Iran Media Analysis: Unequal Opportunities – Excluding Women from 77 Bachelor Programs by Yassmin Manauchehri

//Crossposted with permission from the CGCS Iran Media Program, by Yassmin Manauchehri

Photocredit: CC Search, Public Domain

Unequal Opportunities:

Excluding Women from 77 Bachelor Programs

In early August the news of the decision to exclude women from certain fields in Iran’s universities began to make the media rounds. A gender quota was announced in a guide, published annually, for students about to enter college. Certain majors were denoted as “male only” and a few as “women only.” The semi-official Mehr News (reported that 36 universities were banning girls from a total of 77 bachelor programs, the conservative news agency also purported that the exclusion of females from certain majors had no relationship to their gender, because fields typically thought of as ‘feminine, such as “accounting, education, guidance and counseling, the restoration of historic buildings, chemistry, and tens of other majors along these lines” would also be closed to undergraduate women in the following academic year. Many of the technical fields have also been closed off to female scholars. The Oil Industry University, with several campuses across Iran, has flatly refused to accept female students, citing lack of job demand for females as the reason. Isfahan University has also decided to exclude women from its mining engineering degree for the same reason. With high unemployment in Iran, it seems this protectionist measure is meant to reduce competition for jobs in certain fields and ensure that more of the availability goes to male workers.

While Mehr News and other mainstream conservative media outlets either matter-of-factly reported or brushed off the news as just another necessary decision, reformist news sites, many of which are censored and filtered in Iran, covered the ban and the outrage that ensued. One of the leading reformist newspapers in Iran, Shargh reported that 72 years after the first university was established in Iran, the number of women entering universities reached 52% in 1998, exceeding male students for the first time. Currently, women make up 65% of university students, which has become one of the main justifications by officials for the decision to exclude women from certain fields. However, women make up only about 27% of the workforce in Iran.

Public Figures Speak Out
Shargh published an interview with Tehran University professor of law and political science Elaheh Koolaee–a prior member of the parliament under reformist President Khatami, and current member of the Coalition of Islamic Women–who fervently criticized the decision to exclude women from certain fields. In the interview, Koolaee explained that the roots of the recent decision go back to Iran’s sixth parliament when members of the parliament and the Minister of Health and Medical Education attempted to implement barriers to women entering the fields of medicine, dentistry, and pharmaceuticals, but which was vetoed by an oppositional Khatami. Koolaee argued for the necessity of research to find solutions to the economic challenges Iran’s women face, rather than what she called the “easy route” of simply excluding women from education.

President Ahmadinejad has not yet commented on the recent decision. In 2011, Ahmadinejad did veto plans to gender segregate universities by Science Minister Kamran Daneshjou; the attempted overhaul was spearheaded by the Cultural Revolution Council and aimed to “protect Islamic dignity and morals” in universities. The veto came as a surprise to those who follow the presidents’ hardliner policies.

The Green Movement news site Jaras reported that famed Iranian writer and filmmaker Dariush Mehrjui criticized the decision to ban women from universities at a roundtable discussion on his most recent book noting that, “Talks of gender segregating students in Iranian universities seems to have taken us back 200 years…We shouldn’t forget that we are living in the 21st century and that these activities have nothing to do with the times we live in.”

Exiled Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, in an open letter to the United Nations, dated August 17th, wrote,
The gender segregation policy, which is enforced in some universities alongside fundamental changes that have been introduced in the contents of the course on “Women’s Studies,” including the changing of its name to “Women’s Rights in Islam,” suggest the imposition of a patriarchal culture that aims to strengthen the role of women at home and within the family unit in order to undermine their important function in society…They are trying to push women back to the private sphere of their homes so they may abandon their opposition and legitimate demands.

Iran’s mainstream media has altogether ignored reporting on Ebadi or the many other public figures that have criticized the radical decision to ban women from higher education.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, women’s bodies have been used as a tool for political negotiation and control, but the media coverage of this development has been nothing but resounding silence and nonchalance. Science and Higher Education Minister Kamran Daneshjou brushed off any criticism by stating that 90% of majors are still open to both women and men and that single-gender courses are needed to create “balance.” According to Mehr News, the Minister criticized the “blowing out of proportion the issue of single-sex universities in certain national and foreign news outlets” in a meeting with university deans and national research centers .

Figures from a 2010 UNESCO study show that 70% of recent graduates from the sciences have been females. So while the Oil Industry University announces that, “at the moment it did not have any need for women resources,” the ban also signals a country struggling to grapple with its 12.3 % national unemployment rate. With Ahmadinejad’s hardliner policies against women in place since 2005, and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s recent comment calling the country’s successful family planning program “misguided,” as he urged women to have more children, banning women from higher education can be viewed both as another step in the direction of conservative ideals and as a misguided effort to deal with Iran’s very youthful and very unemployed population.

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