Yesterday's wire coverage of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's comments about the position of women under Islamic law revealed two interesting slants that were worlds apart. The Associated Press ran with this headline: "Iran Leader Signals Flexibility on Women." While Reuters chose this more menacing lead-in: "Don't 'Play' With Islamic Law, Iranian Women Told." So which is it, then?
Amid Iran's celebration this week of women and mothers -- in honor of the birthday of Fatima, Prophet Mohammad's daughter -- the country's supreme leader did signal that he is open to reconsidering women's legal standing. "Some issues about women, which exist in religious jurisprudence, are not the final say. It is possible to interpret new points through research by a skillful jurist," he said in a speech Wednesday. But, unsurprisingly, he made no suggestion that these reinterpretations are actually desirable; only that they are possible ... hypothetically.
This rhetorical tap-dance also has to be considered in context: Just this week, an Iranian woman was sentenced to just over two and a half years in prison and 10 lashes for attending a banned women's rights protest. And consider that the country recently sentenced several women's rights activists for protesting inequitable inheritance laws and the legal view of women's testimony as lesser than men's. He also made it clear in his speech that he has no intentions of allowing Islamic law to go the way of the West. "In our country ... some activist women, and some men, have been trying to play with Islamic rules in order to match international conventions related to women," he said. "This is wrong."
Khamenei may have publicly acknowledged the revisional nature of religious law, but, it seems, only in service of getting activists to back off. Sure, Khamenei signaled flexibility, but without actually bending the slightest bit; his views on women's rights are about as "flexible" as arthritic knuckles.