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(Beirut) – The Iranian government should immediately reverse policies that place unnecessary restrictions on academic freedom for university students, in particular women. Some of these “Islamicization” measures are to be introduced for the new academic year, which begins on September 22, 2012. Others have been put in place in recent years and adopted by universities across the country.

The measures include bans on female and male enrollment in specific academic fields in many universities, but with the greatest number of restrictions on women. They also include quotas that limit the percentage of women students in certain fields of study, and segregation in classrooms and facilities.

“For decades, Iranian universities have offered high quality education to male and female students,’’ said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “But as university students across Iran prepare to start the new academic year, they face serious setbacks, and women students in particular will no longer be able to pursue the education and careers of their choice.”

Authorities are enacting “Islamicization” policies at universities within the context of a wider crackdown on academic freedom that has taken place since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005. Iran’s universities have increasingly become targets of government efforts to stifle dissent and “Islamicize” higher education, Human Rights Watch said.

The new restrictions provide evidence that authorities, spearheaded by the Science Ministry, are carrying out longstanding plans to “Islamicize” universities and institute programs that restrict the role of young women in universities and their access to education, Human Rights Watch said. Since the 1990s, more than 60 percent of Iran’s university students have been women.

The most recent restrictions are outlined in an annual manual published in August by the Science and Technology Ministry, which regulates higher education. The manual lists the major fields of study available to applicants sitting for the national entrance exam for public universities, which was held in June. It reveals that 36 public universities across the country have banned female enrollment in 77 fields, according to the semi-official Mehr News Agency. The manual also indicates that universities have barred male enrollment in a number of majors.

On August 6 Mehr reported that the 2012 manual published that month by Iran’s National Education Assessment Organization (NEAO), a Science Ministry department, provided a large list of majors at various universities across the country that had been “single-gendered,” meaning that only males or females will be permitted to study that subject. The process is carried out by individual universities under Science Ministry authority. More than 60 universities across the country made the changes, with restrictions on around 600 majors according to Daneshjoo News, an opposition website that covers academic freedom issues.

An August 4 Daneshjoo article says that this academic year Iranian universities have “single-gendered” about 20 percent of mathematics and technical sciences major fields of study (including engineering), more than 30 percent in social sciences, 10 percent in traditional sciences, 34 percent in the arts/humanities, and 25 percent in foreign languages. Some universities have “single-gendered” majors for alternating semesters to enforce gender segregation but have not entirely banned access to either male or female candidates.

Banned majors for women include computer science, chemical engineering, industrial engineering, mechanical engineering, and materials engineering at Arak University; natural resource engineering, forestry, and mining engineering at Tehran University; and political science, accounting, business administration, public administration, mechanical engineering, and civil engineering at Esfahan University. At Emam Khomeini University, in Qazvin, all 14 social sciences majors were restricted to males.

“Single-gendering” also restricts choices for male students. For example, at Esfahan University men are no longer allowed to major in history, linguistics, theology, applied chemistry, Arabic/Persian language and literature, sociology, and philosophy.

Some of the larger universities with substantial “single-gendering” of major fields of study, Daneshjoo reported, are Arak University (88 percent), Esfahan University (68 percent), Emam Khomeini University (82 percent), Lorestan University (100 percent), Ardebil Research University (100 percent), Golestan University (59 percent), and Alameh Tabataba’i University (43 percent). Shahid Chamran University in Ahvaz has “single-gendered” all of its 47 majors for men, even though it is officially a registered coeducational university.

Only 3 percent have been “single-gendered” at Tehran University, one of the country’s premiere public universities.

Neither the universities nor the Science Ministry have explained why they single-gendered certain majors. In an August 26 statement, NEAO criticized coverage of the universities’ decision to “single-gender” majors, and alleged that opposition media outlets and websites incorrectly reported that the government had instituted wholesale bans on selected majors for women.

The agency alleged that the total number of majors at universities throughout the country had actually increased by 14 percent, and that the vast majority were still open to both male and female students. On September 11, Hossein Tavakoli, head of the agency, announced that the results of the 2012-13 academic year national entrance exams had been released and women make up 60 percent of the entering class.

