First They Came for the Bahá’í …

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For a country trying to swim upstream against a torrent of international approbation, Iran makes some intriguing choices that burnish its reputation. Last month Angilee Shah explained how members of the Bahá’í faith are prohibited from higher education. Earlier this month, the Islamic Republic of Iran moved to ban women from taking degree-level courses in 77 areas.

The restrictions on women’s education are not as overt as the one on the Bahá’í. For one, while promulgated from on high they are enacted at the country’s 36 government-run universities apparently on an institution-by-institution basis. For another, it’s not that women are banned—it’s that places are reserved only for men. (Men, in turn, were excluded from studying nursing earlier in the year.)

These subtle but meaningless distinctions aside, banned courses are mostly in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math—areas in which the United States has been actively recruiting women to study. Other fields on the Do Not Try list include accounting, social work, hotel management, and forestry.

“Some fields are not very suitable for women’s nature such as agricultural machinery or mining, partly because of the hard work involved in them,” Seyed Abolfazl Hassani of Iran’s science ministry was quoted by a French-based website. (Roozonline.com is run by “by independent and reformist journalist and advocates of human rights and freedom inside and outside Iran.”) “Past experience shows that women do not become professionally active in these fields after they are admitted to these subjects and even after they graduate. This results in unemployment of graduates.”

That women grads might not be able to find jobs after they graduate probably has a grain of truth to it, although I suspect that follows more from discrimination than dilettantism.

Several guesses have been made as to why Iran is tamping down women’s career aspirations, beyond the weaker-sex argument posited above. For one, women outnumber men in Iran’s universities, and the gap looks like it might be growing. Once graduated, though, educated women in today's Iran often find it as hard to locate a husband as a job.

If the new policy really is a move to keep uppity women in their place, as Nobel Peace Prize Shirin Ebadi argues in an open letter to the United Nations, then perverse congratulations are in order for authorities who can actually think in the long-term. Ebadi suggests a packet of changes “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. … Therefore, the number of female students who have constituted more that 65 percent of university students for some time, will drop to less than 50 percent.”

Not to diminish her courage or initiative, but Ebadi’s open letters to the U.N. are pretty routine. While these epistles document the sad fate of human-rights lawyers and shuttered cultural outlets, they don’t move the needle on changing the government, or the theocracy.

But Iran’s leadership isn’t as monolithic as it’s usually portrayed in the West. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last fall, for example, demanded his nation stop segregating university students by sex. It didn’t.

Meanwhile, the government has already made some noises about walking back the new ban. Based on the sound and fury from Ahmadinejad secular notions on classroom segregation that ultimately signified nothing, I don’t expect to see any new female accountants in Tehran for a while.

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