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Universities, democracy and girls' education
Persian text here

By Mohammad Ghaed
Translated by Hossein Shahidi
September 17, 2002
The Iranian

In 1942, when Iran was still under the Allied occupation and Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi had been on the throne for about one year, a hitherto ignored part of the constitution of Tehran University law on the founding of Tehran University was implemented: the council of deans [of the heads of faculties,] and one professor elected by the staff at each college elected the University's Chancellor.

In the 1950s, after the overthrow of the Mossadeq government, and as the Shah consolidated his rule, that law, along with many others, was shelved.

Universities host transient communities of individuals who congregate for brief periods of time and, therefore, may not be considered as solid bases for a society's structure. However, universities are the most important institutions for the development of thought, promotion of radical movements and the propagation of the democratic ideals.

A university is the best place to test the real worth of any idea. The university is the arena for the expression of thought and what is not bought by at least some members of the academia will have no room in the marketplace of ideas. The ability to understand society and the world is nothing but what is gained at the university.

With renewed interest in the relative weight of ideas in recent years, the idea of the independence of the universities has once again been raised here and there. There are those who warn that the supporters of status quo -- in fact those in favour of status quo ante -- will not give in to such elections, to prevent which, if necessary, they will lead the universities to chaos and closure.

At other times, supporters of the status quo have themselves implied that that their rivals lack any real weight and will lose to a third contender as soon as elections are held. Supporters of the status quo pin their hopes on security and preventative filters.

That such concerns over a third contender may not be unfounded was demonstrated in last year's elections at the Society of Iranian Sociologists (Lawh No. 12, p. 9). Those elections, accompanied by heated debates about conservatism and reformism and accusations of mis-management and financial corruption, could be regarded as a precursor to elections at the country's universities.

Within the universities, there are numerous unanswered questions about promotions, expulsions and purges carried out in the 1980s. There are those who say such actions would never be covered by the statute of limitations.

Others say "what is passed is passed," but in practice are interested in keeping their rivals' old files open. If the past has passed, then all old charges should be dropped. If it has not, all files should stay open. In an environment such as Iran's, replete with old, petty, unsettled accounts, unstable friendships and usually eternal enmities, it is not clear how far one has to go back in time to carry out a proper historical audit.

Following the 1979 Revolution, when it was time to settle scores, there were those who said some actions should not be covered by the statute of limitations. It is doubtful if those same people would still defend that view.

As long as free elections at universities are not possible, there can be no talk of democracy having been realised across the society as a whole. University positions are not completely devoid of material gains for those who hold them, but such rewards are by far smaller than what is accrued by those holding office in other institutions.

Transient as a university may be for its students, to those who work there it is the future. Apart from a small minority who may reach administrative positions, almost all academics spend their entire working lives at universities.

Students, for their part, may later realise that not all they learned at the university can be applied in real life, but many a time they would conclude it is the society that is at fault, not what they were taught.

It is high time that university elections were placed on Iran's agenda. The generation who took over the universities in the 1980s by pushing their rivals aside must feel secure enough by now to take part in a fair contest. The excuse that "it is too early to give freedom to the academics" is in fact a negation of those same people's claims of pursuing reform and justice. Political power is not eternal.

It's best for the winners of the old fight to face the future and try to base their claims on a secure academic foundation, even if that were to mean taking part in a tough battle. In our Aryan-Islamic house of deception, there are expensive movies that no one watches; high circulation books and newspapers that no one reads, and which merely move from the paper warehouses to government libraries; and there are those in charge of institutes of higher learning who do not have a high degree of self-confidence, nor much popularity. Such a high level of subsidisation and artificial stimulation is too much even for a sacred political order.

It is understandable that those who have access to public platforms from which they could promote the idea of university elections may decide, out of expediency, not to do so. Among other reasons, they may be perturbed by the thought that their inevitable defeat in the face of those that they defeated in the past may be the prelude to the opening of certain files and records.

They may also think that the minority opposed to elections at universities may take aggressive, even violent, action. Nonetheless, no marks will be given to those with ability, but lacking in courage. The marks such people can earn now may well be higher than what they might be given later for abstaining from action and prevaricating in the face of principles.

Women, University Degrees and the Clash of Rural and Urban Cultures

Old problems have a habit of turning up in new faces. In Iran, one such problem is the question of literacy in general and girls' education in particular. In the life-span of one generation -- i.e. the time elapsed between the graduation of one generation from universities and that of their children -- Iran has been turned from a land of the illiterate into the land of the university educated.

There was a time when the illiterate were thought to have no future. Now the university educated appear to be as futureless. The 1950s and '60s age of growth, prosperity, welfare and progress has given way to the age of global competition, over-population and shortage of resources.

Enlightenment, social evolution and practical experience change our perception of the universe and, hence, our expectations. Women in Iran, as in the rest of the world, have made unprecedented achievements such as economic independence, social elevation, and the chance to develop their talents.

Such impressive gains, though, have not always brought about satisfaction. Satisfaction is a state of mind and, as is the case with the elusive concept of happiness, has to do with one's expectations. While expectations keep rising along with social developments, one cannot be expected to reach a state of full satisfaction.

Women make up 60% of university entrants, and in time could well make up the vast majority of students in certain colleges. However, educated women now have to attend workplaces with urban settings, where rural culture reigns.

There are those who insist that Iran faces a hostile Western culture, whereas in fact the misery of a city such as Tehran is rooted in its being invaded by the rough culture of the countryside. Iran's urban civilisation has always been the target of nomadic invaders and the present cultural strife seems to be more a case of the rural culture invading the cities, rather than a battle between modernity and tradition.

The population explosion and the large number of university graduates has led to confusion in a society lacking in models, guides, or even the hope of improvement. Young women entering the job market fail to see many signs of their expected opportunities. To the Iranian youth today, minimum assets available to young women in the developed world -- a suitable job, a rented apartment, a second hand car and some furniture -- appear as an unattainable dream.

More worrying is the shortage of marriage opportunities for university educated women. As the number of young men at universities declines, the old problem of girls staying away from school is being replaced with the new problem of too many university educated girls without the chance of employment or finding a suitable partner.

This problem -- which may have arisen, albeit more moderately, even without the Revolution -- surfaced during the 1980s, as the wave of emigration rose; young men studying abroad did not return home; and expulsions, purges, economic problems and the war reduced confidence in the future and disrupted the lives of certain social layers.

Many Iranian girls have achieved the goals they had set themselves, but have realised that society is not yet ready to accommodate them. Iranian women appear to have developed beyond the capacity of their barren land, and exceeded their society's cultural and economic boundaries. Surprisingly, all this has happened under an Islamic government.

There are those who call for adherence to traditional values, complain of the depravity of the West and the perils of feminism, and believe that whatever they do not like has entered their society by accident, only recently, and can be expelled just as quickly. The new age is all about offering opportunities, whereas our lives are spent complaining about others and attacking the shadows of imaginary enemies.

At the same time as some moan about the injustice of fate and the enemies' dastardly tricks, educated girls' increasing dissatisfaction and the moral and cultural chaos caused by the young generation's confusion and hopelessness presents Iranian society with a worrying image of the future: a future certainly very different from the present conditions, with problems much more complicated than today's.


Author and translator Mohammad Ghaed is the eidtor of Lawh, a cultural magazine published in Iran. This article was published in Lawh's August 2002 issue (see Persian text). Ghaed's Diaries and Oblivion and other essays and Mirzadeh Eshghi: Portrait of an Anarchist are his latest works. His translation of More Power to the Imagination!: The German Counterculture from the Student Movement to the Greens was published in August 2002.

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