TEHRAN, Iran — Thirty-six Iranian universities have banned women from 77 different majors, leading to widespread protests by international rights groups. These “single gender” subjects range from engineering and computer science to English literature and archaeology.
No official justification has been given for the seemingly sudden shift, but protesters claim it is a vindictive move by authorities to curb the trend of women’s success in higher education establishments. This year, 50 percent more women than men passed the university entrance exam. This phenomenon chafes at the traditionally male-centric viewpoint of Iran’s religious leaders.
“The Iranian government is using various initiatives . . . to restrict women’s access to education, to stop them being active in society and to return them to the home,” said Nobel Prize winning lawyer and women’s rights activist Shirin Ebadi.
International human rights organizations have attempted to dissuade Iran from its current path. Human Rights Watch urged the Iranian government to immediately lift bans and asserted that such restrictions are a violation of the right to education for all.
“As university students across Iran prepare to start the new academic year, they face serious setbacks, and women students in particular will no longer be able to pursue the education and careers of their choice,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch.
The latest restrictions have been established to segregate men and women into separate classes and fields of study, as well as to prevent mingling of the sexes. But rather than a sudden shift, the banning of women from universities is actually the latest in a troubling series of steps backward.
Iran was one of the first countries in the Middle East to allow higher education for women, and after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, women were greatly encouraged to enroll in university. But the number gap between male and female students grew smaller until 2001, when women outnumbered men for the first time.
In 2009, election protests—many of which were carried out by educated women—led to political turbulence throughout Iran. This is when the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for a return to traditional values of family and childbearing. He began to impose restrictions on Western-influenced subjects in schools and gradually changed universities to reflect his ideal of “Islamization.”
Saeed Moidfar, a retired sociology professor from Tehran, said, “the women’s movement has been challenging Iran’s male-dominated establishment for several years.” He added, “Traditional politicians now see educated and powerful women as a threat.”
Recent changes by Khamenei’s regime include having courses cut, replacing teachers with conservative loyalists and increasing segregation between genders. This year, Iran’s further restrictions on female enrollment in university courses have lowered the female student population from 65 percent to less than 50 percent.
Yet Kamran Daneshjoo, Iran’s science and higher education minister, has denied accusations of injustice, responding that 90 percent of degrees remain open to both genders. He said further that Iranian authorities “welcome the establishment of one-gender universities, schools for only men or women,” and that exclusively male courses are necessary to keep balance in society. In answer to the consternation of international and western human rights groups, he said, “the angrier Western media gets, the more we realize we are moving in the right direction.”
Iran’s recent policy changes will undoubtedly have far-reaching effects on the women involved and the society as a whole. In the years following the Islamic Revolution, women were encouraged to venture into education and secure an independent living, while men were more likely to seek “get rich quick” schemes instead of attending universities. But now, women are once again being forced out of their right to education, in deference to their male counterparts. Leila, a young woman from the south of Iran, said, “I wanted to study architecture and civil engineering. . . . But access for girls has been cut by 50 percent, and there’s a chance I won’t get into university at all this year.”
Leila’s story is echoed by countless women who have been undermined by an outdated and discriminatory political system. Yet there will be further repercussions with current students having to adjust their career plans. Iran’s government is effectively hobbling its society by denying education to women. Not only does this affect earning capabilities, it lessens the prospective successes of future generations. This has the potential to restart a cycle of poverty, unless Iran can recognize its mistake and grant the right of education to all of its citizens.
– Mari LeGagnoux
Sources: Telegraph, Al Jazeera, BBC