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Revolution and Counter-Revolution

Backlash: Gender Segregation in Iranian Universities

Illustration by Arbu.

April 28, 2013

On August 6, 2012, 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. 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 academic year well under way 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. 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 to physically 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.

Women in the shadow of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini.

The Devil’s in the Details

The overall gender segregation regime 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. 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 any 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, and Lorestan University in the mountainous west. 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.

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 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.

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.

Gender segregation, however, is not solely an administrative practice of admissions officers. 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, the leader of the 1979 revolution, reportedly spoke against this practice. 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: “Beginning this academic year, male and female students will have to sit in separate rows and university deans are responsible for overseeing this process.”[2]

Daneshjoo is also rallying support among the clergy and in the Majles, the Iranian parliament, for single-gender universities. The ministry says its goal is to build a women-only university in each province of the country.[3] 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

Faced with opposition, Daneshjoo claimed that gender segregation policies were “in line with the Supreme Leader’s demands.”[4] Indeed, despite his opposition to barriers in classrooms in the early 1980s, Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, 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 had berated the science minister of the time, Mohammad Moin, for his carelessness: “Co-ed school trips and retreats? I am baffled! There are places in the world where mingling of the sexes, is absolutely normal. But in our country, in an Islamic environment, this is not the case.”[5] 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?” [6] 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.

Earlier in 2012, in a religious TV program aimed at youth, Hojjat-ol-Islam Naser Naghavian, Khanmenei’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. Echoing Naghavian, MP Motahhari declared, “If men and women are to mingle, 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.”[7] In the deputy’s mind, if the sexes mingle freely, young men will need to suppress their desire. The moral of the story would seem to be that if the cat cannot eat the meat, the meat must be taken away.

“Lost in the Shadow of Modern Women”

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. The overall trend of feminization 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.[8]

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 to the world the Islamic Republic as a promoter of women’s rights. Inside the corridors of power, however, the statistics are a source of anxiety. Tayebeh Safaei, a member of Parliament’s education and research commission, worries about the remarkable gains of women in education: “These imbalances can lead to social crises.”[9] 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. ‘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. 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].”[10]

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.

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. The criticisms have been so fierce 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, although 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.

[1] Khabar Online, August 12, 2012.
[2] Fararu, July 7, 2011.
[3] Fars News Agency, July 5, 2011.
[4] Student News Agency (Iran), October 24, 2011.
[5] Radio Farda, November 20, 2009.
[6] Parsine, July 6, 2011.
[7] Khabar Online, October 1, 2011.
[8] Fars News Agency, February 10, 2012.
[9] Tebyan, July 10, 2012.
[10] Rasekhoon, April 30, 2012.

Nazanin Shahrokni, University of California, Berkeley, USA
Parastoo Dokouhaki, Journalist, Tehran, Iran

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