On August 6, with the new academic year approaching, the government-backed Mehr News Agency in Iran posted a bulletin that 36 universities in the country had excluded women from 77 fields of study. The reported restrictions aroused something of an international uproar. Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel laureate exiled in Britain, wrote a letter to Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary-general, and Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, condemning the measure as “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.” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland read a statement on August 21 calling upon “Iranian authorities 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.”

In Iran, higher education officials went on the defensive, denying the existence of gender discrimination and blaming “clerical error” for what they claimed were misrepresentations in the media. The Education Evaluation Organization, which administers the nationwide entrance exam called the Concours, released a statement saying that a mere 0.3 percent of study programs would be affected by the new policy, which would apply to admission of entering classes. Kamran Daneshjoo, the cabinet minister who is the public face of the restrictions, suggested that the story had been blown out of proportion by the Persian-language services of the BBC and Voice of America. “If they are unhappy,” he said, “it means we are doing the right thing.” [1]

With the fall semester well underway in Iran, it is clear that the spin from both the Islamic Republic and the West was somewhat misleading. The new restrictions affect both men and women, and are part of a long-standing scheme of gender segregation that is not an invention of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hardline conservative government. Such schemes date back to the early years of the Islamic Republic and have been tried by different governments in the service of different goals. In the 1980s, the state sought physically to separate men and women on campus, in keeping with the idea that mingling of the sexes outside the home was “un-Islamic” and dangerous for public morality. Today, the hardliners want to “Islamize” the campus anew, but also to redress the unintended consequences of the feminization of higher education in Iran. The new gender segregation measures are primarily aimed at protecting the life chances of men, in education, marriage and the job market, and at shielding the state from political pressure amidst high unemployment and overall economic malaise.

Devil in the Details

In its late summer defense of the new restrictions, the Education Evaluation Organization marshaled figures that presented the changes as minimal: Of 1.6 million applicants to the nation’s universities, some 631,0000 would be admitted, of whom roughly 570,000 (or 90 percent) would enter programs open to both men and women. Only 31,000 applicants (5.3 percent) would commence study in men-only programs, and 30,000 (4.7 percent) in women-only programs. Nevertheless, the overall gender segregation regime is far larger than these numbers imply. It is a patchwork of different practices that are applied, albeit unevenly, at universities across the country.

Many universities have simply expanded the rigid gender quotas that have been in effect since the Islamic Republic’s first decade, by which a specific number of places are allotted to men and women in each field of study. For example, Tehran University, generally considered the flagship institution of Iranian higher education, allocates half the classroom seats to men and half to women in almost every discipline. If the number of available seats is odd, the extra one, as a rule, goes to a man. In 2012, the philosophy department at Tehran University has admitted 25 students — 13 men and 12 women. There are exceptions to the 50-50 quota system: Shahid Beheshti University, also in the capital, has accepted 110 law students — 60 women and 50 men.

Other schools are separating male and female students into two cohorts, which, at least in theory, will follow two tracks in their studies. The men are admitted in the fall semester and the women in the spring. In practice, however, and in the absence of monitoring of the separation all the way through, the cohorts eventually mix and men and women often end up sitting in the same elective courses. Such is the case, for example, at Arak University in central Iran, which has admitted single-gender cohorts in its Persian literature and Arabic literature programs. Lorestan University in the mountainous west has followed a similar system in its psychology, education, economics and business management programs. It is mostly provincial universities that have carried out such policies. The Islamic Republic has often used the provinces as testing grounds for its more controversial initiatives. The pilot plan is usually implemented in lightly populated provinces to gauge the severity of the reaction in (sometimes radically) different constituencies. If successful, the plan is then extended to larger provinces and the capital city.

Still other universities have reserved certain fields of study exclusively for men, usually fields that for economic or cultural reasons are traditionally regarded as “masculine.” The Oil Industry University, for instance, has barred women from studying accounting, business management and industrial management. According to university officials, women rarely show interest in oil industry careers, and the state is wasting its investment by making free higher education in these fields available to them. But the officials wish as well to secure these highly paid and sought-after jobs for men. Shahid Chamran University, a historically important institution in the southern province of Khuzestan, has likewise excluded women from law, economics, social sciences and geography — and thus from futures in those professions. Tehran’s Allameh Tabatabaei University has designated hotel management, among other fields, as men-only. The hotels in the capital are those where most foreigners would stay and therefore provide hotel employees with more lucrative job opportunities. (Women can still enroll in law, hotel management or economics programs at other universities.)

