The XX Factor

Iran Bans Women From 77 College Majors, but Can Leaders Really Stop Progress?

An Iranian female student at Tehran University in 2006.

Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

News came late last week that Iran, apparently frightened over its female citizens’ growing independence, will begin restricting women’s access to a wide range of educational opportunities. Although Iran was one of the first nations in the Middle East to permit women to study at universities, the BBC reports that over 30 universities have agreed to ban women from about 80 different degrees such as engineering, business, nuclear physics, and computer science (you know, the ones that can potentially steer women toward power and financial freedom). While the government has not released any official reason for this change, Iranian Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi told the BBC that the restrictions have to do with the government’s aim to “restrict women’s access to education, to stop them being active in society, and to return them to the home.”

So why now? The dean of Iran’s Petroleum University of Technology, Gholamreza Rashed, says that the school stopped accepting female students since “the hardship of the work situation”—ie. Western sanctions—and “because the oil industry does not need female students right now.” But many believe the cutback is more due to a conservative backlash against female progress, and growing alarm about the country’s declining marriage and birth rates. There’s also the hangover from 2009’s Green Revolution, to which female protestors were central, as they were in Egypt and other Arab Spring uprisings.

This past August, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made a speech imploring Iranians to have more children and return to traditional values. Since then, there have been new accounts of cutbacks in sex education and family planning programs that provide access to contraception. But can Iran really turn back time?

As Hanna Rosin’s new book, The End of Men, argues, women have “pulled decisively ahead [of men] by almost every measure,” especially in receiving a higher education. Like in the United States, Iran’s universities have more female students than male students. Female Iranians are surpassing their male peers in traditionally male-dominated studies, like science and engineering. The trend is clear. Iran’s leaders must think that the only way to prevent the “end of men” in their country is to make it illegal for women to succeed.