Last week following the prompting of the country’s chief religious authority, 36 Iranian universities announced that 77 degree programs will, from now on, be restricted to males only. This edict comes at a time when Iranian women not only make up 65% of students in the country’s colleges and universities, but for the past several years have outperformed men in the college entrance exams.
The announcement was swiftly followed by condemnations — the loudest among them coming from Shirin Ebadi. Ebadi is considered the leading human rights advocate in Iran and has been awarded a Nobel Prize for her work. Now, Ebadi is calling on the UN Human Rights Commission to investigate the policy.
Recent advances by women have caused concerns among Iran’s religious establishment that academic and professional success could boomerang onto the country’s social order and cause a decline in marriage and birth rates.
The new policy will see women barred from majors ranging from English language and English literature to engineering and computer science. One of the leading Iranian universities, the Oil Industry University, which has several campuses across the country, announced that it will begin to exclude female students completely, citing a lack of employer demand as the reason. A similar justification was used by Isfahan University, which will make its prestigious mining engineering program male-only starting this fall. The spokesman for the university said that 98% of women who graduate from the program fail to find jobs.
Writing to Ban Ki Moon, the UN secretary general, and Navi Pillay, the high commissioner for human rights, Mrs Ebadi, a human rights lawyer exiled in the UK, said the real agenda was to reduce the proportion of female students to below 50% – from around 65% at present – thereby weakening the Iranian feminist movement in its campaign against discriminatory Islamic laws.
Ebadi says that the edict is just the latest salvo in the fight to roll back the freedoms enjoyed by women in Iran since the 1979 revolution, adding that imams were uncomfortable with women entering the public sphere in such an aggressive way. By limiting their access to higher education, authorities hope to strangle the nascent Iranian feminist movement.
Some Iranian members of Parliament also expressed concern about the new policy and have asked the deputy science and higher education officials to defend the rationale behind it. The minister, Kamran Daneshjoo, said that the reaction was overblown in light of the fact that women are still admitted to 90% of degree programs in the country’s universities. He said that “balance” was the reason behind the new restrictions.