Iranian Women: Victims of Economic Strain
Published Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Around the globe, women's rights are the subject of intense political wrangling.
In many Western countries, like the United States, the conversation typically revolves around issues of gender and sexuality, featuring frequent debates on sexual violence and women's reproductive rights.
Though similar issues also influence women's rights discourse in the Middle East, structural, socio-economic inequalities have a greater impact on women's opportunities and circumstances in these countries.
Recent limits placed on women’s educational opportunities in Iran exemplify this dynamic. In early August, news broke that women would be restricted from pursuing undergraduate courses in 77 majors in 36 Iranian universities at the start of the academic year. While engineering majors have been most substantially impacted, women also face enrollment restrictions in the fields of literature, languages, and social work, among others.
In the Western media, the move has been presented as an attack on women's rights, reflecting an institutionalized effort to roll back educational opportunities based on gender stereotypes and demonstrating general hostility to women's empowerment.
Certain Iranian feminists have also viewed the restriction through a gendered lens. Iran's most famed women's rights advocate and exiled Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Shirin Ebadi, condemned the action as retrograde, describing it as one among several examples of government intolerance toward "women's presence in the public arena." Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington think-tank, lambasted the decision as "reflecting a fear of educated and powerful women who are aware of their rights and frustrated about discrimination."
In response to criticism of the new policy, Iranian officials have either been silent or circumspect. The few officials who have commented on the issue insist the universities implemented the restrictions on their own, without any government involvement. In fact, one report suggests that the Ministry of Education's academic evaluation organization opposes the measure and that "a review and reversal of the decision may be in the making."
As noted by at least one Iranian commentator, creeping government control over Iran’s public universities makes it unlikely that the affected institutions acted independently. With the rise of a new, hardline government in 2005, the country's public universities have gradually lost authority over a variety of internal matters, including selection of new faculties and examination of PhD candidates. Restrictions on women’s course enrollment, which have been implemented only by Iran’s public universities, are likely part of this growing government interference in academic affairs.
Iran's conservative hardliners undoubtedly espouse more regressive policies towards women. Nevertheless, in the case of the academic ban, the country's substantial economic problems provide greater insight into the policy than do claims about government hostility toward women from some Iranian feminists and Western commentators.
Like much of the Middle East, Iran suffers from high unemployment rates, currently hovering around 11.8 percent. Making up 70 percent of this unemployed population, Iran's youth (aged 15-29) has been significantly impacted by the lack of job opportunities in the country.
Due to recent sanctions and years of economic mismanagement, growth in the Iranian economy has come to a virtual halt, further exacerbating the employment crisis among Iranian youth. This, in turn, has prolonged the period of "waithood," the waiting period between childhood and adulthood for the country’s young population. Approximately 50 percent of Iranian men between the ages of 25 and 29 live with their parents, financially unable to get married or strike out on their own.
As described by Iranian economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, young people have been using this "waiting" period to ascend the educational ladder. In response, universities have substantially expanded their intake, nearly doubling enrollment numbers between 2005 and 2010. As university education has expanded, Iran's female student body has consistently outshone its male counterpart, making Iran the only regional country with gender disparities in higher education favoring women.
Female university enrollment in Iran has reached nearly 60 percent and women have excelled in some of the most challenging academic fields. According to a 2010 study by UNESCO, women in Iran make up nearly 70 percent of graduates in science majors, approximately 60 percent in social sciences, business, and law, over 70 percent in education, and almost 30 percent of graduates in engineering, manufacturing, and construction.
Despite these achievements, young women remain one of the least employed sectors of the Iranian population, with unemployment rates of approximately 28 percent - admittedly, young men, 20 percent of whom are unemployed, are hardly better off. According to Salehi-Isfahani, young Iranian men are six times more likely to be unemployed, compared with adult males, while young women are eight times more likely to be unemployed as compared to their older counterparts.
Reports suggest women experience particularly high unemployment rates in a number of science-related fields affected by the recent course restrictions. Thanks to cultural norms, young women also generally receive the lowest priority in hiring and face a higher likelihood of being fired from their jobs.
Higher education levels among young Iranian women have, as such, done little to improve their employment opportunities, while exerting downward pressure on the country’s job market. At the same time, women's success at the university level has resulted in fewer educational opportunities for men, who have more favorable job prospects.
The Iranian government has often redistributed social goods to certain sectors of the population to correct problematic discrepancies and placate restive sectors of society. Facing abysmal employment opportunities despite greater educational successes, Iran's female student population may be ripe for social engineering.
For the government, transferring educational benefits from young women to young men may appear as a viable means of ameliorating the employment crisis without too much effort or cost - by limiting competition for scarce job opportunities to young men who, for better or worse, enjoy more favorable employment prospects, the government may hope to effect a decline in the overall unemployment rates.
Undoubtedly, restricting women's access to university courses will neither resolve Iran's jobs crisis nor heal a broken national economy. However misguided the policy, it nevertheless reflects an economy at breaking point, possessing few options to relieve ever-building pressure and the need for economic growth and new jobs.
As those both inside and outside Iran have rightly pointed out, the course restrictions do reflect stereotypes about "male" and "female" abilities and will likely be welcomed by those hostile to women's involvement in the public sphere. More often than not, however, observers outside the country have overestimated the influence of gender stereotypes and glossed over the impact of structural issues, such as socio-economic disparities, on policies, like the academic course restriction, that affect women inside Iran. As with most things in the country, the reality behind Iran’s new university policy is more complex than suggested by these simplified narratives.
This piece was written by an Iranian, who has chosen not to disclose her true identity due to safety concerns.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.