God and Woman in Iran


Peter Singer in Project Syndicate:

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.