In Iran, More Women Leaving Nest for University
By SUSAN SACHS
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
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."