The men-only programs have garnered the most media coverage, but several institutions have also reserved certain fields of study — often “feminine” ones — exclusively for women. In 2012, Shahid Chamran University admitted no men to study history, Persian literature, psychology or education. Allameh Tabatabaei University has similarly excluded men from education, political science and library science programs. Golestan University in Gorgan near the Caspian Sea has admitted women only into Persian literature and geography courses.

There does not, however, seem to be a countrywide pattern to the new types of single-gender admissions. Various universities seem to have adopted the measures arbitrarily and drawn the line between “masculine” and “feminine” fields of study haphazardly. No one in government, in fact, has taken responsibility for the implementation of the new measures. The Education Evaluation Organization claims that they were proposed by individual deans.

Gender segregation, however, is not solely an administrative practice of admissions officers. Under Kamran Daneshjoo, the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology is also pushing for two types of physical separation of men and women. This ministry oversees all state-run institutions of higher education, which are the most prestigious and resource-rich such institutions in Iran.

In the early 1980s, extremist factions within the fledgling Islamic Republic asked that classrooms be gender-segregated and, in some cases, dividers were actually erected between rows of men and rows of women. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini reportedly instructed Ali Khamenei, then the Republic’s president and now Khomeini’s successor as Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, to speak against this practice in his Friday sermon. The dividers were taken down, but gender segregation endured. Signs went up in hallways, classrooms, libraries and cafeterias directing “sisters” and “brothers” to walk in separate lanes or sit in separate places. These restrictions eventually faded away as it was difficult and costly to monitor students’ every movement. Science Minister Daneshjoo wants these measures back, however, because “Islamization has two dimensions, one of which is content of academic disciplines — especially social sciences — and the other of which is appearances and symbols.” [2] He announced: “Beginning this academic year, male and female students will have to sit in separate rows and university deans are responsible for overseeing this process.” [3] Sharif University, the most reputable technical university in Tehran, was one of the first to follow these instructions. The dean stated that “taking into account the availability of university space and the number of boys and girls,” the school would attempt to hold different classes for men and women. [4]

Daneshjoo is also rallying support among the clergy and in the Majles, the Iranian parliament, for single-gender universities. Single-gender universities have existed in Iran before. Tehran’s Imam Sadiq University, for example, was established in 1982 as an all-male institution. Alzahra university, Tehran’s women-only university, was founded in 1964 as a private school named the Higher Educational Institute for Girls. Ali Motahhari, an MP, pointed out this fact in a letter to President Ahmadinejad. “Even the Shah noted the importance of such initiatives,” he wrote, complaining that in the 32 years since the foundation of the Islamic Republic not a single major all-women university has come into being. “This is while even in the US, the worth of all-women universities has been recognized,” he added. [5]

Gholam Ali Naderi, a Science Ministry official, announced on August 21 that permits had been issued for the establishment of 18 new non-profit universities, in Qom, Karaj, Tabriz and Mashhad, all of which will be single-gender (all-men or all-women). [6] Two hundred and three MPs have signed a statement demanding that all universities allocate money for establishing women-only branches. The Ministry says its goal is to build a women-only university in each province of the country. [7] It remains to be seen whether the state will try to channel women to these women-only spaces or whether they will simply provide women with more choice in higher education. Past experience, however, shows that women have used such spaces as a way of extending their access to and presence in the public sphere.

