Iran Expands Gender Segregation in Universities


Iranian students studying Persian carpet weaving adjust their looms at a classroom in Isfahan Art University, 450 km (280 miles) south of Tehran November 14, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • The Islamic Revolution has been a work in progress since its victory in 1979. @MRubin1971

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  • Though revolutionaries were united in opposition to the Shah, they had no consensus on what Islamic society/culture meant.

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  • After the Iran-Iraq War, universities became incubators for the reformist movement. @MRubin1971

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  • Iranian gov. may hope that youth can be “re-educated” by redesigning universities to prioritize religious indoctrination.

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Editor's Note: FMSO’s Operational Environment Watch provides translated selections and analysis from a diverse range of foreign articles and other media that analysts and expert contributors believe will give military and security experts an added dimension to their critical thinking about the Operational Environment.

Source: “Tasis 6 Wahad Tek Genseti dar Daneshgah Azad” (“Establish of 6 Single-Gender Units in Azad University,”) Iranian Student News Agency. 3 July 2012

Rubin: The Islamic Revolution has from its victory in 1979 been a work in progress. Revolutionaries were united in their opposition to the Shah, but had no consensus on what Islamic society and culture meant. Revolutionary authorities have always paid special attention to the universities. The revolution was carried on the back of student unrest, and it was hardline students who seized the U.S. embassy nine months after Ayatollah Khomeini’s return. Upon seizing the reins of power, revolutionary authorities sought to implement a cultural revolution in the universities to purge them of Western influence. Revolutions evolve, however, and as Iran rebuilt after the Iran-Iraq War, universities became incubators for the reformist movement.

"The Islamic Revolution has from its victory in 1979 been a work in progress." -Michael RubinWhen Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005 he sought to revive traditional revolutionary values. Indeed, what many Western analysts call ‘hardliners,’ Iranians call ‘principalists,’ meaning those who reach back to the principles of the Islamic Revolution. In order to re-root the universities in traditional values, Ahmadinejad has ordered unknown soldiers from the Iran-Iraq War—called martyrs in traditional Iranian parlance—to be buried on university campuses in ceremonies which students and faculty are forced to attend.

While the universities of Tehran, Shiraz, and Isfahan may be Iran’s most famous centers of higher education, the Islam Azad University has become the Islamic Republic’s largest. Founded during the early years of the revolution, the Islam Azad University was the brainchild of former President ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, largely to get 18 to 22 year olds off the street. The university branches are basically akin to a national community college system.

While they taught basic trades and general subjects, the principalists long complained that the Islam Azad University system was not ideological enough. Ahmadinejad and his allies spent several years during his first term trying to wrest control of the university system away from Rafsanjani’s allies.

Recent moves to begin gender segregation in the Islam Azad University system are one more sign that the hardliners have consolidated control and might presage the start of a new cultural revolution inside Iran. While many Western officials are optimistic that Iranian youth seek Western freedoms, the Iranian government may hope that the youth can be “re-educated” by redesigning universities to prioritize religious indoctrination.

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  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

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