Iranian women have played an active role in social and educational life since the revolution of 1979. There are now signs of a conservative backlash against their presence, says Sanam Vakil.
The Islamic government that took form after the Iranian revolution of 1979 contained numerous contradictions, many of which impacted directly on Iranian women. Women had been prominent supporters of the revolution, demonstrating in large numbers alongside their male counterparts. Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolution’s figurehead, who became “supreme leader” until his death in 1989, astutely recognised the importance of female political support and encouraged women’s political participation to achieve this - despite the imposition of retrograde Islamic laws that reversed previous legal gains and protections that women had long sought.
In many cases after the revolution, traditional patriarchal views were diluted by political necessity. For example, women were required to wear the veil yet also retained the right to vote (which had been achieved in 1967); scores of female judges and public-sector employees were dismissed, yet women were also encouraged to sustain their families financially and support the war effort (in the 1980-88 conflict with Iraq). Most significantly, the veiling requirements also facilitated opportunities for women - particularly those from traditional religious families - to study and work outside the home.
Thus, despite patriarchal norms and efforts at gender segregation, women in Iran became active in many professional fields: as (to name only a few) journalists, members of parliament, lawyers, taxi- and bus-drivers, policewomen. In more than 12% of Iranian families, according to recent census data, women are the primary breadwinners, a number that has doubled over five years. In 2009, of those who passed the university exams and enrolled in undergraduate courses, 62.7% were women and only 37.3% men. But such statistics, while heralded abroad and championed among female activists, are threatening for the patriarchal elite. Many conservative politicians and clerics believe that female education is limiting education and employment opportunities for Iranian men.
The context of change
There are now signs of a conservative backlash against the presence of educated women in public life. A recent Iranian government announcement seeks to restrict women from entering the study of seventy-seven specific academic fields in thirty-six government-run universities throughout the country. These areas of study were available for female students in years past, but in advance of the new academic year, each individual university has imposed its own restrictions supposedly based upon the institution’s distinct requirements. The largest constraints are in the field and subfields of engineering, but women are also barred from a wide range of other subjects: accounting, architecture, urban planning, chemistry, history, computer science, nuclear physics, mining, geology, English language and literature, English translation, restoration of historic buildings, and even Persian carpet studies.
In specific cases, Isfahan University has barred women from the following courses: political science, accountancy, business management, governmental management, industry management, electrical, civil, mechanical and railway engineering and English-language translation; Tehran University has limited women from mining and forestry studies (and, interestingly, men were barred from pursuing nursing degrees). At the same time, the Oil Industry University announced: “at the moment [we do] not have any need for women resources.” Several universities have suggested that fields such as agriculture are “unfit” for women and that certain degrees such as mining-engineering perpetuate female unemployment.
The context of these changes is the period since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election in June 2005, when there has been repeated discussion of gender segregation as a means to redress the balance between men and women. After the the 1979 revolution, gender segregation was enforced in all Iranian primary and secondary schools, while male and female university students could attend class together but had to sit in separate rows of chairs. Since 2011, Kamran Daneshjoo - the minister of science, research and technology - has emphasised the themes of gender segregation and gender quotas; the results have included limiting women’s access to some postgraduate courses and segregated certain classes (with professors teaching the same class twice).
The government has justified these changes as part of a wider effort to protect men throughout the university system. But they can be seen as an attempt by the Islamic government to reverse the consequences of its own work in helping to create a national cadre of educated women that incrementally challenges the status quo. True, the government has over the years celebrated increased education, literacy and completion rates, particularly among women; but it has also shuddered at the sight of educated Iranian women from all walks of life agitating for a larger place in their country’s social, economic, and political life.
The pattern of protest
The issue of education is thus tied to that of social change, including demography. At the advent of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini told women to go forth and multiply - and that they did. The results included a decade-long population boom whereby today, 70% of Iran’s burgeoning population is under the age of 30. Many of these young people, around 30%, are affected by unemployment, which creates a restive atmosphere that the government’s economic mismanagement does little to placate.
To contain the population swell, the Islamic Republic was forced to implement a family-planning programme - again, an initiative whose success was championed internationally. But in 2006, Ahmadinejad - reviving Khomeini’s call for larger families - reversed the policy and suggested that women should return to their “main mission” as mothers. This also reflected the government’s anxiety about increasing divorce-rates in Iran (16% in 2009, where the marriage-rate was increasing by 1% a year). Several social factors (urbanisation, high living-costs and unemployment) contribute to these statistics, but young women’s changing attitudes and expectations regarding marriage are an important contributory factor. In this broader frame, the experience of women (not least educated women) is at the heart of the complex social phenomena affecting Iranian society today.
These phenomena also have a political dimension that has manifested itself at various phases of the Islamic Republic’s thirty-three year existence, during which female activism has has taken on a life of its own. The initial years of tension, uncertainty and pressures of war were also marked by ideological, economic, religious and social divisions among women; a change took place in 2006 when the One Million Signature Campaign (among others), which sought the elimination of discriminatory laws enshrined in Iran’s constitution, more directly challenged the government. In advance of the presidential election of 2009, women activists formed a coalition to try to force gender concerns onto the political platform of the competing candidates, including the ratification of the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw).
The government responded in all cases with repression, which was intensified after the presidential election of 2009, when Ahmadinejad was declared the overwhelming winner in very dubious circumstances. Many activists reacted in outrage, believing that their preferred candidate Mir-Hossein Moussavi was the legitimate victor; women were at the forefront of the ensuing protests, and along with their male counterparts suffered arrest, incarceration, and exile.
Against this background, the new education restrictions are an extension of the Islamic Republic’s efforts to contain the problems that its own policies of educational expansion have created. The government might be able to reduce the number of women at universities and block female access to many professional fields. But it cannot forever curb female empowerment, creativity, ambition, or agency, which will continue to pose challenges to its power and find new outlets for expression.