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Part 4- Iran v. Saudi Arabia: Women & Minorities

Part 4- Iran v. Saudi Arabia: Women & Minorities

By Katayoun Kishi


Women in Iran and Saudi Arabia face political, social, and economic discrimination. Rhetorically, Iranian and Saudi leaders often defend women’s rights, and the two countries have even taken steps to include women in political life. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir claimed in 2015 that "Women in Saudi Arabia are way ahead of women in other developing countries.” In 2014, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that “Women must enjoy equal opportunity, equal protection, and equal social rights.”

Iranian women are educated, capable & powerful. In this Gov. we're hoping to ensure equal opportunity

— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) September 2, 2013

But in practice, women in both countries are largely absent from high-level political positions, are restricted in marriage, divorce, and citizenship rights, and face discrimination in the workforce and universities.

Iran's constitution is more explicit than the Saudi Basic Law of Governance on women’s rights. Saudi laws rely heavily on judicial interpretations of Sharia law, making it difficult to protect against discrimination. In both countries, however, discriminatory practices continue despite legal attempts at equality.

Women vote in Saudi Arabia for the first time, land 19 seats #BecauseIts2015

— Global Citizen (@GlblCtzn) January 2, 2016

 Image removed.  Iran

Image removed.   Saudi Arabia

The Constitution

Article 20
All citizens of the country, both men and women, equally enjoy the protection of the law and enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, in conformity with Islamic criteria.

Article 21
The government must ensure the rights of women in all respects, in conformity with Islamic criteria, and accomplish the following goals:

1. create a favorable environment for the growth of woman's personality and the restoration of her rights, both the material and intellectual;

2 .the protection of mothers, particularly during pregnancy and childrearing, and the protection of children without guardians;

3. establishing competent courts to protect and preserve the family;

4. the provision of special insurance for widows, and aged women and women without support;

5. the awarding of guardianship of children to worthy mothers, in order to protect the interests of the children, in the absence of a legal guardian.

Article 638
Anyone in public places and roads who openly commits a harām (sinful) act, in addition to the punishment provided for the act, shall be sentenced to two months’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes; and if they commit an act that is not punishable but violates public prudency, they shall only be sentenced to ten days to two months’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes.

It is only natural that women should benefit from a particularly large augmentation of their rights, because of the greater oppression that they suffered under the Taghuti [idolatrous] regime.

The family is the fundamental unit of society and the main center for the growth and edification of human being…This view of the family unit delivers woman from being regarded as an object or as an instrument in the service of promoting consumerism and exploitation. Not only does woman recover thereby her momentous and precious function of motherhood, rearing of ideologically committed human beings, she also assumes a pioneering social role and becomes the fellow struggler of man in all vital areas of life. Given the weighty responsibilities that woman thus assumes, she is accorded in Islam great value and nobility.

Islamic Penal Code of the Islamic Republic of IranBook Five

“Women, who appear in public places and roads without wearing an Islamic hijab [veil], shall be sentenced to ten days to two months’ imprisonment or a fine of fifty thousand to five hundred Rials."

King Abdullah, Sep. 25, 2011

“Because we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with sharia, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior ulama [clerics] and others... to involve women in the Shura Council as members, starting from the next term [2015]…Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal election and will even have a right to vote.”

Royal Order A/44, Jan. 11, 2013

“The Shura Council shall consist of a Speaker and one hundred and fifty members chosen by the King from amongst scholars, those of knowledge, expertise and specialists, provided that women representation shall not be less than (20%) of members’ number.”

“Women, selected as members of the Shura Council, will enjoy full rights of membership, be committed to their duties, responsibilities and assume their jobs. As per the introduction of this order, women, who are members of the Shura Council, will be asked to strictly follow the Islamic Sharia regulations, without any kind of violation, including the Sharia head and face covers (Hijab). In particular, the following points should be observed:

1- A special seating place will be allocated for women of the Shura Council, a special entrance and exit to and from the Council main hall will also be constructed and all relevant things in complete non-touch with men.

