The following is a guest post by Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran (Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers). The commentary originally appeared on the Web site of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Why are 36 Iranian universities now barring women from 77 academic fields, including engineering, accounting, education, counseling, and chemistry?
Rather than announcing across the board restrictions on women in higher education, the government has cleverly left it to individual universities to implement these new policies. Universities are acting individually to adopt quota systems favoring men. The goal is to limit the number of women in certain disciplines or to bar them altogether from certain fields of study. Some universities are enforcing single-sex classes and are requiring professors to teach the same course twice.
The Ministry of Higher Education has remained inexplicably silent in the face of these measures, and many interpret this silence as approval. By separating male and female students, university authorities also hope to limit interaction between the sexes.
In recent years, women have been winning more places in universities in competitive, nationwide exams. These new measures seem intended to redress the balance in men’s favor. So far, no university has adopted a policy of single-sex faculty, such as men restricted to teaching male students and women restricted to teaching only female students—although that reversal seems more possible now, too. In the early years of the revolution, the regime toyed with the idea of segregating university classes and barred women from some fields of study, including agriculture and veterinary sciences. But segregation proved impractical and was never implemented, and women gradually gained access to all disciplines.
Iran is now reverting to the failed policies of the past. The decision by Qom University, located in a shrine city and the center of religious learning in Iran, not to allow women to study economics, commerce or industrial engineering may not be surprising. But Tehran University’s decision was unexpected. It is Iran’s oldest institution of higher education. It pioneered coeducation when it opened in 1936. Tehran University is now accepting only male students in a number of engineering fields and also in mining, forestry, and even mathematics.
What are the politics behind these sweeping new restrictions? Why now? Is it related to the role that women played in the 2009 protests against the disputed presidential election?
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government is chauvinist about women generally. Barring women from certain fields of study comes hand-in-hand with the reversal of Iran’s family-planning program—one of the most successful in the world. Iran’s supreme leader recently described the family-planning program as misguided and called on women to have larger families.
But politics may also be a factor in the education restrictions, partly because young educated women were at the forefront of street protests after his contested reelection in 2009. Worldwide, levels of education and activism often overlap. Education can also affect the national social structure. In Iran, for example, the legal age of marriage for girls is 13, but the mean age of marriage is 23. A woman of 23 is likely to have experienced some level of higher education and be less prepared to agree to marry a man less educated than she is.
In 1998, two decades after the Islamic Revolution, Iran was cited as one of the top 10 countries worldwide that had closed the gender gap between boys and girls in education. For several years, more than 60 percent of the university student body was female. So what impact will this decision have on the progress achieved in recent years?
After initial hesitation, the post-revolution government built on the foundation laid by the monarchy to provide women with equal access to education at all levels. Traditional families also sought higher education for their daughters because they felt comfortable allowing them to live in other cities to attend universities and live in dormitories or even on their own. Women across the country excelled in university entrance exams. During the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), the fact that 60 percent of university student body was female was widely seen as a major achievement.
In 2006, a Tehran taxi driver proudly recounted how his daughter was studying at Isfahan University and was sharing an apartment with four other girls. Four young women living alone and unchaperoned in a large and distant city! This would have been unheard before the revolution.
The impact of these recent decisions, which indicate the growing conservative influence, are almost certain to deepen discontent among young women. University degrees are key to employment in an economy where good jobs are scarce. The rate of unemployment among those under thirty already stands at over 20 percent; among women, it is over 28 percent. The decision actually risks mobilizing more women in future protests.
Why is the government reducing gender quotas – reportedly by 30 to 40 percent – for traditionally accepted fields, such as education, economics, administration, psychology,
library services, and literature? It reflects a fear of educated and powerful women who are aware of their rights and frustrated about discrimination. Educated women also challenge the culture of men breadwinners and heads of family. The Ahmadinejad government seems to think it can discourage women from pursuing higher education if universities introduce a quota system in favor of men, segregate classes, and bar women from many fields of study.
Women may now respond by pursuing higher education through the Internet, which the government may have a harder time restricting. Over the last three decades, Iranian women have shown again and again they can come up with new ways of pursuing their goals and frustrating the government’s best-laid plans.Return to Top