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No, Iran Didn't Just Ban Women From Universities.

I awoke yesterday morning to a barrage of excited, fearful, and shocked emails and messages demanding to understand why Iran had suddenly decided to ban women from entering university. Given that Iranian women comprise over 60% of students in upper education in Iran and that women’s rights to education is deeply embedded in both the ideology and the practice of the Islamic Republic (as I have previously outlined regarding Islamic feminism in this piece), the idea that women could be “banned” from universities struck me as quite preposterous. Despite this, these rumors have gained steam, and the outrage provoked among feminists and those concerned with women’s rights in Iran has understandably led to a search for answers.

On August 20, Robert Tait published a bizarrely contradictory article entitled “Anger as Iran bans women from universities” in The Telegraph that suggests that women in Iran will be hereto banned from universities because of the worries of “senior clerics.” The piece’s subtitle immediately contradicts the inflammatory title, reversing the claim that women have been banned “from universities” by explaining that “female students in Iran have been barred from more than 70 university degree courses in an officially-approved act of sex-discrimination.” Tait proceeds to contradict himself again in the first paragraph, where he further explains that 36 universities had decided of their own accord to ban entrance to women in 77 undergraduate-level courses.

This article is the most recent in a series of inaccurate, misleading, and irresponsible articles about Iranian women and the fight for women’s rights in Iran published by The Telegraph. This is the same paper that last spring completely fabricated a story about Iranian women training to be “ninja assassins” to defend their country against invasion (they were actually just practitioners of the Japanese martial art in their local dojo, without murderous intent).

Meanwhile, the University Ban piece has been republished in various forms in other media outlets, like the Daily Beast where it has been given the equally misleading title “Iran Bans Women from College Courses.” This is a shame, not only because Robert Tait intentionally misleads his readers, but also because he uses a series of vague generalizations and bizarre half-truths to spin a tale of evil Iranian ayatollahs attacking Iranian women that bears only a passing resemblance to the reality of women’s education in Iran.

To start off with, the decision of these 36 universities is ridiculous and discriminatory and must be reversed. However, these decisions by specific universities are a far cry from “Iran” banning all women from attending all universities, as the title of the article implies. In fact, the decision of these universities has not been “officially-approved” by any stretch of the imagination, and a Director General in charge of education at the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology has sent letters to the universities (which have private decision-making) demanding explanations for the decisions taken. Although various officials have offered some half-hearted explanation for the decision- mostly focusing around the inability to women to get jobs in the particular fields of study banned- it also appears that the effort is part of an attempt to even the gender imbalance that has meant that Iranian women get accepted into universities at a rate of 60-40 as compared to their male counterparts. Once again, while I reject this logic and oppose any attempts to lessen the amount of women in higher education, understanding the context of Iranian education is crucial to understanding the issue.

Today, Iran has one of the highest ratios of participation of women to men in higher education of any country in the world. Iranian women have entered into many fields across the board in astounding numbers since the Islamic Revolution, struggling against war, economic crisis, and domestic oppression to achieve some of the highest rates of education (and to a lesser degree, workforce participation) in the region. Additionally, the Islamic ideology of the regime has facilitated the entrance of women into education en masse, because this ideology sees women’s advancement and emancipation within an “Islamic” framework as necessary to national progress and views women’s education as central to this project. On one hand, state efforts like the mass literacy campaigns and expansion of education in the 1980’s and 1990’s targeting women helped increase the literacy rate from 29% in 1976 to 87% in 2005. On the other hand, many women in Iran have adopted the Islamic ideology of the state and have developed an Islamic feminism that stresses their rights and the state’s obligations to support them.

Tait’s piece, however, offers us none of this context. Instead, we are told that “senior clerics”- which senior clerics? where? – are “concerned” about the “social side-effects of rising educational standards among women, including declining birth and marriage rates.” I am sure this is a true statement on some level, but to say that “senior clerics in Iran think xyz” is about as precise as saying “politicians in America think xyz,” which is to say that it means about nothing. If “senior clerics” are concerned about women being too educated, where were they when “senior clerics” lent their support to one of the world’s most progressive family planning systems, a system that ensures free access to condoms for Iranian women and men? Did “senior clerics” not also oversee and give religious authorization to the program that led to 74% contraceptive use among Iranians, the highest rate in the region?

Even more laughable than this vague “senior clerics” term that Tait bandies about is that the title implies that somehow the Iranian government gave its blessing to the recent university courses ban. This despite the fact that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself opposed any attempt to impose gender segregation in schools just last year.

Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi.

The Iranian government would do well to listen to Iranian democracy activist Shirin Ebadi, who has demanded that the universities in question reverse this nonsensical ban on women’s entrance into 77 courses. But the international media, and writers like Robert Tait, would do well to do some research on Iran before they write this kind of inflammatory, misleading nonsense about the government’s treatment of Iranian women.

