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Cultural Censorship in Iran: Segregating Iran’s Universities

Thursday 11 October 2012, by siawi3


Women excluded from 77 courses at universities across the country and population control programme scrapped; despite this, women still represent 60% of university enrolments and an increasing proportion of the highly-skilled labour market. Is a second cultural revolution on the cards?

In May 2012, when qualified applicants checked post-graduate course selection booklets, they were surprised to discover that courses in the natural science, social science and engineering faculties at six Iranian state-sponsored universities were designated as for “men only†or “women only†. Less than a month later, 30 additional universities announced their intention to segregate undergraduate courses in the upcoming year. However, which and how many courses were changed to single-sex varied from university to university. For example:

• Isfahan University announced that only courses whose applicant rate already favoured one gender (90%) would be affected. For example, religion and Arabic studies are now women only, and geology and cartography are limited to men.

• Allameh Tabataba’I University, the only Iranian university devoted exclusively to the study of social sciences, now subjects nine out of its total nineteen courses to the new acceptance guidelines. Only men will be considered in the fields of accounting, social work, counseling, industrial management and hotel management; only women are eligible for education, political science and library studies courses.

• Chamran University in Ahvaz now excludes women from all engineering courses. Women who want to continue their studies in this field will need to transfer to a university that has not adopted such guidelines.

In total, women were excluded from 77 courses across 36 state-sponsored institutions. Despite this fact, 60% of those who passed the university entrance exam in 2012 were women. Men were also excluded from some courses, seemingly arbitrarily, such as religion and education. The Ministry of Science, Research and Technology denied having any role in these decisions, and claimed that the universities themselves instituted the new guidelines. The most common justification for this action was that “women can not find jobs in these fields after graduation†.

From across the political spectrum, the reaction to this move was swift. Shirin Ebadi, Iranian human rights lawyer and the Nobel Laureate, stated in an open letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay:

"It [excluding women from courses] is part of the recent policy of the Islamic Republic, which tries to return women to the private domain inside the home as it cannot tolerate their passionate presence in the public arena.â€

Religious women working in Islamic centres and governmental organisations agreed with Ms Ebadi’s assessment. The Islamic Coalition of Women in Tehran held a press conference to express their objection, deeming this “a careless decision without any evidentiary support†. They also warned that this decision is unconstitutional and will endanger women’s security.

Women’s Education in the Post-Revolutionary Era

“You [women] should endeavour for knowledge and piety. Knowledge is not the monopoly of a particular group but belongs to all and it is the duty of all men and women to acquire knowledge. I hope the authorities will assist you in this and provide the educational and cultural facilities that you need to enable you to succeed.”

(Ayatollah Khomeini as quoted in Ettela’aat 1985; translation Paidar, 1995: 312)

Following the 1979 revolution, as part of the ensuing ‘cultural revolution’, the Iranian education system underwent a massive restructuring. Universities were shut down for over two years while ‘westernised’ professors, students, and textbooks were culled and a new ‘Islamic’ system instated. When universities reopened in 1982, students returned to classes to find Islamic and ideological material added to their curricula, obligatory hijab for women, and segregation in the classroom.

Segregation began in schools and private institutions, and later spread to universities and polytechnics. Due to a shortage of teachers, these changes led to a large-scale dismissal of girls from co-educational schools; and many women who had been studying technical subjects at university prior to the revolution were forced to change majors (Ettela’aat 1979; Paidar, 1995). During this period of heightened ‘Islamicisation’, women’s entry to a whole range of courses was prohibited or highly restricted.
On the whole, women were forbidden from studying 54% of the subjects offered at higher education institutions (Mojab, 1991), and men were prohibited from courses such as midwifery, family hygiene and sewing. Courses that both sexes were allowed to study were segregated in the classroom.

However, this situation did not hold. In 1989, restrictions on women studying geology, agriculture, medicine, and some fields of engineering were lifted. This was the result of successful lobbying by the Women’s Social and Cultural Council, headed by Zahra Rahnavard. However, while the Islamicisation of the educational system restricted women in many ways, it also helped many women gain an education in the first place. As Dr. Said Peyvandi explained:

“The modern middle-class families who sent their girls to school even before the revolution continued to do so after [the revolution]. I think the change that took place after the revolution should be considered part of the reason behind the progress we’re seeing now. And that was that the traditional families who had not sent their girls to school before — because the teachers were men or the school was not Islamic — these were the girls who took the greatest advantage from the Islamization of schools, or the fact that schools were no longer mixed, as a way of justifying their presence out of the home.”

In the early years after the revolution, nearly 30% of university students were women; now, that percentage has more than doubled. Subsequently, women’s social and political participation also increased: there are Iranian women in Parliament, city councils, management positions and even among the president’s advisors.
Statistics show that between 1991-1996, the number of women in high-ranking positions increased from 1,533 to 41,420, and continued to grow by 32% per year. The restrictions placed on women should be taken hand-in-hand with the advancements, which are notable. As of 2006, the female literacy rate in Iran was over 80% as compared to 35% in 1976.

Pushing women back into the home?

The government claims that one of the aims of segregation is to create “balance”, as women are outnumbering men on university campuses. However, it seems that there is a noted effort to limit women’s opportunities and, thereby, push them back into the home. Two months ago, the Supreme Leader declared in a nationally televised speech that current birth control practices are no longer “right†for the future of the country. Afterwards, the Ministry of Health scrapped the population control programme in an effort to encourage larger families. Ayatollah Khamenei announced that Iran, whose current population stands at over 75 million, should aim to have a population of 150-200 million.
Since coming to power in 2005, the conservative government has tried to revive the ideology of women’s primary roles as mother and caregiver. There appears to be a concerted effort to revert Iranian society and limit women’s future opportunities. Ironically, this would be a reversion of the very situation that the Islamic Republic’s policies helped to create.
However, while the headlines make it appear as if women are being completely banned from 77 subjects, this is far from the truth. Women have been banned from studying specific courses at specific universities, but this does not mean that there is a countrywide ban on women studying these subjects. For example, women can no longer study engineering at Chamran University in Ahvaz, but are still eligible for such courses at Tehran University. So, while this development adds a new layer of challenges for women entering universities, it is by no means the ‘beginning of the end’ for women’s education in Iran.


Eteelaat: Daily Newspaper published in Tehran since the 1940s.

38 (14.3.85/23.12.63)

41 (26.9.79/4.7.58)

Mojab, Shahrzad (1991), “Kontrol Dolat Va Moqavemat Zanan Dar Arseh Daneshgahy Iran” (State control and women’s resistence in Iranian universities), In Nimeye Digar, no. 14, Spring 1370.

Paidar, Parvin (1995), Women and the Political Process in Twentieth-Century Iran, University of Cambridge.