Iranian women are now always portrayed as oppressed in the media and social media compared to the 1970s. I expected their situation to be similar to that for women in Saudi Arabia but after reading a little bit about the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, I was a little shocked to learn that women had the right to vote, work and attend school and university.
Women's resistance included remaining in the work force in large numbers and challenging Islamic dress by showing hair under their head scarves. The Iranian government has had to reconsider and change aspects of its policies towards women because of their resistance to laws that restrict their rights.
The regime succeeded in putting women back in the veil in public places, but not in resocializing them into fundamentalist norms.
Iranian Revolution (Wikipedia)
I believe Ayatollah Khomeini wanted a completely Islamic state so how could women still have such rights? I am not convinced that the Iranian government couldn't have forced women out of the workforce nor that it couldn't make an example of women who challenged them.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are both majority Muslim nations in western Asia, with a lot of their external revenue coming from oil extraction. But that's about where the resemblance ends.
Iran is largely Shia' in religion, and the vast majority of its population speak Indo-European (Mostly Indo-Iranian) languages. Only about 3% of its population is Arab.
Their government is essentially a Shia theocracy, with an elective republic underneath it, which the theocracy has complete veto power over (kind of like a very interventionist and completely unelected court system). This means there's no real danger to their power structure in allowing women or anyone else to vote, because the offices and bodies they vote for don't have ultimate power. Periodically their people get impatient with this, and try to agitate for change, but this is essentially the system they have had since the Islamic Revolution. But in theory the structure of a functional republic is there, if only the religious superstructure could be convinced to step back and let it operate.
Saudi Arabia is a very monolithic society, where pretty much every citizen is ethnically Arab and speaks Arabic. The country is 95% Suni (and the other 5% Shia). Practically all their outside income is from Oil revenues.
Its government is an Autocracy, but one that is essentially in a cooperative relationship with the leadership of an extreme sub-sect of Sunni Islam that dominates social life. The two power centers cooperate and support each other, the implicit agreement being that they don't challenge each other in the other's domain. The implication of this is that anyone having real political rights outside of the ruling family of Saud is viewed as a problem, and women have the social rights that the ultraconservative Wahhabis feel like they should be allowed (from a western perspective, that's pretty much none).
Wahhabism, the strictest and most extreme form of Islam, is a founding partner of modern Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism also provided the foundation philosophy for both Al Qaeda (the founder was a Saudi) and ISIS.
No other variant of Islam is as strict and unyielding. This is why every other Muslim country has a more relaxed and tolerant (everything is relative) vision of Islam than Saudi Arabia.
Iranian women can drive, work, go to school, and they don't even have to wear a full Burqa… https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11875128/Irans-women-problem-All-of-the-things-Iranian-women-arent-allowed.html
But can they be the Grand Ayatollah? no? can they run for president? They are one of the few countries that have never had a female head of state…
It might be a bit too simplified to attribute the Iranian revolution to just one man and his ideas. He's now dead, by the way. Many forces contributed to how the Islamic revolution unfolded and how policies, also towards women changed compared to the Shah era.
It is simply untrue that the sixties and seventies were a haven for unopressed men and women and modernity and liberty. Demonstrated by for example women and communists as identifiable groups that fomented the revolution. Especially the latter were probably not very satisfied with the outcome. But our minds are misled by moving pictures from that era that were made in big cities. Persian and Iranian society was very patriarchic, and sharia only added to that a convenient layer of justification, as it does now.
Employers depict women as less reliable in the workforce as opposed to men. However, the Islamic Revolution had some influence in changing this perception. Secular feminists and the elite were not happy with the revolution, while other feminists such as Roksana Bahramitash argue that the revolution did bring women into the public sphere. The 1979 Revolution had gained widespread support from women who were eager to earn rights for themselves. A woman's responsibility and obligation was in the home, which was the underlying basis of the Islamic Republic. Olmsted adds to this by stating that women have this "double burden." In addition, men had the right to inhibit their wives from entering the labor force. Ali Akbar Mahdi is in agreement with Parvin Ghorayshi in that through the domestication of women and confinement to the private sphere, they were being exploited in non-wage activities. In Karimi's viewpoint, after the revolution, even though it had been accepted on paper that women had an equal right to employment, she believed that this did not show in practice. Comparing the pre-revolution and post-revolution era, between 1976 and 1986, the labor force participation of women had declined immensely from 12.9 percent down to 8.2 percent. In addition, during the 1990s, women were being compensated for their housework due to the domestic wage law which allowed women to demand compensation from their husbands for their housework in the event of a divorce.
WP: Women in Iran
Concerning "women", Khomeini said:
In Europe and the United States there is a general view of women in Iran and the Islamic World writ large as victims of a patriarchal system that oppresses and enslaves them. Such a perspective was criticized by Ayatollah Khomeini, who argued:
People say that for instance in Islam women have to go inside the house and lock themselves in. This is a false accusation. In the early years of Islam women were in the army, they even went to battlefields. Islam is no opposed to universities. It opposes corruption in the universities; it opposes backwardness in the universities; it opposes colonial universities. Islam has nothing against universities. Islam empowers women. It puts them next to men. They are equals.
An interview from 1979 some six months into the revolution in full length with between Khomeini and a somewhat confrontational journalist might shed some light on what he claimed and what went on, in contrast to the quote from Wikipedia.
FALLACI: Please, 'mam, there are many things I still want to ask you. For example, this chador that they made me put on, to come to you, and which you insist all women must wear. Tell me, why do you force them to hide themselves, all bundled up under these uncomfortable and absurd garments, making it hard to work and move about? And yet, even here, women have demonstrated that they are equal to men. They fought just like the men, were imprisoned and tortured. They, too, helped to make the revolution.
KHOMEINI: The women who contributed to the revolution were, and are, women with the Islamic dress, not elegant women all made up like you, who go around all uncovered, dragging behind them a tail of men. The coquettes who put on makeup and go into the street showing off their necks, their hair, their shapes, did not fight against the Shah. They never did anything good, not those. They do not know how to be useful, neither socially, nor politically, nor professionally. And this is so because, by uncovering themselves, they distract men, and upset them. Then they distract and upset even other
FALLACI: That's not true, Imam. In any case, I am not only talking about piece of clothing, but what it represents. That is, the condition of segregation into which women have been cast once again, after the revolution. The fact that they can't study at university with men, or work with men, for example, or go to the beach or to a swimming pool with men. They have to take a dip apart, in their chadors. By the way, how do you swim in a chador?
KHOMEINI: This is none of your business. Our customs are none of your business. If you do not like Islamic dress you are not obliged to wear it. Because Islamic dress is for good and proper young women.
New York Times: An Interview With KHOMEINI OCT. 7, 1979