By Heidi Noroozy
Tehran can seem like a drab city with its gray buildings and ever-present smog. But anyone who thinks there’s little color to be seen has never visited the city during the school year. Iranian schools are gender-segregated up to the university level, and it’s a common site to see flocks of schoolgirls heading to class or home again in brightly colored uniforms, looking like exotic birds in their pink, purple, and sky blue tunics, with hoods (magna’eh) of a matching or contrasting color.
My husband and I have no kids, and our niece is only three, so my experience with schools in Iran is not extensive. I’ve helped young relatives with their English lessons, only to find that language instruction is heavy on theory and light on actual conversation. As a result, my attempts to get them to speak English with me is often met with utter silence accompanied by much blushing and staring at feet. Iranians who want to become fluent in English generally take private lessons.
I’ve also often encountered these “flocks” of schoolgirls at museums, when their teachers take them out for an educational field trip. Usually, they find me—with my blue eyes, blonde hair, and pale skin—far more interesting than boring old history. And yet I know they study very hard when no khanoum khorigee (foreign lady) is around to distract them. Education is hugely important in Persian families from all walks of life—and not only for the boys.
The Islamic Revolution ushered in a lot of changes in women’s status, most of them not very good. Under Iran’s Islamic laws, a wife can initiate a divorce only under 12 circumstances (things like drug addiction, physical abuse, and abandonment on the part of the husband). A woman has few legal rights to her children, and her testimony in a court of law is worth half that of a man’s. But where access to higher education is concerned, the balance is flipped—in the favor of women.
Depending on which figures you go by, between 52 and 65 percent of Iranian college students are female, and this number is as high as 70 percent in some fields, even traditionally male-dominated ones such as science and engineering. My husband’s family reflects this trend. His younger sister, who was nine years old at the time of the revolution, is now a highly trained physician with a specialty in eye surgery.
Sociologists explain this surge by the fact that deeply religious families have become more willing to send their daughters to college, while more men are skipping college altogether in favor of making money right away (and an academic degree is no guarantee of employment). I wonder if it’s also due to emigration. I have no figures to back this up, but culturally Persian women are often reluctant to leave their families and start life afresh in a new country. Still, two-thirds of the students who passed Iran’s stringent university entrance exam this year were female.
But not everyone is happy with this high percentage of women at universities, as attested by a story that broke last week. When classes resume later this month, 36 Iranian academic institutions will ban women from 77 courses of study, not all of them what you might expect. They include English literature and education as well as nuclear physics, archeology, and business management.
The University of Petroleum Technology will no longer admit any female students at all, claiming that the harsh conditions in the field are unsuitable for their “delicate natures,” although this explanation does beg the question: Why did they accept women in the first place and why ban them now?
The most common argument is an age-old one: empower women through education and watch first the family and then society as a whole collapse. Patriarchal communities around the world have come up with this one from time to time. The heart of the matter is this: Some conservative clerics in Iran feel that the country’s universities are breeding grounds for subversive activity and want to refocus attention on Islamic principles.
Call me an irrepressible optimist, but I don’t think this ban is going to take root. At least not the goal it intends to achieve. The social reform that began under President Mohammed Khatami hasn’t been crushed yet despite many setbacks. Which means that Iranian women are a permanent fixture in public life, and they will always find ways to participate and contribute their full talents.
So the next time I visit Iran and find myself surrounded by schoolgirls peppering me with questions about life in “Amrika,” I will still picture them in the roles they will choose later in life: university professors, industrial engineers, nuclear physicists, and members of parliament. It may be a long time yet before one of them is president, but they can't be relegated to home and hearth.