Last month, 36 Iranian universities shocked education and women’s advocates around the world by announcing that 77 college programs, which were previously open to both men and women, will no longer accept female students. This turn of events has not received any formal condemnation from the Iranian Ministry of Higher Education or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, though Rooz Online reported that the “Ministry of Education’s academic evaluation organization has taken a position against it and it appears that a review and reversal of the decision may be in the making.” There has been no new development or announcement of a reversal since the news broke in early August.
Resource-efficiency or a legacy of discrimination?
In spite of paying lip-service to the cause of women’s education, recent reports suggest that the Ahmadinejad government has long been working to limit the number of females entering higher education. In 2008, the Majlis [Parliament] Research Centre, a conservative Iranian think tank, published a report that expressed “concern” over the increased number of women in higher education. It called this increase “a waste of the country’s resources for educating professionals.” In fact, the 2006 numbers for women taking university entrance exams was at 60% compared to 42% in 1989. It may not be a coincidence that 2006 also marked the number of seats for females in 26 university courses began to be limited to a certain quota. This was followed by a 2010 UNESCO study whose results showed that women made up about 70% of Iranian graduates in science, more than half in social science, business and law, and more than a quarter in engineering, manufacturing and construction. Even during this latest announcement, Iranian Science Minister Kamran Daneshjoo claimed the main factor to be a need to find a greater “balance” in gender enrollment within the university environment.
One of the several reasons cited by Iranian universities for the decision was a lack of employer demand for women graduates. They cited the employment rate for women under 30 at 28 percent. Indeed, even a recent World Bank report stated that female unemployment in Iran has increased twice that of men (see also “Where are Iran’s Working Women?”) However, the slew of institutional obstacles and social stigmas that emerge for female graduates in the job market are equally a cause of the low employment number. Indeed, the 2008 Majlis report also threatened that the aspirations of educated, job-seeking women would “damage the family institution” as they would prefer to work after marriage too. Furthermore, the public sector is the main employer for women, hiring 87% of working women, because of the security and easy accessibility it offers compared to other fields. Yet, even they hit a glass ceiling and only 5% of the top managerial positions are held by women. Furthermore, even in the case of self-owned businesses, a recent report held that women constitute less than 10% of entrepreneurs in Iran.
Reactions from the International Community
Iran’s only Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Shirin Ebadi who is a graduate from University of Tehran herself, has demanded that the United Nations investigate the state of women’s rights in the country. In a letter written to the United Nations Women Executive Director, Michelle Bachelet, she expressed concern that this decision by Iranian universities will lead to a decrease in the number of female students to less than half. She also noted other Iranian government detrimental activities and policies around reproductive health and human rights, urging the United Nations to examine the situation in the country.
During his visit to Tehran in late August, United Nations Secretary-General did not make direct reference to the ban but his prepared remarks included the following statements: “Women now make up more than half of all university [students] in Iran – that’s again fantastic. This welcome trend must continue with women entering an ever-broader range of professions and fields of study.”
The U.S. State Department’s statement on this decision criticized the actions and statements of the Iranian officials and said that this policy “represents a significant regression for women in Iran” and that it “will further restrict the ability of Iranian women to find employment.”