Iran's female students protest at segregation
Medical school sit-ins reflect growing demands for sexual
equality More about Iran
By Geneive Abdo
The Guardian (London)
January 28, 2000
Qom, Iran -- In a daring challenge to the Islamic system, female medical
students in Iran are refusing to attend classes and are staging sit-ins
in protest at their segregation from men in universities. The students
believe they receive an inferior medical education to their male peers.
One medical school in the holy Shi'ite city of Qom is for women only,
and in Tehran's universities men and women must attend classes in separate
rooms or sit on opposite sides of the classroom.
"We suffer because we have little interaction with our male classmates.
We rarely have an exchange of ideas. There is a wall between us,"
said Homa, 24, a student at Tehran university's medical school.
"Many classes are for women only, and the best professors and facilities
go to the men. We get the leftovers," she said.
This week a group of female medical students called upon President Mohammad
Khatami and the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to reverse
what they believe is sex discrimination. They have also complained to the
Such action may not guarantee immediate change. But their public dissent
adds a significant voice to a growing demand for sexual equality.
Even some reformist theologians now say that the clerical establishment
has misinterpreted the Islamic texts taken as the basis for Iranian laws.
Ayatollah Yusef Sanei, a reformist cleric, ruled two months ago that
women were free to run for president of the republic, and to be given more
rights in cases of spousal abuse and divorce.
There is growing opposition to the inequality between the sexes that
continues despite the significant gains women have made since the 1979
Today, there are more women than men in higher education, and women
are increasingly seen in important positions of authority.
Women were encouraged to attend medical school after the revolution
so they could treat female patients, in line with conservative readings
of Islamic teachings. But these opportunities no longer satisfy women in
"In theory, our government says women are equal. But in practice
and in our culture this is not the case," said one woman, a 25-year-old
medical student, who wished to remain unidentified.
"I know when I begin practising medicine, male doctors will always
have more authority over me. It doesn't matter if I am smarter than they
are or if I am a better physician."
One medical professor said sex discrimination had led to her resignation
from the women-only Fatimieh medical school in Qom.
"In Islam, male doctors are allowed to treat female patients. So
why should the state separate men from women in medical schools?"
"When I went to medical school 23 years ago under the shah, men
and women studied together and we had no problems. To enter medical school,
you have to be at the top of your class, and students are there to learn,
not to flirt."
Parliament passed a law in 1998 to segregate health services to reflect
conservative MPs' interpretation of Islam.
Under a pilot programme prompted by the legislation, the Fatimieh medical
school in Qom, the intellectual centre for the Shi'ite Muslim clergy, dismissed
all its male staff.
But experts say the quality of medical education has suffered as a result,
with women students deprived of the wide range of patients and teachers
they need to complete their education.
Taha Hashemi, a cleric and MP who sits on the school's board of trustees,
told the daily Aftab-e Emrouz he had proposed hiring older male staff to
bolster student training. "I and several other members have stopped
attending board meetings in protest of the existing situation," he