PRINCETON – My grandmother was one of the first women to study mathematics and physics at the University of Vienna. When she graduated, in 1905, the university nominated her for its highest distinction, an award marked by the presentation of a ring engraved with the initials of the emperor. But no woman had previously been nominated for such an honor, and Emperor Franz Joseph refused to bestow the award upon one.
More than a century later, one might have thought that by now we would have overcome the belief that women are not suited to the highest levels of education, in any area of study. So it is disturbing news that more than 30 Iranian universities have banned women from more than 70 courses, ranging from engineering, nuclear physics, and computer science to English literature, archaeology, and business. According to Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer, human-rights activist, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the restrictions are part of a government policy to limit women’s opportunities outside the home.
The bans are especially ironic, given that, according to UNESCO, Iran has the highest rate of female to male undergraduates in the world. Last year, women made up 60% of all students passing university exams, and women have done well in traditionally male-dominated disciplines like engineering.
It may well be female students’ very success – and the role of educated women in opposing Iran’s theocracy – that led the government to seek to reverse the trend. Now, women like Noushin, a student from Esfahan who told the BBC that she wanted to be a mechanical engineer, are unable to achieve their ambitions, despite getting high scores on their entrance exams.
Some claim that the ideal of sexual equality represents a particular cultural viewpoint, and that we Westerners should not seek to impose our values on other cultures. It is true that Islamic texts assert in various ways the superiority of men to women. But the same can be said of Jewish and Christian texts; and the right to education, without discrimination, is guaranteed in several international declarations and covenants, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which almost all countries, including Iran, have agreed.
Discrimination against women is part of a broader pattern of official bias in Iran, especially against those who are neither Muslim nor members of one of the three minority religions – Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity – recognized in the Iranian Constitution. To enroll in a university, for example, one must declare oneself to be a believer in one of the four recognized religions. Atheists, agnostics, or members of Iran’s Bahai community are not accepted.
Imagine how we would react if someone tried to excuse racial discrimination by arguing that it is wrong to impose one’s culture on others. It was, after all, for many years the “culture” of some parts of the United States that people of African descent should sit at the back of the bus and go to separate schools, hospitals, and universities. It was the “culture” of apartheid South Africa that blacks should live apart from whites and have separate, and inferior, educational opportunities. Or, to put it more accurately, it was the culture of the whites who held power in these places at that time.
The same is true in Iran. The country’s rulers are all male and Muslim. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s call in 2009 for the “Islamization” of universities led to courses being changed and the replacement of some academic staff by more conservative figures. Two months ago, Khamenei said that Iranians should return to traditional values and have more children – which would have obvious implications for the role of women, quite apart from the environmental impact.
The international sanctions against Iran that are currently in place seek to prevent the regime from building nuclear weapons, not to persuade it to end discrimination against women or on religious grounds. There are no widespread boycotts of Iran’s universities, or of its other products, as there were against apartheid South Africa. It seems that we still take sexual and religious discrimination less seriously than we take racial and ethnic discrimination.
Perhaps we are more ready to accept that the biological differences between men and women are relevant to the roles they play in society. There are such differences, and they are not purely physical. So we should not leap to the conclusion that if most engineers are men, there must be discrimination against women. It may be that more men than women want to be engineers.
That, however, is a completely different question from whether women who do want to become engineers and are qualified to study engineering should be denied the opportunity to achieve their ambition. By explicitly preventing women from enrolling in courses open to men, Iran has taken a step that is as indefensible as racial discrimination, and that should be condemned just as forcefully.