Cotton and Fire, Meat and Cats

Why is the Islamic Republic pressing for this gender segregation initiative now? The question is particularly interesting in light of reported divisions inside the cabinet when the measures were only proposals. Health Minister Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi, once an advocate of gender segregation at hospitals, complained of the impracticality of such schemes at medical schools. Her comments were evidence that the plans for universities had not been cleared by President Ahmadinejad or his council of ministers. [8] The president himself wrote a letter to the Science Ministry calling for a halt to the “superficial and unscientific” proposals. [9]

Only Daneshjoo defended the plans robustly. They were rooted, he reminded his critics, in a measure passed by the High Council of Cultural Revolution in 1988. “Opponents ask: ‘Why now?’ Well, aren’t you ashamed of asking such questions? Why don’t you ask the previous authorities why they did not enforce the law?” He stressed that 14 senior religious scholars supported the ideas. These remarks have led many observers to read the gender segregation measures as a political maneuver in advance of the 2013 presidential election. Ahmadinejad and his cabinet have had poor relations with the conservative clerical establishment — tensions that deepened after spats about women’s attendance at soccer matches and the appointment of female ministers like Dastjerdi. [10] Ahmadinejad’s two terms in office will shortly expire, and it may be that the hardline camp he represents is hoping for a fresh start with the clerics.

Meanwhile, Daneshjoo also claimed that gender segregation policies were “in line with the Supreme Leader’s demands.” “Criticizing the plan,” he concluded, “is playing on the enemy’s and the opposition’s field.” [11] Indeed, despite his opposition to barriers in classrooms in the early 1980s, Ayatollah Khamenei appears to have embraced the concept of gender segregation by the late 1990s, during the reformist administration of Mohammad Khatami. In one lecture, the Leader berated the science minister of the time, Mohammad Moin, for his carelessness: “Co-ed school trips and retreats? I am baffled! Co-ed retreats?… There are places in the world where the relationship between boys and girls, men and women, is absolutely normal. There are no concerns, meaning that a man and a woman mingle in the same way as two men would or two women would. But in our country, in an Islamic environment, this is not the case.” [12] Hojjat-ol-Islam Nabiallah Fazlali, Khamenei’s representative at Tehran’s Khajeh Nasir Tusi University, lent insight into the Leader’s thinking in 2009 when he spoke of his “bitter memories” of “inappropriate friendships” on campus. “Women and men are like cotton and fire,” Fazlali continued. “If you don’t keep them apart, the cotton catches fire.” What attracts boys and girls to one another is “instinct and lust” — and nothing else. “When you throw a cat raw meat, it will eat the meat. How could it not?” [13] Young men, in both metaphors, are poised literally to devour young women, yet it is clear that the object of the clerics’ concern is the men.

MP Motahhari criticized Ahmadinejad for his initial opposition to gender segregation measures, saying it was of a piece with the president’s overly liberal tendencies in the cultural sphere. “If men and women are to mingle,” Motahhari declared, “then sexual relations should also be permitted, as in the Western world. Otherwise, the suppression of sexual desire leads to various mental and psychological problems.” [14] If the sexes mingle freely, in the deputy’s mind, young men will need to suppress their desire. Earlier in 2012, in a religious TV program aimed at youth, Hojjat-ol-Islam Naser Naghavian, Khamenei’s cultural representative at Shahid Beheshti University, recalled the extreme frustration of a young male student who asked him if it was religiously permissible to feel sexual urges when sitting behind a woman in the classroom. The moral of the story would seem to be that if the cat cannot eat the meat, the meat must be taken away.

Hojjat-ol-Islam Mohsen Qaraati offers a different solution. He suggests that, until the state manages to implement gender segregation fully, women should refrain from wearing makeup and bright-colored dresses, so as to avoid “distracting” or “provoking” men. Sexually frustrated young men, meanwhile, should enter temporary marriages (mut‘a) with widows until they are ready to settle down permanently. “This,” he suggests, “would eliminate millions of sins.” [15] Hossein Malekafzali, from the Tehran University of Medical Sciences, explains what the “sins” are, claiming that “10 percent of our university students are engaged in various levels of [illegitimate] sexual relations.” [16]

“Lost in the Shadow of Modern Women”