Iranian women have been demanding for their rights for the last 30 years, in many cases developing strategies of liberation that incorporate Islamic ideology and fighting to a reform a system that is imperfect and oppressive but which has also historically prioritized women’s access to education as a fundamental right. Repeating tired cliches of authoritarian, evil clerics locking Iranian women up in their homes that bears little resemblance to reality only serves to further distort the flawed perceptions of Iran in the Western media. This ultimately does no favors for the Iranian women struggling to secure their own rights.

About Alex Shams

Alex Shams is bacheye Los Angeles, a fact he has spent years trying to deny but eventually learned to embrace. Raised in the diaspora but with as many summers as possible spent in Tehran, he first became interested in regional politics after being chased out of a history class debate at his evangelical middle school during the Iraq War. After a few years dividing his time between Beirut, Istanbul and, most recently, Boston, he is now working in journalism and is based out of Palestine. His interests include feminism, urbanism and Islamism in Iran and the Arab World. Follow him on twitter: @SeyyedReza He is a co-editor of Ajam Media Collective, a blog focused on Iran, Central Asia, and Diaspora societies and cultures.

Discussion

26 Responses to “No, Iran Didn't Just Ban Women From Universities.”

  1. Great piece! Thank you for the clarification. Just wanted to know that the claim that 32 government universities will not allow women in the 77 universities is absolutely false then? How many universities have actually proposed this policy then?

    Posted by Ali raza | August 22, 2012, 19:29
  2. Thanks for the writeup. But I found your post containing to much rhetoric and to little actual facts and arguments. Even if only one university banned a certain group of the people from entering one course in their program this is called discrimination in most other countries and creates big protests. Imagine if they banned muslims in the UK from entering a certain course; we would be fast in shouting for our rights. But why is these X number of universities banning women from certain courses? So you admit its true? Why isn’t the government or other politicians reacting to this discrimination? Forget R. Tait’s article, but this ban is insane and its strange that the universities are even allowed to do this!!

    Posted by Ehsan (@majnun313) | August 23, 2012, 01:11
    • I agree completely that this ban is discrimination and is unacceptable, a point I have stressed in the article repeatedly. However, my point in this article is to discuss how the news of a ban was radically decontextualized and exaggerated far beyond the reality in order to mislead Western audiences about the actual situation in Iran.

      At the moment, there is an ongoing public debate about the ban taking place in Iran. One of the links I provide above mentions that even one day after the ban was announced the Director General in charge of education at the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology sent letters demanding explanations (link is here: http://www.roozonline.com/english/news3/newsitem/article/77-academic-subjects-announced-not-suitable-for-women.html), and in the meanwhile in the press there are numerous pieces questioning the ban and its legality (here’s one recent example- in Persian: http://khabaronline.ir/detail/236185/society/education).

      Posted by Alex Shams (@seyyedreza) | August 23, 2012, 15:12
      • You keep going on about how the Ministry of Science and Technology has sent letters “demanding explanations”, however you fail to point out that the same ministry “issued several statements in recent months regarding the virtues of separating of the sexes in universities”! (from a source you love to quote: http://www.payvand.com/news/11/jun/1270.html).

        So, how much do you expect we believe that the Ministry of Science and Technology is incensed by this ban? They talk out of two sides of their face! They issue statement after statement about segregating the sexes, which is very difficult for the universities (strapped for cash) to do, but then send letters “demanding explanations” when the universities ban women. Do you really expect us to believe that the ministry is a bastion of all things equality?

        Did it ever cross your mind that the Ministry is lying and posturing and (not so) secretly loving this decision (in fact they’re probably behind it)? And the fact that you believe that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad actually wrote letters is stunningly naive, when “Ayatollah Khamenei pointed to universities as a root of unrest in Iranian society following the mass protests against the results of the 2009 presidential election.” (same source: http://www.payvand.com/news/11/jun/1270.html).

        Do you actually believe that the ministry is upset with this decision, when Ayatollah Khamenei is for it? Do you actually believe that these universities would ban women if the ministry (and by extension, Ayatollah Khamenei) were against it?

        I’m sorry, Alex, but you really are a sophist mouthpiece for the patriarchal, Islamist regime in Iran.

        Posted by Michael D. | June 14, 2013, 18:51
  3. Don’t agree at all. It is sex discrimination on the part of the universities. Officials should not allow it to happen.

    Posted by Kiarash | August 23, 2012, 05:21
  4. You accuse others of being misleading and vague, yet your article is even more misleading and vague. How do you explain how 36 seperate universities “with private decision making” all simultaneously decide to ban women from certain courses. How does that make any sense? Your article arouses more questions than answers.

