Saudi Arabia and Iran share a mutual disdain for women who speak up

Nasrin Sotoudeh, left, and Loujain al-Hathloul.

Kate Maltby is a broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Guardian. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)In the 40 years since the Iranian Revolution, Middle Eastern policy in every major nation has revolved around one binary question: Are we friends with Iran, or are we friends with Saudi Arabia? Iran has built itself up as the Shia superpower in the region; the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with its extraordinary oil wealth, is its most powerful Sunni rival.

Kate Maltby
Whenever President Donald Trump, his administration and his family are faced with awkward questions about their closeness to Saudi Arabia, they have a tendency to deflect attention to the sins of Iran. Last November, about eight weeks after the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed and his body dismembered with a bone saw -- reportedly on the orders of Jared Kushner's friend Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (bin Salman denies any involvement) -- and amid rising criticism of US support for Saudi's war in Yemen, the Trump administration held a dramatic press conference to reveal evidence of new weapons being sent by Iran to proxies in Yemen and elsewhere.
    The message from Team Trump was clear. Hold the line with the Saudis, nasty as they may be, or we could see an escalation in Iranian-backed violence across the Middle East.
    Yet as the world plays one nation against the other, Saudi Arabia and Iran have one thing in common. Both are upping their crackdowns on women's rights and the feminists who fight for them. And the United States should pay attention.
    Last week, Iran quietly sentenced a woman named Nasrin Sotoudeh to 38 years in jail and 148 lashes. (Although even Sotoudeh does not seem to have been formally told of the sentence.) Her crime was to be a lawyer. Specifically, she was a defense attorney who regularly defended the women who peacefully protest Iran's repressive religious laws by removing their hijabs in public spaces. On paper, Sotoudeh has been charged with crimes like "propaganda" and "prostitution," but many in Iran aren't buying that.
    The theocrats in the regime are sending a message to women: If you resist, we will come for every single person who gives you help. By imprisoning a lawyer for defending her clients, the state is effectively depriving feminist activists of even the basic framework of legal protection. They are also scaring off anyone who might so much as give a lift or a bottle of water to a woman joining the wrong protest. They're not just attacking an enemy, they're cutting off its supply lines. This is how you destroy a movement.
    Meanwhile, Saudi's treatment of women is no better. When bin Salman first came to prominence as the new crown prince and effective manager of the kingdom for his aging father, he wooed Western allies by promising liberal reforms. The key plank of this PR strategy was to relax the notorious ban on women driving. But no sooner was this announcement made -- heavily promoted to Western media -- when he quietly instigated the arrest of many of the women who had campaigned hard against the ban. Loujain al-Hathloul, a key feminist leader, is reported by her family to have been waterboarded, electrocuted and sexually threatened by prison interrogators. The Saudi government denied any use of torture.
    Saudi women's rights activist is being tortured in 'palace of terror,' brother says