But the regulation of sexuality is not the only motive behind the gender segregation moves, and worries over the position of women in Iranian universities are not new under Ahmadinejad. In 1998, for the first time in Iranian history, women outnumbered men in the ranks of newly admitted university students. Women’s share of places at university has been on the rise ever since, reaching a peak in 2008 when women made up 66 percent of the first-year class. Subsequently, this number has fallen to around 60 percent. But the overall trend of feminization is clear, and it is not restricted to undergraduate education. According to Fereshteh Roohafza of the Women’s Cultural and Social Council, a subdivision of the High Council of Cultural Revolution, in the past decade there has been a 269 percent increase in the number of women in doctoral programs, while the number of women pursuing a master’s degree has jumped by a factor of 26. [17]

Government officials and state-sanctioned news agencies constantly cite these figures, along with others indicating the explosion of female literacy (especially in rural areas), to present the Islamic Republic to the world as a promoter of women’s rights. Inside the corridors of power, however, the statistics are a source of anxiety. Iranian authorities express concern over the growth in the rate of divorce (up by 135 percent over the past decade) and the lagging number of new marriages. Tayebeh Safaei, a university professor and a member of Parliament’s education and research commission, worries about the remarkable gains of women in education: “Instead of talking about gender equality, we need to talk about gender justice. Because these imbalances can lead to social crises.” [18] What is the “social crisis”? All over the conservative press and online, commentators fret that men are losing out in education and the work force. (In reality, men continue to outnumber and out-earn women in the job market, but the perception is otherwise.) One such article reads like a requiem for male glory. “Modern men,” the author implies, are lost “in the shadow of modern women”: “It is obvious that men are becoming junior partners. The man of the house is just a bank account who has no say in anything…. ‘Whipped’ is the best adjective for describing modern men…. Effeminacy is at the heart of modernity: Men are no longer the men they used to be. They have almost been transformed into a third gender, floating between manhood and womanhood…. Women are the center, like the sun, and men are relegated to the margins, useless and submissive, like the moon [whose light is a reflection of the sun’s]…. It’s fair to call them ‘dopey fathers.’” [19]

Risible rhetoric aside, the social landscape in Iran has indeed changed, and with it the status of traditional gender norms and values. The university campus is one place where the state can try to modulate the pace of change.

In 2000, during the Khatami presidency, higher education officials pressed for stricter gender quotas, aiming to reserve half of the seats in each entering class for men and half for women. This initiative would have cut the number of women in some fields, but also increased it in technical fields where women were underrepresented at the time. Critics accused the state of taking a step toward curbing women’s access to higher education and phasing out female-dominated disciplines. Officials denied it, and the initiative was tabled. In 2002, Hossein Rahimi, director of the Education Evaluation Organization, again broached the subject of a 50 percent gender quota, arguing that this measure would improve the quality of education. That same year, the High Council of Medical Education Planning, a branch of the Ministry of Health and Medical Education, demanded that up to 50 percent of the seats in medicine and dentistry be allocated to women. And while on the face of it, this step seemed to benefit women, many believed it was intended to put a cap on the ever growing proportion of women in medical practice. Numerous women’s rights activists opposed the proposal, along with 156 members of the reformist-led Sixth Majles, who requested that it be suspended. When the demand was presented to the cabinet, Khatami asked for more research into its likely consequences.

The feminization of higher education has been inexorable, however, for the simple reason that girls are achieving higher scores on admissions exams than boys. In 2012, too, more than 60 percent of new admits to university are women. Women ranked first in natural sciences, social sciences, foreign languages and literatures, and art — every field of the Concours, in fact, except mathematics. The gender disparity in achievement persists at the university level. Even in the “masculine” field of mining engineering, reportedly, four of the top six graduates in Tehran University’s class of 2012 were women. Iranian women of all levels of education are increasingly finding their way into “masculine” domains of the job market.

As sociology professor Shahla Ezazi points out, “In recent years, women’s share of university education and especially technical education has been growing. Thus their chances of getting a prestigious job with a high salary are growing as well.” [20] In Iran, however, male employment is still considered primary; the husband is supposed to be the main breadwinner. This confluence of factors likely explains why universities are trying to reestablish the distinction between “masculine” and “feminine” fields of study. The Oil Industry University, for instance, has justified its new restrictions on the grounds that certain fields do not suit “women’s nature” because of “difficult working conditions.”