2- Special places will be allotted for women, guaranteeing complete isolation from those allotted for men, including special offices for them and for their workers and helpers, e.g. special appliances and services and prayer places."

Fatwa from Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah bin Baz, former chairman of the Senior Council of Ulama

“There is no doubt that such [driving] is not allowed. Women driving lead to many evils and negative consequences. Included among these is her mixing with men without her being on her guard. It also leads to the evil sins due to which such an action is forbidden.”

From a Saudi Labor Law

“It is forbidden…the employment of women in hazardous work or harmful industries.”

“The system also prohibits the employment of women at night and for more than eleven consecutive hours.”

“The system gives working women the right to maternity leave for 10 weeks.”

“In addition to maternity leave, women have the right to enjoy all kinds of leave guaranteed by the Labor law including annual leave, sick leave, marriage leave and leave on the status of the deceased spouses or relatives, leave to perform Hajj, leave to perform examinations affiliated with an educational institution, and finally the worker's right.”

Participation in government

Women in Iran serve in parliament and hold high positions in government ministries. Nine women were elected to Parliament in 2012. In 2013, President Rouhani reappointed Masoumeh Ebtekar as a Vice President of Iran.  But all of the approximately 30 women who registered as candidates for the 2013 presidential election were disqualified by the Guardian Council.

In Saudi Arabia, women’s roles in government are limited. King Abdullah announced in 2011 that women could become members of the Shura Council, an advisory body to the king. But only a few women hold high level government positions, primarily in the health, education, and social services sectors. Despite the lack of an explicit ban on women’s voting in the 2004 electoral law, women were turned away from the polls in the 2005 municipal elections due to a lack of separate voting booths for women’s use.

In the December 2015 municipal elections, however, Saudi women voted and ran as candidates for the first time. Around 130,000 women registered to vote, and 19 women were elected.

Family matters

In Iran, despite protections outlined in the constitution, women face serious discrimination, especially in matters related to marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody. A woman, regardless of her age, needs her male guardian’s consent for marriage.

Child marriage, though uncommon, is not illegal. The legal age of marriage is 13 for girls and 15 for boys. A judge can grant permission for children to marry at even younger ages.

Women cannot automatically transfer their citizenship to their children or spouses. In 2015, Parliament rejected a law that would have granted naturalization rights for children of Iranian mothers and foreign fathers.

A woman must have the permission of her father, grandfather, or the court to marry, regardless of her age. Legally, men may have up to four wives. A woman must receive her husband’s approval for divorce, but the husband may request a divorce for no cited reason. Islamic alimony or shared property laws are not enforced. The husband is given custody of children over seven years old unless he is deemed unfit to care for them. Divorced women who remarry must surrender custody of their children to the father.


In Saudi Arabia, laws do not prohibit discrimination based on gender, and informal guardianship laws make women legal dependents of close male relatives. Legal matters involving women are decided by Islamic courts that cite Sharia law and conservative traditional practices as the basis for their decisions. Female testimony in court is worth half as much as male testimony.

Women of all ages need a male guardian or judge’s permission for marriage. They require government approval to marry non-citizens and are prohibited from marrying non-Muslims. Women must show a legal basis for divorce, while men are not required to do so. Custody of children is granted to the divorced husband or the deceased husband’s family after boys reach seven years old and girls reach nine years old.

Child marriage is uncommon and largely limited to rural areas, but not illegal. Girls as young as 10 years old can marry, based on Sharia law. Some government officials, however, have called for a minimum marriage age. The government requires the bride’s age on the marriage license, and marriage registrars have reportedly been told not to approve marriages involving children.

Citizenship is transferred to children paternally. A child that is born to an unwed mother is not legally affiliated with the father and is therefore “stateless.”  Children can be denied citizenship if the father fails to report the birth.