    Posted by TonyT | August 23, 2012, 07:12
    • Similar to the situation in most other countries, university administrators can contact eachother directly and can discuss and implement policies in cooperation without their actions being necessarily being forced by the “government” (and for that matter, which part of the government?).

      This is one reason that the ban seems so arbitrary- it affects only these specific 36 universities and in each university a different range of fields are affected. The ban itself actually contradicts both national precedent as well as the prior actions of the current President Ahmadinejad against gender segregation (http://www.radiozamaneh.com/english/content/ahmadinejad-speaks-out-against-gender-segregation-universities).

      Posted by Alex Shams (@seyyedreza) | August 23, 2012, 15:20
      • Iranian Minister for Science and Higher Education Kamran Daneshjoo claims the move is necessary to restore “gender balance” in the universities. It is pretty clear that it had influence in this decision. Either way, it is sex-discrimination and should not be allowed and the enforcement should be done by the government. So we hold them responsible for allowing such disgusting policies to occur.

        Posted by Kiarash | August 24, 2012, 01:02
  5. The biggest problem is how the West relentlessly attacks Iran in a transparent lust for oil. Quite apart from its ruinous impact on their own populaces, it is the direct and sole enemy of Islamic feminism and progress for women’s rights, and the wider struggle for true freedom in the region. Iranian feminists can only go so far in criticizing, fighting and campaigning against their own government, before they become part of the problem; selling out their own people as alienated stooges of America and Israel.

    Posted by Aisha | August 23, 2012, 09:48
  6. I am an American, a graduate of college and a lawyer. I have all the biases and lack of specific knowledge that is common to most American women. It feels improper for me to impose my cluture on another but gender discrimination is also something I do not want to condone.

    Posted by Ann Johnston | August 23, 2012, 15:34
  7. I understand that the main point of your article was to discuss how the Western news makes generalizations and is misleading about Iran, but your article was confusing as well. It seems that you’re almost defending the people in charge of making these decisions in the Iranian government. By repeatedly pointing out that Tait used the term “senior cleric” in a bad and uninformed way, it seems that you’re saying that the Islamic regime’s government officials didn’t have much to do with the ban. Also, bringing up a few of the more “positive” changes that the Islamic regime has made, like the family planning and Ahmadinejad’s views, doesn’t help that there’s still gross amounts of injustice in that regime, and that they are in fact trying to ban women from entering those subjects you mentioned.
    And yes, I know that you expressed in the article that you think the ban is ridiculous, and that that wasn’t the point you were discussing. I think I just didn’t understand your view on Iran’s ridiculous clerics that rule the country.

    Posted by khanoom | August 23, 2012, 20:47
    • Regarding terms like “senior clerics” and “government officials”-

      I agree that the state is authoritarian and there are far too many powerful, retrogressive, and reactionary clerics and officials who are doing their best to impose their beliefs on the country. At the same time, however, there’s a lot more going on in Iran- there is much more discussion and debate between clerics, officials, and activists so that I don’t think it makes sense to say that “clerics said this” or that “government officials have done this” or any other blanket statements that ignore the long history of both negative and positive decisions and trends emerging from the Iranian system and context.

      I’m sure a number of officials were involved in the ban, but the reaction last summer to attempts to gender segregate universities- Ahmadinejad instructed Minister Daneshjoo to halt any attempts, and the Minister insisted he had no plan to segregate- shows the diversity of opinion in the government regarding the issue. So saying that “government officials” did something is fine, sure, but they can also do other things. This ban will go into effect NEXT September, and given the current public debate about it I truly hope it will be overturned soon.

      Posted by Alex Shams (@seyyedreza) | August 24, 2012, 10:18
  8. Your article is misleading. In Iran, even “private” universities must obey the regulations of the ministries, state-interpreted Islam, and the law of the land. Like American Universities, licensed schools are ultimately under the jurisdiction of the government, and some practices are illegal in this respect. In Iran, the fact that the government has allowed this descrimination to happen – even if was instigated by colluding private institutions – is in effect an endorsement of the decision. Even if it was not planned or demanded by the central authorities – which I highly doubt – you are crazy if you think 36 universities can enforce this without government sanction and participation.

    Second, you are greatly underestimating how much authority the government has on policies regarding education, especially universities. I do not know why you are giving the IR State the benefit of the doubt on this, especially regarding its history of banning women from certain subjects. This is not the first time this has happened, dude. Shirin Ebadi herself was dismissed as a judge and women were banned from several subjects following the revolution. Plus I highly doubt that 36 universities all got together and decided this detailed policy, all without the government knowing. You can’t even get 100 people together together in one room in Iran with the government knowing.

