08/22/2012 05:46 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2012

Iran's War on Female Doctors and Male Nurses

The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has always been wary of women. The reasons vary, of course, though the predominant belief is that the attitude stems from sexism rooted in religion and tradition. There is, as well, a more practical reason for it: a government that has from its very beginning demanded and exerted control of the people's lives is naturally resistant to those who acquire any measure of independence.

And that is exactly what Iranian women have done in the last 33 years: they've found a way to be independent in a country that is very tightly controlled, particularly if you are female.

Education has almost always been the key to that success -- the one sure ticket to independence.

This week's announcement that 36 universities across Iran have banned 77 fields of study to women is just the latest example of the Iranian government's particular disdain for the progress that women have made in education. While it is true that the universities made this decision on their own, the government has not opposed this decision and the universities are not facing any legal action by the government for having done so.

It is not, clearly, a violation of Iranian law to segregate in education, and therein lies the heart of the problem.

For Iranian women, this is a double blow: it is not only their fields of study that are limited but also their avenues for financial and personal independence. The fact is that Iranian women are the most educated women in the world -- according to UNESCO, Iran has the highest ratio of female to male university enrollment in the world. And the Iranian government has been overtly acting to change that statistic by placing quotas on women university entrants, particularly in specific fields, such as the most prestigious ones: medicine and engineering.

One of the first moves the fledgling Islamic Republic government made was in the education of those who treat women. It began just after the new government fell into place in 1979: with bans on all male gynecologists and obstetricians. Both fields and their practitioners suffered. But what suffered more were Iranian women: when you're in pain or when your water has broken, you're very unlikely to care about who exactly can help you. Even the most pious Iranians understand that in matters of life, death and health, segregation is hardly a priority.

Yet, the government moved forward with its plans to prevent women from seeing male doctors for their female health needs. Most existing male gynecologists and obstetricians closed down their practices and moved into general medical care or other fields. Those who were too senior to make drastic changes, quietly practiced, though lost many patients due to the fear and paranoia surrounding the issue and never fully recovered from the onslaught. And women suffered because they could be questioned or even arrested for seeing their long-time doctors. Or, they had to join the long lines of other women waiting in line at the few medical practices where the doctor was female.

This was at the beginning of the Islamic Republic, at a time when the government called for an increase in reproduction by eliminating the family-planning programs that the Shah had put into place, due to Ayatollah Khomeini's announcement that both Islam and Iran needed greater populations. The Islamic Republic has changed little when it comes to its understanding of the role of women: they are child-bearers first and foremost and, when they deign to pursue higher education, should be in fields that "women do," including fields that address women's needs. This year, the government has again eliminated its family-planning programs, including the mandatory birth control classes upon marriage.

In the intervening years, the Iranian government realized that doubling your population from around 30 million to more than 60 million in just one generation is a grand pressure on the nation's resources. It went on to build the only state-sponsored condom production factory in the Middle East ("45 million condoms a year, in 30 different shapes, colors and flavors").

It also went on to, grudgingly, look the other way at the existing male gynecologists and obstetricians who continued to practice despite the ban. However, no new male gynecologists and obstetricians have graduated since the post-Revolutionary ban: the residency programs in these two fields are limited to female medical graduates. Troublingly, the now limited knowledge that male physicians have about gynecology and obstetrics has impacted their ability to effectively treat female patients, particularly in rural areas where the number of female physicians is even more limited than in urban areas.

This week, in addition to the bans on certain fields of study for women, the government announced a renewed attack on healthcare providers (and thus healthcare recipients). As before, it is heavily tinged with gender issues. The national Nursing Association has banned male nurses. Nursing, the Iranian government seems to believe, is a woman's job, not a man's. This is no doubt also an attempt to absorb the growing number of Iranian female students who, though highly qualified, will be rejected from medical school and other prestigious fields of study because of quotas and prohibitions on female students.

What's ironic is that under the Islamic Republic, more Iranian women have become educated at institutions of higher learning than they had under the monarchy. Many observers attributed this to the fact that religious families finally acquiesced, in the post Revolutionary Iran, to allowing their daughters to go to university because of segregated university options, required hejab, and a curriculum that mandates religious studies and practice.

But what is also true is that in a society run by a sexist government, girls and women, mothers and sisters have learned all too well that their only hope for independence is an education -- a good one. A woman with a degree is less likely to get a job than a man with the same degree, but she is more likely to get one than a woman who has no degree at all. Further, the very process of getting the degree -- going to university -- is itself an act of independence and a chance for Iranian women to enter new avenues of social and intellectual exchange which they would not get if they were stuck at home.

Medicine and health are the two fields that are most sought after, because they provide the greatest job security and independence. For this reason, in the last decade, women's medicine entrance test scores have been consistently higher on average than men's. And for that reason, the government placed a quota on how many women could be accepted to medical school.

There is this saying in post-Revolutionary Iran that when the government tries to show some muscle, it is the women who are targeted first. The saying is based in quite some truth: when times are tough, politically, the morals police take to the streets in greater droves to harass and insult girls and women for their mandatory hejab. This scarf is too bright. This coat is too short. This makeup is unacceptable. And so on.

During this time of heightened fear of war and horrible economic conditions brought about by financial mismanagement, corruption and US sanctions, the Islamic Republic government is in a political quagmire. It is not surprising that they are going after the women again. It is another power move on the marginalized gender, no doubt, but it is also a show of ignorance by a government that has now cemented a culture of sexism in a society where women -- the strong, talented and intelligent women of Iran -- are in fact essential to the nation's growth.