Education and careers

Women make up some 60 percent of university students in Iran. Yet quotas and restrictions limit subjects women can study, notably medicine and engineering.

In the workplace, women reportedly earn about 61 percent as much money as men in similar jobs. The law does not require equal pay for equal work. Women must have a man’s consent to work outside the home. Only 16 percent of the workforce is female, according to a U.N. estimate.


Women make up 58 percent of all university students in Saudi Arabia. They are typically segregated from male students and often do not have access to the same university facilities or library resources as their male counterparts. Universities limit the number and types of courses available to women. In some cases, a male guardian’s approval is needed to register for classes or apply for academic internships.

Many businesses will not hire women without approval from a male guardian. Businesses also face disincentives to hire women, leading to an unemployment rate that is three times higher than male unemployment. Women are required to work in separate facilities from male workers, which creates extra costs. Women are unable to interact with government agencies without a male representative. And employers may have to coordinate female employees’ transportation.

Violence against women

In Iran, rape is illegal and subject to harsh penalties, including execution. But the government reportedly does not enforce the law effectively. Spousal rape is not addressed as sex within marriage is considered consensual. Rape is often underreported for fear of ostracism, charges of indecency, or being found to have made a false accusation. The law requires four male Muslim witnesses or a combination of three male and two female witness to make a conviction.

Iran’s laws do not specifically prohibit domestic violence. Little data is available, but a 2011 University of Tehran study suggested that a woman was physically abused every nine seconds in Iran.

In Saudi Arabia, rape is prohibited under Sharia law, but many rape cases go unreported because of social stigmas, consequences for marriage prospects, or accusations of adultery. Spousal rape is not recognized as a crime.

Domestic violence is also underreported, as women are required to have a male guardian’s permission to file a criminal complaint, even if that complaint is against the guardian.  Some estimates say 16-50 percent of wives are abused. There is no single government definition of domestic violence, so enforcement is varied across government organizations.

Freedom of movement

In Iran, women must have their guardian or husband’s permission to obtain a passport. Married women can be banned by their husbands from leaving the country. Divorced and single women do not need a guardian’s permission to travel abroad.


In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to travel without the permission of a male guardian. When travelling without a guardian, women must show travel cards that indicate the number of trips and travel days that have been approved by the guardian. They also need a guardian’s permission to obtain a passport. Although there is not an official government ban on women driving, it is “universally understood” to be prohibited, according to Human Rights Watch

Dress code

Iran lacks a clear definition of appropriate dress for women. Hijab literally means covering and could describe many different types of clothing. Some women wear traditional chadors, while others boldly express themselves. The prevalence of leggings led lawmakers to summon the interior minister in June 2014 to questioning on lax implementation of dress codes. Women risk being fined or sentenced to lashings based on the opinion of male and female members of the Basij militia who enforce the dress code on the street.

The dress code, however, does not prevent female athletes from participating in international competitions. Eight out of 53 of Iran’s competitors at the 2012 Olympics were female. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said Iranians should be proud of female athletes who make it to the medal podium wearing hijab. President Hassan Rouhani has congratulated female athletes on their accomplishments several times.

While there are no explicit laws dictating women’s dress in Saudi Arabia, courts enforce Islamic cultural norms of wearing an abaya (a loose-fitting, full-length black cloak that covers the entire body) in public, and covering the hair with a head scarf. While the face does not necessarily need to be covered, women can be reprimanded by religious police (Mutaween) for showing too much flesh or wearing too much makeup.

Saudi women participated in the Olympics for the first time in 2012. They competed wearing Sharia-approved athletic clothing.

Particularly proud of our women's historic performance in #AsianGames while upholding Islamic values.

— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) October 4, 2014


Religious minorities in Iran and Saudi Arabia experience varying levels of mostly unofficial discrimination. In Iran, some laws explicitly recognize the rights of minority groups like Sunni Muslims, Jews, and Christians, but these groups often find it difficult to practice their faith in public or advance in government positions. Saudi Arabia’s Basic Law identifies Sunni Islam as the official state religion, and minorities practicing other sects of Islam or religions are often persecuted. These groups are prevented from gathering in public to practice their faith and are rarely included in high-level government or military positions. 

