I awoke yesterday morning to a barrage of excited, fearful, and shocked emails and messages demanding to understand why Iran had suddenly decided to ban women from entering university. Given that Iranian women comprise over 60% of students in upper education in Iran and that women’s rights to education is deeply embedded in both the ideology and the practice of the Islamic Republic (as I have previously outlined regarding Islamic feminism in this piece), the idea that women could be “banned” from universities struck me as quite preposterous. Despite this, these rumors have gained steam, and the outrage provoked among feminists and those concerned with women’s rights in Iran has understandably led to a search for answers.
On August 20, Robert Tait published a bizarrely contradictory article entitled “Anger as Iran bans women from universities” in The Telegraph that suggests that women in Iran will be hereto banned from universities because of the worries of “senior clerics.” The piece’s subtitle immediately contradicts the inflammatory title, reversing the claim that women have been banned “from universities” by explaining that “female students in Iran have been barred from more than 70 university degree courses in an officially-approved act of sex-discrimination.” Tait proceeds to contradict himself again in the first paragraph, where he further explains that 36 universities had decided of their own accord to ban entrance to women in 77 undergraduate-level courses.
This article is the most recent in a series of inaccurate, misleading, and irresponsible articles about Iranian women and the fight for women’s rights in Iran published by The Telegraph. This is the same paper that last spring completely fabricated a story about Iranian women training to be “ninja assassins” to defend their country against invasion (they were actually just practitioners of the Japanese martial art in their local dojo, without murderous intent).
Meanwhile, the University Ban piece has been republished in various forms in other media outlets, like the Daily Beast where it has been given the equally misleading title “Iran Bans Women from College Courses.” This is a shame, not only because Robert Tait intentionally misleads his readers, but also because he uses a series of vague generalizations and bizarre half-truths to spin a tale of evil Iranian ayatollahs attacking Iranian women that bears only a passing resemblance to the reality of women’s education in Iran.
To start off with, the decision of these 36 universities is ridiculous and discriminatory and must be reversed. However, these decisions by specific universities are a far cry from “Iran” banning all women from attending all universities, as the title of the article implies. In fact, the decision of these universities has not been “officially-approved” by any stretch of the imagination, and a Director General in charge of education at the Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology has sent letters to the universities (which have private decision-making) demanding explanations for the decisions taken. Although various officials have offered some half-hearted explanation for the decision- mostly focusing around the inability to women to get jobs in the particular fields of study banned- it also appears that the effort is part of an attempt to even the gender imbalance that has meant that Iranian women get accepted into universities at a rate of 60-40 as compared to their male counterparts. Once again, while I reject this logic and oppose any attempts to lessen the amount of women in higher education, understanding the context of Iranian education is crucial to understanding the issue.