Zakaria: Comparing the status of women in Iran and Saudi Arabia

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October 27th, 2011
10:39 AM ET

Zakaria: Comparing the status of women in Iran and Saudi Arabia


By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

I recently visited Iran. Upon my return, I wrote a reflections post in which I made some comments about women in Iran in comparison to women in Saudi Arabia. I pointed out that if you watch the women of the Islamic Republic of Iran - a regime that is, by most accounts, retrograde, particularly with regard to women’s rights - you are struck by how defiantly women try to lead normal and productive lives. They wear the headscarves and adhere to the rules about covering their bodies, but do so in a very stylish way. They continue to go to college in large numbers, to graduate school and to work.

In Saudi Arabia, another country that is run along strict Islamic lines, you see an elite core of women who are highly educated and very articulate, but in general, the most striking thing about Saudi Arabia for an outsider traveling around is the absence of co-ed facilities. Some of this is changing, but my impression of Saudi Arabia is still that women are not well integrated into the workforce or mainstream life. 

Behind the closed doors of homes, of course, it’s an entirely different matter.  You see intelligent and articulate women, but it is almost as if that is left entirely to the private realm, not the public.

Those are my impressions of the two countries.  I decided to make a quick tabulation to see whether the facts bear these impressions their out. What follows is a simple comparison between Iran and Saudi Arabia with regards to women’s rights.

- Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi. They are in Iran.

- Saudi women have been barred from voting, while in Iran women’s suffrage began in 1963. In September of this year King Abdullah granted Saudi women the right to vote and run in the next round of municipal elections, which isn’t expected until 2015.

- In 2010, Iranian women held 3% of ministerial positions and 5% of parliament seats. In Saudi, none did.

- The World Economic Forum measures disparities between men and women across a range of criteria - economic participation, health, political empowerment and access to education. Iran ranked 123rd out of 131 countries. Saudi Arabia was six places lower, at 129th. For political rights, Iran ranked 129th out of 131 countries. Saudi Arabia came in last.

- Women outnumber men in college in both Iran and Saudi Arabia (as they do in the U.S., too), but education doesn’t necessarily translate into employment. In Iran, women have outnumbered men in entering college by as much as two to one in the last several years. However, after graduation, women are one-third less likely to work as men. Thirty two percent of Iranian women participate in the workforce, about half the average of advanced economies. In Saudi Arabia the rate is even lower, at 21%.

I'd love to read your thoughts on this matter below. It's clear that both countries have a very long way to go.

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Topics: Iran • Saudi Arabia • Women

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