(Bloomberg Opinion) — The Middle East’s two most important countries have recently announced reforms that bring women a step closer to equality with men. In Saudi Arabia, women may now leave the country, without permission from a male relative. In Iran, the supreme court has ordered that women be awarded the same “blood money” as men in instances of death or bodily harm.
Women’s rights activists have responded with, at best, caveat-leavened optimism. They have pointed out that other aspects of Saudi Arabia’s repressive “guardianship” laws remain in force—for instance, women must get permission from a guardian before they can marry. In Iran, the court order doesn’t change the law that awards women only half the blood money given to a man in similar circumstances; it requires the government to set up a fund to pay out the remaining half.
But the more pertinent reason to be cautious about the changes is the manifest bad faith of the governments in Riyadh and Tehran toward women activists, some of whom have long campaigned for these very reforms.
As rights groups have pointed out, Saudi Arabia imprisons many women activists; some of them have reportedly been subjected to electric shocks, whippings and the threat of sexual violence. The most prominent of these women is Loujain Al-Hathloul; the charges against her include such bizarre accusations as communicating with diplomats and journalists.
That the latest Saudi reforms were announced in the week of Al-Hathloul’s 30th birthday might be a capricious coincidence. But even more perverse is that under one of the unchanged guardianship laws, she would be prevented from leaving her detention without the permission of a male relative.
Al-Hathloul’s Iranian sister-in-activism is Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human-rights lawyer jailed for defending those who protest the rules imposing headscarves on women. She recently spent her 56th birthday in prison, where, in addition to incarceration, she faces 148 lashes for the temerity of her challenge to the theocracy. (If lashing seems medieval, consider that the Iranian regime calculates “diyeh,” or blood money, according to the market price of 100 camels, 100 cows, 1,000 sheep, 200 suits made of Yemeni cloth, 1,000 gold coins, or 10,000 silver coins.)
Even as news of the new blood-money ruling began to trickle out of Iran, a “revolutionary court” in Tehran sentenced three women to 55 years in prison—again, for defying the compulsory hijab, although the formal charges included such fabrications as “encouraging and preparing the grounds for corruption and prostitution.”
And, for good measure, the authorities announced that anybody posting photos or videos of women removing their headscarves on social media would face up to 10 years in prison. This ruling is directed at women inspired by the activist Masih Alinejad, whose campaigns (“White Wednesdays” and “My Stealthy Freedom”) encourage women to defy the Islamic Republic’s dress code.
In Iran and Saudi Arabia alike, the persecution and prosecution of women’s rights activists shows the ruling patriarchy’s unchanging attitude toward women. Sure, the reforms announced in Riyadh allow Saudi women to hope that one day they will have the same rights as women in other Muslim countries—and eventually, women in the rest of the world. Optimists may even glean some reassurance from the willingness of Iranian jurisprudence to deem women worth 100 camels in blood money.
But while the likes of Loujain Al-Hathloul and Nasrin Sotoudeh remain in prison, the reforms will suffer from a deficit of credibility, haunted by the frightening possibility that the whim of a king, a crown prince or a supreme leader can undo them. If Saudi Arabia and Iran are serious about giving women their rights, they should start by giving these courageous activists their freedom.
Even better, they should allow the Al-Hathlouls and Sotoudehs to lead the reform process, as monitors of changes already announced and advisors on the next wave of necessary reforms.
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Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.
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