    Third, we can debate about various factions of religious leaders and I agree that we should refract this group and talk about their internal conflicts and diversity. But when you hear “senior clerics” when talking about Iran I immediately think “Guardian council”, which is only 12 dudes, and that we can talk about in terms of “think XYZ” because they “very often give official opinions on XYZ”. Perhaps this is what the articles were referring to, although I’d have to read more of the persian sources.

    Posted by rt | August 23, 2012, 21:28
    • Yes, in Iran, private universities have to obey laws of the land. This decision was announced by the universities to go into effect NEXT September, and it is currently being reviewed and discussed. Here is one article discussing whether the ban is illegal under the constitution: http://khabaronline.ir/detail/236185/society/education. I am hopefully and confident it will be overturned, particularly given the successful reaction to stop last summer’s attempts to gender segregate universities. In Iran, as with most other countries on earth, decisions made by institutions do not go into effect immediately, and there is a certain measure of public and official debate over the issue.

      Comparing a ban on women’s entrance to certain courses in 2012 with the Islamic Revolution in 1979 is extremely dramatic and inaccurate. Her being banned as a judge as a result of massive legal structural changes following the Revolution and the resulting chaos is clearly an entirely different context than a system where women make up 65% of higher education and are being restricted from entering certain courses. I disagree with both decisions, but any comparison is entirely misleading and taken completely without any sense of context.

      “Senior clerics” does not mean “Guardian Council” in this case, otherwise it would be explained as the “Guardian Council.” However, no one from the Guardian Council is quoted in the Telegraph piece, so I’m not sure where the author pulled these ideas from or how he is aware of their “worries”. I think here he used the word “senior clerics” because he didn’t want to do his research.

      Posted by Alex Shams (@seyyedreza) | August 24, 2012, 10:29
  9. How about this – is this true?
    Iran moves to legalize marriage for girls under 10 years old

    http://bit.ly/T3lbee

    Posted by engelo | August 24, 2012, 06:54
    • Thats def not true. I talked to some experts in Iran about this and its a fabrication. Don’t sign!

      Posted by rt | August 24, 2012, 10:10
      • Do you have any links debunking it?

        Posted by Alex Shams (@seyyedreza) | August 24, 2012, 10:30
      • I’d like to see some links too

        Posted by engelo | August 24, 2012, 10:42
      • I’ll try to find some and post here. I’m no fan of the IR but I also despise inaccurate information.

        Posted by RT | August 24, 2012, 10:56
      • yes please do, if you can, this thing is driving me nuts and the islamophobe community is just having a field day..

        Posted by engelo | August 24, 2012, 13:31
      • Not an answer to the question, but relevant and interesting data regarding progressive changes in social programs and value shifts that accompanied reactionary lawmaking post-1979:

        “A few simple statistics can help capture the contradictions unleashed by two decades of revolutionary Islamic rule. The Islamic Republic lowered the minimum age for marriage of girls from 16 years to 9 years – a highly controversial move, which effectively sanctioned child marriage.

        And yet, the mean age at first marriage for women before the Revolution was 19.7 years (1976); twenty years later it had gone up to 22.4 years (2003) [now it is 24 (2011)]. Female literacy, which was 35.6 percent in 1976, rose to 80 percent in 1999 (and for rural women it rose from 17.4 percent to 62.4 percent), and by 2001 more than 50 percent of university students were women.”

        http://www.kevanharris.com/post/17042202622/1789-1979-and-all-that

        Posted by Alex Shams (@seyyedreza) | August 24, 2012, 14:36
      • So Alex – it is true that marriage for girls under 10 is now legal in Iran?

        Posted by engelo | August 24, 2012, 15:36
      • Sorry, that article was discussing the legal age immediately after the Revolution. Currently (I understand that) it is 13 for girls and 15 for boys, though statistically it is extremely rare for people to marry at this age due to education, social pressure towards later marriage, and sexual education courses.

        Posted by Alex Shams (@seyyedreza) | August 24, 2012, 21:00
      • Here is more information from Women Living Under Muslim Laws Solidarity Network:

        “Recently, a petition generated by thepetitionsite.com claiming that the “Iranian government is legalizing marriage for under 10-year olds” has been spreading widely. I would like to bring it to your attention that the petition is neither accurate nor credible. Our trusted Iranian colleagues have consulted Farsi media agencies and all their contacts and confirmed that the information is incorrect and misleading. Furthermore , it was confirmed that there is no such statement or anything similar in the Majlis. There is only a PANEL DISCUSSION on early marriage which was published by a News Agency Khabar Online,
        (http://www.khabaronline.ir/detail/232286/society/social-damage).”

        https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=351609644923634&id=173314106036158

        Posted by Alex Shams (@seyyedreza) | September 2, 2012, 10:56
  10. Thank you for this informative piece

    Posted by G mohammadeh | September 11, 2012, 08:57

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