and a complete change in their social status. Indeed, despite opposition by the clergy, the legal status of women improved during the Shah’s rule (1941-1979).
After Iran became an Islamic Republic, women were once again sidelined in Iran, losing most of the rights they had achieved. For instance, women lost equal rights in family matters — including divorce, marriage settlements and the custody of children.
Iranian women’s struggle to bring the country’s laws in line with social realities is an ongoing process. Despite periods of intense bargaining and large-scale campaigns, which receive popular support even from within the complex echelons of the Islamic Republic’s political elite, the underlying political-legal framework has resisted this round of efforts to bring about tangible change. There are many reasons to explain these challenges in Iran.