But a review by Human Rights Watch of the NEAO manual shows that the list of banned majors includes a number of technical and applied science majors, including engineering, some of the highest-paying fields for graduates. An increasing percentage of women have been employed in these fields in recent decades.

“Many of the gender restrictions placed on university courses do not seem to follow a clear or particular pattern,” Gerntholtz said. “They show that authorities and university administrators have imposed seemingly arbitrary barriers that impede the access of both male and female university students to the higher education of their choice.”

The right to education for everyone without discrimination is explicitly guaranteed under international instruments, which Iran has accepted or to which it is party, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Convention against Discrimination in Education. It is also guaranteed under Iran’s Constitution.

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which provides the definitive interpretation of the covenant, has stated that it requires Iran and other states parties to overcome institutional barriers and other obstacles that prevent women from fully participating in science education. It also states that, “Differential treatment based on prohibited grounds will be viewed as discriminatory unless the justification for differentiation is reasonable and objective.”

Background on the “Islamicization” Program at Universities
“Single-gendering” university majors is only the latest in a series of repressive measures that the Science Ministry has put in place as part of its “Islamicization” program at universities during the past few years, Human Rights Watch said.

Kamran Daneshjoo, the science minister, has aggressively pursued this policy since his appointment in September 2009 and has repeatedly cited a regulation passed by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution in 1987 requiring all universities to implement gender separation in classes and throughout campuses to the extent possible. In 2011, the Iranian Parliament’s Education Commission announced that steps would be taken to implement gender segregation at a number of universities.

Segregation of individual classes and public spaces has already been reported at a number of public universities, including Allame Tabataba’i, Amir Kabir, and Yazd. Students at these universities have complained that segregation has resulted in disproportionately fewer courses being offered to women, and overcrowding of the facilities used by women.

Plans to separate male and female students in classes and common areas have also affected Iran’s private universities. In August 2011, a group of students at various campuses of Azad Islamic University sent a letter to the university president protesting plans for gender separation, accusing him of seeking to limit the presence of women at those institutions.

Kamran Daneshjoo has pushed through gender separation policies with the support of parliamentary allies of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, and the Assembly of Experts, a body charged with selecting the Supreme Leader, in spite of opposition from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In January 2011 Ahmadinejad, in a letter to the Ministries of Science and Health, which oversees admission to medical schools, asked the ministries not to go through with policies to separate male and female university students. Ahmadinejad referred to both the forcible retirement of professors and gender separation in universities as “shallow and unwise.”

Since 2005, authorities have removed dozens of professors from some of Iran’s most elite universities, claiming they were either past retirement age or were unqualified. Critics allege that authorities purged professors to stem the influence of secular and liberal thought from universities.

Over the past few years the Science Ministry has announced several other plans that could adversely affect women’s access to higher education, including gender quotas for major fields of study, restricting university application based on geographical location, and increasing gender-segregated spaces on university campuses, including in the classroom. Last year, for example, student rights groups reported that several dozen universities had begun applying a quota system that guarantees males a higher percentage of places in up to 40 university majors.

Quotas limiting the spaces and selection of majors for female university students followed a recommendation by the Iranian parliament’s research center that encouraged restricting female enrollment to universities in local provinces to reduce the “destructive consequences” of female enrollment on family life. But authorities at the NEAO and elsewhere claim that “Islamicization” policies do not adversely impact female students, and cite as proof the announcement that women still account for 60 percent of the 2012 entering class.

The wider campaign on academic freedom since Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, in addition to gender separation for forced retirement of professors, has included imprisoning student activists and barring politically active students from enrolling in or continuing higher education.

University disciplinary committees have been used to monitor, suspend, or expel students. Pro-government student groups affiliated with the basij, a hard-line Islamist paramilitary group, are an increasing campus presence. Universities have reduced or limited social science curricula, which are often viewed by authorities as a breeding ground for critical and “un-Islamic” thought. And authorities have restricted activities of independent student groups, which are often critical of government policies.

As recently as April, Daneshjoo, the Science Minister, announced that, “Individuals who participated in the anti-government protests that took place in 2009 “have no right to enter universities.”

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