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Iran: Number Of Female University Students Rising Dramatically

In recent years, the number of young Iranian women who have been admitted to universities has risen dramatically. In the last five years alone, Iranian women have made up more than 60 percent of university entrants. It's a surprising development for the Islamic Republic. Experts say education has a strong social value for the country's women, who see it as a way to gain greater freedom. But some Iranian officials have expressed concern about the trend.

Prague, 19 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The growing numbers of young women in Iran's universities is considered a phenomenon that has already brought substantial change to the country's traditionally male-dominated society.

Iranian women are using university studies as a way to leave home, postpone marriage, and generally earn greater freedom and social respect.

Dr. Said Peyvandi is a Paris-based professor of social sciences who follows issues relating to Iran's educational system. In an interview with Radio Farda, Peyvandi said the already strong presence of women in the universities will play a significant role in shaping Iran's future.

"The remarkable educational progress of Iranian girls in the last decade should be considered a social phenomenon, because its implications for social relations, the labor market, and the status of women in society and in the family are very, very important in determining the future of Iran," Peyvandi said.

Peyvandi adds that, ironically, it was after the 1979 revolution and the Islamization of the country's educational institutions that girls from traditional or conservative families began to find ways to go to school. "The modern middle-class families who sent their girls to school even before the revolution continued to do so after [the revolution]. I think the change that took place after the revolution should be considered part of the reason behind the progress we're seeing now," he said. "And that was that the traditional families who had not sent their girls to school before -- because the teachers were men or the school was not Islamic -- these were the girls who took the greatest advantage from the Islamization of schools, or the fact that schools were no longer mixed, as a way of justifying their presence out of the home."

The growing number of female university graduates has already had an impact on Iran's labor market. Women have entered a number of professions both in the public and private sector. Women are also becoming increasingly active in the business world.

All told, they currently make up some 10 percent of the work force. But with women comprising 60 percent of all university students, that number is set to grow dramatically. Dr. Peyvandi says it is a historic change. "In the early years of the revolution, about one-third of the women who were working were laid off by the new regime. Now, instead of those female office workers and secretaries, Iranian women are returning as factory engineers and specialists," he said. "So in fact, Iran's labor market is facing an influx of female specialists who can replace men, and with the very male-oriented structure of Iranian society, this is a big change. In Iran there is now a labor force made up of women specialists that never existed in Iranian history."

Mohammad Ghaed is the managing editor of "Lowh," an educational and cultural magazine published in Tehran. Ghaed says many Iranian women are rising to top professional positions that were previously dominated by men. "In Iran, women at the head of an office or a bank -- and in a position where they can give orders to their subordinates, who are mostly men -- is becoming a common scene," he said.

The change can also be felt in Iran's family structures. In recent years, the average marriage age has risen and the birthrate has fallen. Peyvandi considers these changes to be a direct result of the growing number of women pursuing university education. "In the last decade, all the population indicators in Iran have changed drastically in the direction of improved conditions for women," he said. "The families are smaller, girls get married later, and girls with higher education have higher social demands."

Faced with greater social demands from women, many Iranian officials have voiced concern about the changes under way in the country. Some conservatives argue that the shift represents a threat to traditional values. A reformist female parliamentarian recently decried the dearth of marriage opportunities for university-educated women.

The Education Ministry recently proposed a quota system aimed at limiting the number of women who can enroll in courses like medicine, where female students are rapidly outnumbering males. Peyvandi says conservatives and some reformists are also trying to scale back women's overall access to higher education. "For the past several years, the conservative faction along with some reformists have expressed their concern over the situation. They consider education to be the reason behind these changes in Iranian society, because education is playing a liberating role for women," he said. "They are using economic excuses to try to impose some restrictions, and they are even pushing for laws to limit the admission of women to universities. The Education Ministry proposal to limit [the enrollment of female students in certain courses] is one of these plans."

Observers say that Iranian women have made great achievements in recent years but that much of society is not yet ready to accommodate them. Ghaed, the education expert in Tehran, says to a certain degree, all university graduates -- men and women -- are facing the problem of high unemployment, as Iran's young population floods onto the job market. "There are no jobs for university graduates, they have no income -- it's not even possible for them to earn the bare minimum they need to live. This problem, with its unpredictable consequences, has worsened over the last 10-15 years."

Ghaed says Iranian society, which once saw too few girls attending school, now sees too many young women leaving university with little chance of finding a job.

(Correspondent Nazi Azima of Radio Farda contributed to this report.)
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.