Islamic Women Fare Better Under Dictators

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Bizarre as it may sound, women sometimes fare better under Middle Eastern dictators than under so-called democratic regimes in the region.

A Reuters report from Tehran over the weekend reminded me of a scene that took place a decade or more ago. I was sitting in the living room of a well-to-do Iranian exile with a group of her friends in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

They were so stylishly dressed and coiffed, we might as well have been in an apartment looking out over the Champs-Elysées. They were bemoaning the loss of their "beloved Shah" and all the western freedoms they enjoyed during his tenure.

Fast-forward to today, where media reports show women are being forced to revert to ancient customs and repressively modest dress: "Iranian police have launched a crackdown on women's dress before the summer season when soaring temperatures typically tempt many to flout the strict Islamic dress code, witnesses and Iranian state media said on Sunday. Such crackdowns have become a regular feature of Iranian life in the summer as police confront growing numbers of young women testing the limits of the law with shorter, brighter, and skimpier clothing."

So, too, have Iraqi women lost rights and power since President Bush's invasion of four years ago toppled the late dictator, Saddam Hussein. No one would argue that Hussein was anything but despotic in his leadership. But Iraqi women, whom Bush also promised to help, have seen their civil freedoms dwindling since Hussein's departure.

The conservative Washington Times reports, "'The government differs on all issues except women's rights,' said Yanar Mohammed, the president of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq. 'They're using the new constitution to impose Islamic law and reduce women's rights.' For example, Maysoon Al-Damlugi, who is among the 25 percent [in Iraq's 275-seat parliament who are women], said most female colleagues in the legislature cover their heads. It is, she said, an indication of how religious fervor has seized the political landscape."

And whenever that happens, women's rights head only in one direction: backward.