Tensions in the Iranian leadership over excluding women from universities

In recent days article headlines in the Western media have proclaimed that the Islamic Republic is banning women from higher education. Shirin Ebadi, Nobel Prize winner and a prominent Iranian human rights activist, was among the first to raise the alarm about this issue in a report on the human rights situation in Iran in the months of July-August 2012. Even the State Department has now entered the fray, with spokeswoman Victoria Nuland calling on the Iranian government to “…protect women’s rights and to uphold Iran’s own laws and international obligations which guarantee non-discrimination in all areas of life, including access to education.” Is there a systematic policy by the Islamic regime to exclude women from universities? The political reality behind these recent actions is more complex than the media headlines may reveal.

According to Iranian media reports 36 public universities across Iran are preparing to implement various discriminatory policies against Iranian women in the coming academic year. It appears that there is no uniform policy, but that each university is taking its own approach resulting in the exclusion of women from 77 various fields including engineering, natural science, law, social science, and the arts and humanities.

At this point it appears that this is an initiative on the part of individual university administrations and not Iran’s senior leadership. The education ministry, headed by president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointee Kamran Daneshjoo, gave a guarded response to the news saying that the various institutions of higher learning carrying out these policies would be expected to give a reasoning for their actions and prepare the ground for their implementation. In making this statement the ministry gave the impression of dissociating itself from this controversial action by universities. Mohammad-Mehdi Zahedi, head of the Iranian parliament’s education and research committee, gave an even more negative response to the news, saying that the education minister would be expected to present himself to parliament to explain this policy.

While the various branches of the Iranian government have been at best lukewarm in their response to this move, there is evidence to support the notion that this is potentially part of a larger government strategy of marginalizing women in higher education. In the aftermath of the controversial 2009 Iranian presidential election, in which students and women played a prominent role, some senior officials within the regime called for university environments and the academic curriculum to more strictly conform with Islamic criteria. Critics of the regime called this a “Second Cultural Revolution”, a charge that Iran’s education ministry explicitly denied. Iran’s first Cultural Revolution (between 1980-1983) purged the Iranian education system of professors, students, and content deemed to be “un-Islamic”.

On 7 September 2011 the Assembly of Experts, an important clerical body that selects and theoretically supervises the supreme leader, concluded its tenth session by in part declaring that:

“We want high-ranking education officials to implement plans like the segregation of the sexes so that these plan result in protecting the sanctity of youth.”

In the same year, the education ministry began the Islamification of the university curriculum and environment, including segregation of the sexes. However president Ahmadinejad, considered a hardliner outside Iran but viewed as socially moderate inside the country, was quick to quash his own minister’s proposal, asserting that:

“It has been heard that in some universities segregated fields of study and classes have been created without consideration for the consequences. It is necessary to immediately stop these thoughtless and superficial actions.”

Editor’s note: While much remains unclear about the ban on women from certain fields at some of Iran’s public universities, one possibility is that a segment of the regime is testing the water for the introduction of a more socially conservative atmosphere in the country. Earlier this month the regime ended Iran’s highly successful family planning program, calling on women to have more children in order to more than double the population in the decades ahead. The gradual elimination of women from higher education may be intended to complement such policies.

In attempting to create a modern society able to compete with and even beat the West, the Islamic Republic has made public education one of its top priorities, especially in the last two decades. One unintended consequence of this policy has been that Iran now has one of the highest proportions of women in its public post-secondary education system, with nearly two-thirds of university students being female. This has been a boon to women’s social, economic, and political status and a key driver of the strong women’s movement in Iran.

These gains for women however have contradicted the socially conservative nature of the regime, which legally views women as being inferior to men and has systematically excluded or limited females in the middle-to-upper echelons of the regime. The Islamic Republic’s political elite may fear the implications of having so many highly educated but frustrated women who form a dangerous reservoir of resentment against the regime. As we learn more in the weeks and months ahead, it will be easier to determine whether this is an isolated incident or part of a larger regime strategy to marginalize women.