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Leave No Iranian Child Behind | Part 1: From Gender Gap to Gender Panic


06 Sep 2012 20:38Comments

As young women's presence in higher education grows, so does ideological backlash.

Shervin Malekzadeh, a former public school teacher, is a visiting assistant professor at Swarthmore College.
[ education ] There was educational news out of Iran this past month, and is so often the case, the news was all bad. "Anger as Iran Bans Women from Universities" came the widely circulated report from the Telegraph, in what that newspaper characterized as "an officially-approved act of sex-discrimination." Irrepressible ideological and religious forces had compelled unnamed "senior clerics" to respond "to years in which Iranian women students have outperformed men, a trend at odds with the traditional male-dominated outlook of the country's religious leaders."

As a consequence, and in a move highly unusual for what is normally a centralized educational system, the government has 
left it to individual universities to adopt quota systems based on gender, ostensibly to funnel women into more "employable" careers and to bring "balance" to the student population. Critics condemned the new policy as a first step in reversing gains made by women, arguing that the quotas give official cover for 36 universities to bar, at their discretion, female students from taking courses across 77 individual majors, primarily in engineering and the sciences.

Gender gap had given way to gender panic. Yet the quota policy and the timing of its introduction raise a number of vexing questions. Why, after spending decades promoting and fostering female participation in the educational system, would the Islamic Republic reverse course in such an open and hostile manner? If the goal of the quotas is to reduce female participation in the educational system and the public sphere, why would planners focus their efforts on the relatively small number (less than 10 percent) of female students studying engineering, instead of the much larger proportion (approximately 65 percent) of women enrolled at the country's humanities departments, thereby ensuring that the quotas would have a more immediate and lasting effect?

A closer look at the figures suggest a more banal explanation for the announced restrictions, one more likely to evoke the Keystone Cops than angry mullahs hell-bent on sending women back to the kitchen and the bedroom. Restrictions on female participation represent little more than a clumsy attempt to placate local constituencies, specifically male youth and their families. Quotas are a ham-handed and artificial fix to the very real problem of boys being left behind by their female classmates. If implemented, they will provide state planners with the best of all worlds, namely the appearance of a state willing to provide relief to young men and their families, without actually affecting in a significant manner actual enrollment rates.

These latest educational "reforms" are part of the Islamic Republic's continuing drift toward a neopatrimonial state, one that is no longer able to rely on religion and ideology as bases for rule, and whose legitimacy increasingly rests on the government's ability to deliver material rewards and favors -- "goodies," in short.

Few "goodies" are as prized in Iran today as a college degree. Access to university, particularly state university, is a highly valued commodity in Iran, considered indispensable not only for securing a well-paying job, but also for participation in the marriage market.

There is little question that, in the competition for scarce slots in the university system, male students are in dire need of relief. Boys are being left behind, but not, as is so often reported, in overall rates of college acceptance and attendance. Males and females have enrolled in roughly equal proportions since the late 1990s. The enrollment rate for women, who barely constituted one third of the university population at the time of the 1979 Revolution, hovers around 50 percent of all college students (approximately 51 percent of all college students in 2008-09, dipping slightly to 49.5 percent during the 2009-10 academic year).

Differences in academic performance begin to emerge when we disaggregate enrollment figures by state and non-state universities. Some 56 percent of all students attending state universities are female.


This gap is significant in the Iranian context because degrees from private schools generally continue to be viewed as less desirable than those from sarasari, or public universities. As the number of women accepted into highly selective and prestigious state universities has surged in the past two decades, female enrollment at private schools has stayed fairly steady. During the 1995-96 school year, only 32.6 percent of students enrolled at state universities were women, compared to 41 percent at privately run institutions -- a figure that is unchanged today, meaning the ratio of women attending private schools relative to public schools has declined substantially.

By contrast, the private educational sector has effectively become the "safety" option for young men, particularly in engineering, easily the most popular male field of study. Out of the more than 700,000 students enrolled in engineering departments at private universities in Iran, a whopping 80 percent were men.


Taken together, these figures paint a picture of a government more interested in coming to the rescue of boys, or at least appearing to, than in launching a full-scale assault against women's rights. Prohibiting young women from participating in academic programs they are already largely avoiding, while patently unfair to women who aspire to become engineers, is hardly an effective means of pursuing a campaign against all women.

This is not to say that educational policy in Iran is all constituency work. Patriarchy, paranoia, and anxiety about the participation of women in public life continue resonate in Iran, rooted in deeply held attitudes that appear to transcend ideology and regime type.

We need only look to the government's current policies toward the humanities for stronger evidence of a putative "war on women." Since the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2005, and particularly in the wake of the 2009 crisis, political, religious, and social leaders have inveighed relentlessly against the pernicious influence of "Western" philosophy and literature. Outsized rates of female participation in the humanities make it difficult to dismiss this hostility as mere coincidence. During the 2009-10 school year, approximately 650,000 women were enrolled as humanities majors in state schools, some 65 percent of all humanities students at public universities. Engineering, by contrast, came in a distant second, with 176,303 female students.

Rather than openly target female enrollment, the war on humanities seeks to dissuade young people as a whole from entering the field. This is discrimination by subterfuge, quite different from the open-air and wholesale hostility toward women reported by the Telegraph and more in keeping with the standard approach of a state concerned with its image both at home and abroad.

After all, domestic constituencies are not the only audience to which Iran's leaders have to attend. State planners are already scrambling to deflect criticisms of the quota scheme, their many excuses reflecting a anxiety to demonstrate to the world that the Islamic government offers a more righteous, progressive, and above all, modern alternative to liberal and socialist systems of governments.

History makes today's news ordinary. Despite efforts to present Iran's educational system as meritocratic and guided by the latest "scientific" methods, redistributive politics have long been a feature of higher education in postrevolutionary Iran. If the current proposed "reforms" are in any way notable, it is not that they're being proposed in the first place, but in their impetus. The shift from the ideological to the political and social as the basis of patronage is evidence of routinization and of a concern with day-to-day governance. Given the white-hot stridency of the first decade of Islamic rule, the banal motivations of educational policy driven by political and social patronage might be considered a sign of progress, or at least a step toward normalcy as the Islamic Republic enters its fourth decade.

End of Part 1 | Part 2 will look at the gender gap in education as a parallel phenomenon in Iran and the United States, as well as the notion that educated women are a threat to the survival of the Islamic Republic.

by the same author | The Foucault Made Me Do It | Everything I Need to Know About Democracy I Learned in 3rd Grade

related reading | Sounding the Wrong School Alarm in Iran

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