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Iran's War on Women Students May Backfire

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Iran's woeful deception and hypocrisy on women's human rights is particularly prominent this week while Tehran hosts the 16th Non-Aligned Movement summit to "eliminate international problems" and assumes the NAM's presidency for the next three years.

The summit follows the recent announcement of a ban on female students in Iranian universities.

In the coming academic year, 36 universities will implement exclusion of women from 77 fields of study, including chemistry, computer science, nuclear physics, engineering, business management, education and English. Gholamrez Rashed, the head of the University of Petroleum Technology, declared: "We do not need female students at all."

Science Minister Kamran Daneshjoo claimed that sexual segregation was of the utmost priority in order to uphold moral standards and effect greater balance in gender enrolment. About 70 percent of science graduates are female.

Other concerns include an unemployment rate of more than 20 percent for people under 30 and about 28 percent for women, and the trend for more traditional families to seek education for daughters, allowing them unsupervised boarding in cities.

The rise of female education is associated with declining rates of marriage and birth. Fertility has dropped from about six children a family at the time of the Iranian revolution to fewer than two.

Educated women are more likely to marry later and less likely to marry uneducated men.

Educated and unemployed women who know their rights are a danger to a male-dominated culture that relegates them to second-class status, and to religio-political authorities that derive legitimacy from patriarchy, supremacism and claims to exclusive knowledge of the divine.

The latest bans continue the Islamic Republic's policy of oppressing and disempowering women through sexual segregation, enforced Islamic dress codes, polygyny, early marriage, court testimony worth half that of a man's, leniency for honor killings, stoning sentences, blocking reformist websites and so on.

Activists involved with the One Million Signatures Campaign Demanding Changes to Discriminatory Laws have been persecuted and imprisoned since 2005.

Unlike in most other Muslim countries, political dissent in post-revolutionary Iran has been expressed in universities rather than mosques, which has led the regime to fear these institutions as incubators of subversion. Feminist student groups are regarded as the most seditious.

Noble Laureate Shirin Ebadi has declared that the new educational restrictions are designed to undermine the feminist movement by reducing the numbers of female students from 65 percent at present to 50 percent, and has made a formal complaint to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

U.N. protection for Iranian women would seem unlikely, as the organisation has not offered much support to reformers in the past.

Iran also enjoys prominent positions in major U.N. voting blocs such as the NAM, which comprises two-thirds of U.N. members, and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation with 56 member countries.

During the recent meeting of the OIC, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was pointedly placed next to the Saudi monarch.

Nevertheless, in March last year, 52 nations, including many members of the U.N. not on the 47-member Human Rights Council, co-sponsored a resolution calling for a special investigator to monitor Iran's compliance with international human rights standards.

The decision followed reports of persecution of minority groups including the Baha'is, who have suffered a long-term ban on university attendance.

Women fought hard against educational sanctions and other restrictions imposed by the Islamic Republic. By 1991, they had won the right to quotas within certain academic fields, and during a period of limited freedom of assembly and association under reformist president Mohammad Khatami, activists established more than 600 non-government organisations that advanced women's rights.

Restriction of freedom was intensified under Ahmadinejad, who introduced gender-based policies to decrease female quotas and increase male quotas in some university fields.

Activists who organised university sit-ins for women's rights and street demonstrations have risked beatings and detention, and many still languish in prison.

Women marched in the forefront of the protests following Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009, and were arguably the vanguard for the uprisings of the Arab Spring.

The government, which has distanced itself from the recent education bans introduced by universities, risks a backlash.

The women's movement emerged in part to oppose the regime's policy of limiting admittance of female students to universities and women activists have shown remarkable courage in challenging the authoritarian theocracy.

Reformers will see through the current hypocrisy and blame the government for the latest round.

Iranian feminists still retain potent reserves of energy and determination for confrontation with their turbaned inquisitors. And in truth they have little left to lose.

A version of this article was originally published in The Australian.