Conservatives portray these attempts to enforce a gendered division of labor as natural and desirable. Pouran Valuyun, a conservative female judge and adviser to the judiciary, asks, “Why is it that when we excluded men from certain medical fields [such as gynecology] four years ago, there was not a peep? Now suddenly everyone is concerned!” [21] Another conservative commentator objects to the “overpopulation of government organizations with women and spinsters who have, amidst the unemployment crisis, restricted men’s access to the job market.” For him, women’s mass entry into the workplace explains the lowering rate of marriage: “At first glance, women’s employment might work in their interest, but under the current circumstances in our society men should be given priority in the job market…because an unemployed man equals a husband-less woman. No one will marry off their daughter to an unemployed man, but an unemployed woman has no problem getting married.” [22]

Protecting Men and the State

The September 15, 2012 issue of Hamshahri Javan, a state-run magazine intended for youth, dedicates an entire section to women’s successes, but depicts them as dangerous. The main cover title reads: “Hands Up! Women Ambushing Social Spheres: First Universities, Then Sports and Now Key Jobs. What’s the Next Target?”

A girl in pigtails armed with an assault rifle faces down a tall, top-hatted man with spindly legs, whose shadow is seen against the wall. The illustration evokes My Daddy Long Legs, a 1990 Japanese anime television series (based on the 1912 American novel Daddy-Long-Legs written by Jean Webster), which was dubbed in Persian and shown on state-run TV in the 1990s. The series tells the tale of a girl, Judy Abbott, who is attending college thanks to a wealthy man whom she has seen only in silhouette. The message of the Hamshahri Javan cover would seem to be that Iran’s Judy Abbotts have not only outgrown their need for male benefactors, but also become hostile toward them. One article inside, titled “Dear Boys, Don’t You Worry,” refers to the “ambushing” of university seats as “the first step” in the encroachment of women into all areas of social life.

The feminization of Iranian higher education is a phenomenon deeply rooted in social change, rather than in political divides inside and outside the Islamic Republic. Opposition to the new gender segregation regime is coming not only from students and professors but also from conservative women’s groups such as the Islamic Coalition of Women and the Islamic Population of Women Followers of Hazrat Zahra. The criticisms have been fierce enough that some universities, like Shahid Chamran, have rescinded the initial restrictions on what and where young men and women may study.

Meanwhile, the evidence from the Iranian press and the statements of public officials suggests that the fresh turn toward gender segregation policies, while its costs are paid mainly by women, is more about an escalating concern with a crisis of masculinity, embodied in sexually frustrated, under-educated men who are confronting a bleak future. The state wants to give an impotent masculinity the kiss of life rather than kiss a potent femininity goodbye. And it is not about men’s feelings. Iran is in economic crisis, squeezed by sanctions, reeling from devaluation of the rial and worn down by a high unemployment rate. The hardliners in control of the Iranian state are employing all measures possible to stave off social unrest led by jobless men, whom their assumptions lead them to fear the most.

Image: Hamshahri Javan cover.


[1] Khabar Online, August 12, 2012.
[2] Fararu, July 7, 2011.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Mehr News Agency, June 27, 2011.
[5] Parsine, July 6, 2011.
[6] Farda News, August 21, 2012.
[7] Khabar Online, October 1, 2011.
[8] Fars News Agency, September 8, 2012.
[9] Khabar Online, October 1, 2011.
[10] See Nazanin Shahrokni, “All the President’s Women,” Middle East Report 253 (Winter 2009).
[11] Fars News Agency, July 5, 2011.
[12] Student News Agency (Iran), October 24, 2011.
[13] Radio Farda, November 20, 2009.
[14] Parsine, July 6, 2011.
[15] Etemad, October 3, 2012.
[16] Jamejam, June 21, 2012.
[17] Fars News Agency, February 10, 2012.
[18] Tebyan, July 10, 2012.
[19] Rasekhoon, April 30, 2012.
[20] Daneshjoo News, August 10, 2012.
[21] Iran Zanan, August 16, 2012.
[22] Alef, August 10, 2012.

How to cite this article:

Parastou Dokouhaki, Nazanin Shahrokni "A Separation at Iranian Universities," Middle East Report Online, October 18, 2012.

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