Image removed.Iran

Image removed.Saudi Arabia

The Constitution

Article 12
Other Islamic schools, including the Hanafi, Shafi'i, Maliki, Hanbali, and Zaydi, are to be accorded full respect, and their followers are free to act in accordance with their own jurisprudence in performing their religious rites.

Article 13
Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities, who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.

Article 14
In accordance with the sacred verse ("God doesn't forbid you to deal kindly and justly with those who have not fought against you because of your religion and who have not expelled you from your homes" [60:8]), the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and all Muslims are duty-bound to treat non-Muslims in conformity with ethical norms and the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and to respect their human rights. This principle applies to all who refrain from engaging in conspiracy or activity against Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The Basic Law of Governance

Article 1
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab Islamic State. Its religion is Islam. Its constitution is Almighty God's Book, The Holy Qur'an, and the Sunna (Traditions) of the Prophet (PBUH). Arabic is the language of the Kingdom. The City of Riyadh is the capital.    

Iran: The Islamic Republic does not differentiate between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in reporting statistics. But Sunnis are thought to number between 4 and 8 million, or five to 10 percent of the population. Sunnis reportedly face discrimination and restrictions on building mosques and schools. Marginalization of Sunnis in Balochistan led to the formation of Jundallah, an armed separatist group, in the early 2000s. Sunnis in Iran are from several ethnicities, such as Baloch, Arab and Kurd.

Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians collectively make up less than one percent of Iran’s population. Yet they are guaranteed places in the 290-seat parliament proportionate to the size of their communities:

  • Two seats for Armenian Christians,
  • One for Assyrian and Chaldean Christians,
  • One for Jews,
  • One for Zoroastrians.

But minorities reportedly still face discrimination in education, employment and property ownership. Authorities also sometimes charge them for moharebeh (enmity against God), “anti-Islamic propaganda” or threatening national security for their religious activities.

But Iran’s largest religious minority, the Baha’is, are not protected under the law or allowed to practice their faith. They reportedly number up to 350,000 and are considered apostates by the state.  

Other Christians not associated with an ethnic group, such as Protestants, are not represented in parliament. And conversion from Islam is punishable by death under the law. So proselytization is banned.

Image removed.

Saudi Arabia: The Saudi government does not conduct a census on religious affiliation, but it is estimated that 85-90 percent of the population are Sunnis while 10-15 percent are Shiites. But public expressions of faith that are not consistent with Sunni Islam are not permitted, and non-Muslims are not allowed citizenship.

In 2003, the Saudi government instituted the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue to “facilitate dialogue among various sections of the society.” Shiites, other minorities, and women were among the 70 people appointed to the dialogue, but the results have been minimal. Small, peaceful Shiite protests took place in 2012, demanding the release of some Shiite prisoners. Authorities arrested and detained 160 of the protestors.

There has been some movement toward including Shiites in government. Seven or eight members of the 150-member Shura Council are Shiites. In June 2014, King Abdullah appointed a Shiite as Minister of State.

It is illegal to discriminate based on race, but societal discrimination against minorities still exists. Bedouins are unofficially barred from high-level cabinet positions and military ranks above major general. The Ismaili religious minority also faces discrimination, as they are excluded from high-level government positions and can be prosecuted for practicing their religion publicly. While Ismailis can participate in the military, advancement is rare because they are regularly excluded from officer colleges. 

Saudi Arabia does not have a written penal code, and judges are allowed to make rulings based on Sunni interpretations of Sharia law. The punishments for blasphemy can range from lashings to death, depending on the judge. 

This piece is part of a four-part series on Iran and Saudi Arabia. 

Katayoun Kishi is a research assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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