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Iranian Women Blocked from Overseas Education

Letter to the Guardian Council

The Academic Freedom Committee of Human Rights Watch strongly protests the recent decision of the Guardian Council to preserve the discriminatory laws that deny women equal access to universities outside Iran.

On January 7, 2001, the Majlis voted overwhelmingly to strike provisions of article 3 of the 1986 Law on Sending Students Abroad that currently require the permission of a male guardian (father or husband) to allow adult women to study abroad and bar single women from receiving governmental financial aid for continuing their higher education in foreign universities. These provisions discriminate against women, and in this particular case deny them equal access to higher education. As the government's representative noted during the Majlis proceedings, this law would only affect a small number of women, all of whom are adults and have demonstrated their academic and moral qualifications by progressing through the educational system of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The Majlis's action would have brought Iran closer to meetings its obligations under article 3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ("ICCPR") and articles 2(2) and 3 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights ("ICESCR"), which seek to ensure the legal equality of the sexes, as well as ICESCR article 13(2)(c), which states that "Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all ?." The Guardian Council's rejection of the parliamentary vote to remove discriminatory provisions regarding access to foreign universities thus violates Iran's explicit obligations under these conventions to respect the equal rights of all its citizens, whether male or female, to pursue higher education.

The general requirement that Iranian women can leave their own country only with the permission of a male guardian, as applied to women students in the Law on Sending Students Abroad, is itself discriminatory. This requirement violates article 12 of the ICCPR, by which countries party to the covenant (including Iran) agree to allow their citizens to leave their own country subject only to restrictions "necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals ?consistent with the other rights recognized in the present Covenant." The authoritative General Comments issued by the U.N. Human Rights Committee on this provision emphasize that "the application of the restrictions permissible under article 12, paragraph 3, needs to be consistent with the other rights guaranteed in the Covenant and with the fundamental principles of equality and non-discrimination." The Human Rights Committee has "on several occasions found that measures preventing women from moving freely or from leaving the country by requiring them to have the consent or the escort of a male person constitute a violation of article 12."

Furthermore, the Guardian Council's refusal to allow the government to extend financial assistance (such as the provision of foreign currencies at cheaper than market rates) on an equal basis to men and women students flies in the face of ICESCR article 13(2)(e), which states that in order to ensure the right of equal access to higher education, "…an adequate fellowship system shall be established" by the states party to the Convention. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which authoritatively interprets the ICESCR's provisions, has explicitly held in its General Comments regarding article 13 that the requirement for the provision of fellowships and financial assistance should be read with the covenant's non-discrimination and equality provisions, and that scholarships "should enhance equality of educational access." The actions of the Guardian Council perpetuate a legal barrier to the equal access of men and women to higher education and hobble the efforts of the Majlis to correct this injustice in keeping with Iran's international obligations.

The Guardian Council's decision is particularly disappointing because it reverses the great strides taken by the Islamic Republic of Iran in providing equal access to men and women at all levels of education, and contradicts the spirit of statements made by delegates of Iran's government in the context of the 1995 World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, and the process for implementing the commitments made there. We would like to draw your attention in particular to paragraph 35 of the Beijing Declaration, which commits states (including Iran) to "Ensure women's equal access to economic resources, including land, credit, science and technology, vocational training, information, communication and markets, as a means to further the advancement and empowerment of women and girls ?."

In 1995, and again in 1998 and 2000, Iran's official delegations articulated Iran's commitment to the Beijing Declaration and to providing equal opportunities to Iranian women, particularly in terms of access to education. As Shahla Habibi, advisor on women's affairs to former President Rafsanjani, stated at Beijing in 1995: "Islam views men and women, as two partners complementing and not competing with each other. They are equal in creation, human dignity, human rights, and responsibility towards welfare of the family as well as their society." In light of this commitment, we ask the Guardian Council to reconsider its decision and to cooperate with the Majlis and other organs of government in ridding the Iranian legal system of provisions discriminating against women in education.

Your Excellency, the Academic Freedom Committee includes 29 academics, administrators, and scholars from around the globe dedicated to the principles of academic freedom and equal access to education. We commend the Islamic Republic of Iran for its advances in promoting the education of women and girls. But we deplore the Guardian Council's decision to deny Iranian women the right to decide freely to pursue their education at universities outside Iran's borders is a grave disservice to Iran's reputation and its plans for social and economic progress. We urge the Guardian Council, therefore, to express its full and unequivocal commitment to the equal rights of Iran's citizens by revising those existing provisions of Iranian law that discriminate against women and their access to higher education.

Thank you for your consideration of this important and urgent matter. We look forward to your reply.

Dr. Yolanda Moses, Regan Ralph,
Co-Chair, Academic Freedom Committee Executive Director, Women's Rights President, American Association for Higher Education Division,
Human Rights Watch

cc: Mrs. Zahra Shojaei, Advisor to the President and Head of the Center for Women's Participation of the Islamic Republic of Iran

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