By Philip Nekai
Contributing Writer

Gender based discrimination is a devastating reality that affects countless women in the Middle East. In the case of Iran, sexism is clearly at play, particularly in the realm of higher education. There, 37 universities have recently banned women from earning degrees in traditionally male-dominated studies, such as engineering and the sciences. This comes on the heels of trends that suggest the women have been outperforming men in the academic arena. In fact, in 2001, women comprised 60 percent of the student population (Sahraei). Likewise, the significance of women’s access to higher education could mean that they could become more financially independent and empowered in a traditionally male-dominated society. This thought may scare political and religious leaders who justify the ban by claiming the state’s interest to avert a decline in marriage and birth rate (Sahraei). Nonetheless, barring women from Iranian universities and the subsequent inaction by the Iranian state is a blatant example of discrimination based upon sex.

As a member state of the United Nation, Iran has agreed to strive for certain human rights norms regarding educational opportunities and equality. Particularly, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that education is a right, and “Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit (art.26).” Furthermore, Iran ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) on June 24, 1975. Article 2 of this document affirms that member states shall “ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (art. 26). Thus, Iran’s violations of these agreements warrant international action to ensure equality.

History of Problem and Current Context

It is no secret that religion plays a major role in Iranian society. Since the 1979 Revolution and the overthrow of the Shah, Iran has championed a religious fundamentalist system of government guided by Islamic principles. That being said, in the past Iran has shown great progress regarding women’s access to higher education. As mentioned earlier, women make up increasing amounts of the undergraduate population. However, there was a time when women’s rights were severely diminished. In order to fully understand the significance of Iran’s policy, we will examine the women’s educational attainment during three distinct periods of Iran’s recent history: the Post-Revolution of the 1980s, the liberalization of the 1990s, and the neo-fundamentalism of the 2000s.

The period directly following the 1979 revolution is characterized by the Islamization of Iranian society. For example, Iran’s Cultural Revolution purged academia of all Western and non-Islamic material. Between 1980 and 1983, virtually all universities were shut down in order to secure and expel all undesirable books, professors, and students (Rezai-Rashti 423). Likewise, this period saw a step back in women’s rights. Laws like the Family Protection Act of 1967, which allowed women to initiate divorce, increased the minimum marriage age to 18, and limited the amount of wives that men could marry, was nullified and replaced by patriarchal laws (Rezai-Rashti 423). In education, quotas were put into place to ensure women did not outnumber men in certain fields of study. However, by the end of the 1980s, Iran began to re-examine the role of women after the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the election of President Rafsanjani.

The second significant period in the 1990s saw reforms to higher education. The Rafsanjani administration sought to bring the country in another direction. Iran had just ended its costly war with Iraq and was focused on the country’s long-term success; this allowed for the re-examination of its educational policy and the expansion of opportunities for all Iranians. During his administration, Rafsanjani lifted the quotas on higher education (Rezai-Rashti 424). This resulted in increased female enrollment and women made major gains in most “male-dominated” fields of study. The proportion of women admitted to universities studying science jumped from 37.9 percent in the 1990s to 78.2 percent in 2000; women studying technical engineering rose threefold, from 6.6 percent to 20.9 percent; and women studying agricultural and veterinary sciences rose dramatically from 2.5 percent to 51.1 percent (Rezai-Rashti 427).

However, even with the educational reforms, jobs were scarce. Despite more Iranian women attending college, there appeared to be factors at play that oppressed women in the job market. Most chilling are the inequities in unemployment numbers for men and women. In 2002, unemployment among men was 8.8 percent, compared to 19.6 percent among women (Rezai-Rashti 427). These challenges were not resolved by the time the country’s neo-fundamentalists came into power by 2005.

The third period worth noting is 2005 and onward. The election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad indicated that the Iranian government would yet again focus on limiting the rights of women in order to return to stronger fundamental Islamic values. According to a report by CBS News, Ahmadinejad continues to “push for a purge of liberal and secular teachers from universities” (“Ahmadinejad”). Since taking office, Ahmadinejad has taken strides to replace pragmatic government officials from previous administrations with religious hard-liners. He has called for the forced retirement of dozens of liberal professors. Ahmadinejad’s Science Minister, Kamran Daneshjoo (who likewise directs all state-operated universities) has even pushed for policy mandating gender segregation in schools and a reinstitution of quotas (“Iran”). So far, the goal of Ahmadinejad has been clear: to bring Iran—and its women—back to the post-revolutionary era.

Critique of Policy

Iran continually fails to adhere to international norms in human rights. Since taking power in 2005, the Ahmadinejad administration has made it considerably more difficult for humans right advocates to intervene, such that Iran has consistently justified its behavior by espousing state sovereignty and independence from Western influences. Whether it is on the subject of “Israeli diplomacy” or “nuclear proliferation,” Iran has been highly scrutinized as of late by international powers, especially by the United States. The topic that has not taken a prominent role in this discourse is women’s access to education. This should be a top concern discussed in the international arena because Iran clearly violates international covenants; likewise, Iran can stand to gain much, economically and otherwise, if it allowed women to get their preferred education.

As is proven by the language stated in article 26 of the UDHR, everyone has the right to education. Iran’s policy is unequivocally violating the core values of this human rights document. If this alone does not set precedent for the international community to take action, consider this: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is a binding international agreement, clearly states in article four that laws based on sex discrimination are not allowed. This is a document that Iran agreed upon and ratified in 1975. Therefore, Iran is clearly in violation of international law; the international community has an obligation to take action and steer Iran back into the realm of normalcy.

Banning women from Iranian universities may additionally be a detrimental impact to the future of the state. Education allows for diverse ideas to flourish. The more educated a nation is, the more likely it will lead to innovation, economic growth, and overall progress within that nation. However, limiting access to education in certain fields, and limiting the access to an entire segment of the population for that matter, will have the opposite impact. Iran’s policy dooms the state to be an international pariah. It is a policy that both suppresses economic prosperity and champions gender-based discrimination. Iran is a part of the United Nations and has agreed to comply with the rules establish by multiple covenants and international agreements in all of the documents of the UDHR. The language in the UDHR makes obviates that education is an indiscriminate right and is guaranteed to all, regardless of religion, race, or gender.


Ultimately, the power to enact educational reforms to follow lines of gender equality lies within the state. There was a time when Iran took steps to have an equally educated society. However, much of this is lost due partly by the current Iranian administration and radical changes to its education policies, such as the women’s ban in universities. Alas, even if the university ban was repealed, the country still has to take steps in order to ensure equality for the female portion of its population. Educated women still experience difficulty finding employment. Even for those who are employed, upward mobility into leadership roles in the workforce appear as a male-dominated sector. In any case, though the previously mentioned challenges may take years to overcome, educating Iran’s women may be the ideal catalyst for empowering this marginalized group.

Work Cited

“Ahmadinejad Calls For University Purge.” CBSNews. CBS Interactive, n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.

“Fact Sheet: Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA).” U.S. Department of State. U.S. Department of State, 23 May 2011. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.

“Iran: Ensure Equal Access to Higher Education | Human Rights Watch.” Iran: Ensure Equal Access to Higher Education | Human Rights Watch. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.

Rezai-Rashti, Goli, and Valentine Moghadam. “Women And Higher Education In Iran: What Are The Implications For Employment And The ‘Marriage Market’?.” International Review Of Education / 57.3/4 (2011): 419-441. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.

Sahraei, Fariba. “Iranian University Bans on Women Causes Consternation.” BBC News. BBC, 22 Sept. 2012. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.

Photo by Amir Farshad Ebrahimi

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