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If you can't beat 'em, ban 'em
Quota for men in the field of medicine

By Maryam Ghadessi
March 24, 2004

At a recent seminar on women employment in Tehran, the Deputy Labor Minister for Planning and Policy, Sadeq Bakhtiari, reported that the level of women participation in the labor force in Iran stands at 11.5 percent for the whole economy and 10.2 percent in larger cities. Furthermore, Mr. Bakhtiari informed the participants that women's unemployment rate in Iran stands at 21.2 percent, which is twice the country's unemployment rate of 11.8 percent.

The causes of women's unemployment in Iran are numerous, complex, and as elsewhere often hidden. Here the factors that are responsible for the disparity in the area of employment between the sexes are not going to be discussed, but rather a measure recently imposed by the authorities, which will have negative repercussions for future of women's employment.

Faced with such disparity, a responsible government would take measures to alleviate the inequity in opportunities. Instead the officials in Iran have decided to do just the opposite. That is undermining women's own effort to improve the appalling picture of women's participation in the labor force. The measure in point imposes a quota for men in the field of medicine in universities.

The measure should be seen as the official response to a recent trend in the outcome of nationwide university entrance examinations. More specifically, in recent years the percentage of female students accepted in universities, in majority of fields, has surpassed that of male students. Female student enrollment in recent years has reached 60 to 65 percent. This trend has been perceived as alarming in Iran's patriarchal society.

In response officials have been discussing restricting the spots available to women in the nationwide university entrance examination. Finally this year a quota, which restricted the number of qualified women in the field of medicine to 50 percent, went into effect. As a result, bright young women who otherwise qualified to study medicine were barred from doing so because of their gender.

The issue of disqualification of women in the field of medicine was not approved by parliament prior to its imposition. Encountering criticism from the public, the organization in charge of administering the university entrance examination revealed that it had followed the order of the Ministry of Health. The agency involved furthermore revealed that different ministries have the authority to determine the quantity and the composition of the student pool.

The Ministry of Health has defended the decision to install a quota for men. In particular, the Minister of Health, Dr. Mahmood Pezeshkian, has steadfastly defended the decision that his ministry had made. To justify this discriminatory act, Dr. Pezeshkian, has argued that since in Iran a woman is obligated by law to reside where her husband chooses to live and not the other way around, then by allowing women to become doctors at a high percentage rate, the authorities are in effect depriving people in remote areas from receiving medical care.

More simply put, the justification given is that because husbands of female doctors would not (or perhaps in the opinion of the official should not) follow their wives into the remote areas, when a high percentage of doctors are comprised of women, then people in the remote areas suffer.

The justification presented, instead of providing support for this discriminatory act as the official had intended, demonstrates that when discrimination against women gets built into a system then any further discrimination can readily be justified within that system.

After the measure was imposed, some women MPs pressed the parliament to review the issue. However, the opponents of the measure in the parliament face serious challenges. To be upturned the measure has to be considered within the current parliament where reformist are in the majority. The reformist majority is to make way for conservatives at the end of its mandate on May 28.

Therefore the first challenge that the opponents of the measure face is that the outgoing parliament has a limited time left and, perhaps from the point of view of some lawmakers, has more pressing issues to tackle on its agenda. Second, even if parliament decides to consider the matter and vote against the measure, it still would have to withstand the challenge of the conservative Guardian Council. Therefore, on the whole, the possibility of the measure being overturned regrettably seems an unlikely outcome.

Maryam Ghadessi is a Lecturer at San Francisco State University.
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