By Betül Durmus
Thirty-six universities across Iran had announced that from now on, women will not be allowed to register 77 fields of study including engineering, chemistry, accounting, education, English literature and many others. This decision will be implemented in the coming year.
This decision of universities is shocking for female students who constitute 52% of undergraduate and 68% of graduate students in Iran, according to a report of UNESCO, dated 2009.
Abolfazl Hasani, a senior educational officer, tried to justify this ban by stating that these fields are not suitable for women nature and Gholamrez Rashed, head of the University of Petroleum Technology, declared that they don’t need any female contribution anymore. Another officer Mohammad Hossein Ramesht claimed that high unemployment rates among women in science called for this ban. It is also known that some clergy members were worried about women participation to high education would lower the rate of marriage and birth. As Radio Zamaneh claimed, the decision is also about Ayatollah Khamenei’s call for great focus on universities which he blamed for breeding disruptive actions.
The decision attracted many criticisms concerning women’s rights in Iran. Exiled Nobel Peace laureate and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi sent a letter to United Nations about this issue and stated, “The gender segregation policy (…) suggest the imposition of a patriarchal culture that aims to strengthen the role of women at home and within the family unit in order to undermine their important function in society”. She also evaluated this action as an attempt to put barriers to the feminist movement in Iran. Additionally, some members of the Iranian Parliament opposed the regulation and demanded an explanation from Science and Higher Education Minister Kamran Daneshjoo.
Theoretically, the regulation can be placed in the concept of “sexual division of labor”. This division results from the understanding, suggesting that some fields of work or study are naturally peculiar to one sex. Here, the problem is the definition of nature because it is really narrow and overlooks the changes in the characteristics of genders. Moreover, it supposes a sharp distinction between the capabilities and interests of two genders. It is important to say that this understanding also offers a division of sexual identities on the basis of biological features, therefore discriminates LGBT identities.
Sexual division of labor has two appearances. The first aspect of such a practice is that with restraining women within the private realm, namely home, the practice aims to reduce women’s role to mothers and wives. Such a restrictive notion inhibits women participation to public life and aims to “enslave” women’s capacity in the household, reproduction and caring activities. When labor force of women is needed, we face a second aspect of the practice. Women may be “granted” some opportunities that will partially enable them to enjoy the public life, however, they are forced to select the fields which are compatible with their role in the private realm. That is to say, sexual division comes on the scene again even if women could achieve to step out of the houses.
The explanations of the Iranian officers reveal that this decision is a result of the understanding in favor of sexual division of labor and it is difficult not to agree with Shirin Abadi.