There is one country in the world that has the highest ratio of female to male undergraduates, according to UNESCO.
It is not the United States. Nor is it a European state. Nor is it Israel.
It is the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI).
Surprised? I’m not. Iranian women are brilliant. In fact, women outnumbered men in a ratio of three to two this year alone in passing Iran’s notoriously difficult university entrance exams, having consistently outperformed their male counterparts across a variety of subjects.
The regime this week showered Iran’s female students with an extraordinary reward for their incredible hard work and commendable intelligence: leading universities from all over the country announced the ban of women from some of the most popular academic subjects in the state, ranging from English literature to electrical engineering and business management.
Perhaps one could make the argument that proficiency in electrical engineering would enable an Iranian woman to create dangerously feminist digital hardware (perhaps the only chip the government wants Iranian women to tackle is the kind that is baked and/or fried). Or maybe there is a concern that a background in business management would result in the Iranian female equivalent of a Steve Jobs (somehow, “Seeb” sounds a lot less promising than its English counterpart). But it seems to be about much more than that. Writing from exile in the UK, Nobel laureate and extraordinary poet Shirin Ebadi noted that the action “is 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. The aim is that women will give up their opposition and demands for their own rights.”
Iran’s senior clerics believe that such a ban would counter the state’s declining birth and marriage rates.
“Some fields are not very suitable for women’s nature,” said Abolfazl Hasani, a senior Iranian education official, according to the Rooz Online report.
But Ebadi believes that the policy is geared towards reducing Iran’s proportion of female students to 50% (it currently stands at 65%).
To us in the U.S. and elsewhere, this move seems counter-productive to the ideal role of government as encouraging, not discouraging, an educated citizenry. How can we understand a system in which the state actually wants to REDUCE the percentage of citizens that seeks higher education? Yet with regards to Iran today, I can imagine something almost akin to Superman’s “Bizarro World,” wherein powerful male government officials congregate in a room and an education minister woefully declares, “We are facing a national emergency. This blasted 65% ratio cannot continue to rise. Therefore, it is truly in the state’s best interest to ensure that the female student rate is reduced to a healthy 50%.” It might be simplistic and even unfair, but that’s how the scenario would play out in my mind. Maybe I’ve read one too many comic strips. Or maybe the fact that in a country with 23% inflation rate, crippling economic sanctions, and tangible instability as a result of internal political backstabbing and external military threats—a sudden urgency to target women and ban them from studying accounting seems almost cartoonish and comical in and of itself.
Iran today is by no means a model for promoting human rights. Yet for me, attacking women on the educational front truly hits below the belt. And it is for one simple reason: I know the potential of Iranian women, of the magic of their minds and the necessary essence of their imaginative knowledge.
I have lived in the U.S. for many years and have been exposed to brilliant Iranian-American women, particularly young professionals whom I count as colleagues through 30 YEARS AFTER—young women such as Channah B., who will begin her Ph.D. in September at UCLA with a full scholarship or Parisa R., who arrived in Cambridge this week to pursue her Master’s at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Yet this is precisely what kills me when I read that dozens of Iranian universities are enforcing “single-gender” courses and programs, i.e. those that will be the exclusive domain of men. For there are millions of Channahs and Parisas living in Iran today. The only disparity is that their opportunities will be very different.
I would like to ask my Iranian-American female friends to imagine for one moment a world in which they could not freely declare their major or submit their graduate thesis…solely on the basis of their gender. To be told to find something other than archaeology or computer science to study, to explore, to devour—two subject areas that will now be off-limits to women at many Iranian universities. Women in Iran that were gearing up for school have received such letters in the past few weeks, notifying them of the various bans.
I suddenly feel silly for having complained about a letter I received from USC in 2010 notifying me of the bookstore’s reduced summer hours.
There’s another point to consider: As Iranian-American Jews, we are irrefutably blessed with regards to the opportunities at our disposal. Yet we must not perceive the situation of Iran’s women today through a simplified lens of pity. I am suddenly reminded of Azar Nafisi’s words in January 2012, ironically delivered at a lecture at the University of Southern California. The Johns Hopkins professor and famed author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” made an observation that mesmerized me.
“Iranian women,” she declared, “do not need to look at the West to learn how to be free. They simply need to look at their own history, their own ancient texts, and above all, to remember the power of the Iranian woman throughout time, to know exactly what they are capable of, and what can never truly be taken away from them.”
Nafisi was right. She had captured the rock-like inner strength and irrefutable passion that is part and parcel of the genetic makeup of every Iranian woman—regardless of religion or social class.
This is not about feeling sorry for Iranian women. This is about finding ways to empower them.
The story of these recent university bans in Iran has barely made the news. That is why I implore us to understand that the new bans on Iranian women in higher education are OUR problem as well. Therefore, I can only off this simple suggestion: Channah, please take an extra class and write an extra paper while at UCLA. Never take one day as a Bruin for granted, and remember that the topic of your dissertation (Iranian Jewry’s historical relationship with Israel) would not even be an option of study in Iran. Parisa, please find a way to use that public policy degree you will earn in 2014 to promote BETTER policies at home and abroad. For both of you, your hard work and natural intelligence earned you a seat among the best of the best. In this, you are no different than women in Iran today. But to have this seat actually be ACCESSIBLE to you once you’ve earned it is something entirely different.
As for these recent academic bans against women in Iran, they constitute a part of a much bigger picture—a thread in the larger fabric of restrictive state control that spans everything from denying Iranians their pop
music to future access to global internet (just Google “Iran halal internet” to learn more). The regime has added another straw to the burdened back of the Iranian citizen—or as some would note, another nail in its own coffin—by creating yet another grievance for the people of Iran to hold against their leaders.
It is true that a few subjects banned at a few universities may not seem like much in the bigger scheme of things (77 fields across 36 universities, to be exact). But there is only so much people can stand to be withheld from them. I can already see the signs during the next round of mass Iranian protests that died off in 2009, which are now all but inevitable:
“Where’s my vote?”
“Death to the dictator.”
“Long live a free Iran.”
“I want my Computer Science back.”