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In Iran, More Women Leaving Nest for University

The New York Times
July 22, 2000

TEHRAN -- When Maryam Barati first left her home in Isfahan three years ago to attend college in the capital, she prayed silently as each of the 200 miles rolled by. She prayed that her father, who was at the wheel, would not suddenly turn the car around and say that she, like all the women in her family for uncounted generations, could leave the family nest only to get married.

"He was very reluctant to let me go away to a different city to study," recalled Miss Barati, a 23-year-old physical education teacher-in-training at Alzahra University in central Tehran. "But he finally decided it was all right, and he realized that this has been an incredible experience for me. Here we have to learn how to live on our own."

Her adventure in independence is being repeated all over Iran, where young women now make up nearly 60 percent of all university entrants although women represent barely half the school-age population.

In a quiet revolution with wide-ranging implications for political and social relations, they are also leaving home as single women in historically high numbers, forsaking their conservative villages and small towns to seek higher education wherever they can get it.

Their self-assured mobility -- an independence of action that their mothers and grandmothers could not even imagine -- represents a grand social experiment whose impact is making itself felt on campus and off.

"In the last two years, the percentage of women students has jumped significantly, and this is a very important signal to our society," said Elaheh Koulai, an administrative dean at Tehran University and a reformist member of Parliament. "The phenomenon will change the country in ways we cannot even predict as they enter the labor market and the professions."

One reason that old taboos against higher education for women have collapsed is that Iranian universities, under the overall control of Muslim religious leaders, offer worried parents strict controls over their daughters' lives on campus. Often, the prohibitions are far more severe than they would have faced at home.

Their dress, their visitors, even their music and reading materials are closely monitored. Still, the women say, they are relishing a fresh sense of freedom even as they realize that their newfound access to education does not guarantee them jobs commensurate with their skills.

In many ways, the educational development of women has been building for decades, as overall literacy rates climbed and the poor and middle-class gained access to education that was the near-exclusive preserve of the urban rich before the Islamic revolution in 1979. The women -- and men -- now clamoring for university spaces are the children of that revolution, born in a baby boom that began in the early 1980's and slowed only in the last few years. Between 1976 and 1986, the national population grew from 33.7 million to 49.4 million. Today it is estimated at 61 million, with 40 percent of the people under 15.

The desire of women for university slots skyrocketed. Between 1990 to 2000, the number of women entering universities tripled as baby boomers came of age. In some disciplines, from medicine to social sciences, women now far outnumber men.

And while they have not yet broken into the labor force in comparable numbers, they have made their expectations and demands a factor in politics.

The landslide election in 1997 of President Mohammad Khatami, a moderate cleric who pledged wider social freedoms, is widely credited to his popularity among young people and especially among young women. The failure of conservatives to retain their hold on Parliament after elections earlier this year is also widely attributed to a backlash from young women against their support for hard-line social restrictions.

"I don't think the conservatives as a whole have begun to really understand what the impact will be of having so many educated young women graduating from our universities," said Mohammad Javad Larijani, a veteran hard-line parliamentarian who lost his seat in the reformist wave, in an interview after the elections. "These women are going to demand that society give value to their skills and their degrees."

Women have long been underrepresented in politics and the professions in Iran. They make up just 14 percent of the labor force, according to a recent United Nations report on human development in Iran. When they do find jobs, it is in government, where they hold 23 percent of the public sector posts, and in farming. They are overrepresented in comparison to men -- by a factor of 2 to 1 -- only in the unemployment rolls.

"Many trained and skilled women and girls must stay at home because of social and traditional obstacles from their families," said Dr. Koulai. "Many men in our society don't want their wives working outside the home. But this is going to change. The process is unstoppable."

Those obstacles have not deterred many families from breaking tradition and pushing their daughters to get a university degree at any cost.

"If our daughters don't study, they won't have anything in life," said Ashraf Juyandeh, a 49-year-old cafeteria worker in the city of Shiraz who is trying to get her two daughters into the local university.

"I myself only finished sixth grade," she added. "Back then, the rich could afford to send their daughters to school, but traditional families considered it a bad thing. My mother was never allowed to go to university and my father could never have afforded it."

Mrs. Juyandeh was married at 14 and widowed at 39. She says she will get as many jobs as she can to earn enough money to send both her daughters to university -- anywhere.

In a country where religious traditions and the conservative clergy still dictate a subservient role for women in many families, the movement of young women out of their hometowns in search of education and work has already brought about changes in attitudes.

"The experience I am having -- and other girls are having -- is going to affect this country in many ways," said Raziyeh Bigonah, 23, an arts student at Alzahra University. "People who leave their homes to go to a bigger city experience different things. I'm sure my generation of women will make itself felt in society."

She came to Tehran from Tabriz, about 330 miles away, leaving behind four older housebound sisters who had no desire and no encouragement from their parents to go to university. "I try to keep up my relations with my sisters," Miss Bigonah said. "But now, I prefer to live here for the rest of my life."

Iranian authorities have tried at different times in recent years to control the impact of the demand by the new generation of school-age women for higher education. For nine years, from 1989 until 1997, they limited the number of university slots for women in order to provide space for male veterans of the war with Iraq. They have been slow, as well, to build new dormitories at big campuses where out-of-town women are required to live, sometimes by their families and sometimes by the university itself.

To control the activities of women on campus, for example, the universities enforce strict rules at dormitories. Young women are required to wear the traditional black chador -- the all-enveloping cloak -- over long coats and tightly pinned headscarves, not only outside the dorm but inside as well.

There are curfews, bans on visitors and music, and constant supervision of reading material brought into the dormitories.

But even with the regulations, which often are more severe than what students faced at home, many women say they have learned an independent way of thinking that can not be unlearned. "I'm sure it will effect our choices in marriage," said Miss Barati, the Alzahra student who once feared that her father would not even let her begin studies. "I'm educated now and young people like me, we all have more expectations from life these days.

"I'm not talking just about economics," she continued. "Actually our parents' economic situation was probably better. But because my future husband and I will both be people who separated from our parents to go to university and faced the problems of being independent, we will understand each other better than our parents probably did when they married."


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