Sun, Nov 05, 2006 - Page 9 News List

More women pursuing university degrees in Iran

While enrollment of men is dropping, women view higher education as opening a door to better career opportunities and an improved standard of living

AFP , TEHRAN

From a small town in western Iran, Saeedeh Mahjoubi has come a long way to study chemical engineering at the country's prestigious Tehran University, with the blessing of her religious family.

More than half the seats in her freshman class are taken by women, who have accounted for 60 percent of university entrants over the past four years.

"Deep down in their hearts my parents would have liked me to stay home and get married, but I was a top student and they sent me away to make something of myself," said Mahjoubi, who hopes to work in the petrochemical industry after graduation.

Dressed in the enveloping traditional black chador, this bubbly 19-year-old jokes with a male classmate, challenging him over an upcoming calculus exam.

"Women face many limitations in Iran, but education is seen as an acceptable outlet for self-fulfillment and social participation," said Hamidreza Jalaipour, prominent reformist journalist and professor of sociology.

He believes the Islamic revolution of 1979, which made it obligatory for women to wear the headscarf, has encouraged religious families to send their daughters to college, which is now "Islamized and no longer regarded as an unsafe, corrupted place."

From 150,000 in 1979, the number of university students has risen to some 3 million in state-funded schools and semi-private Islamic Azad University, founded in the early 1980s to contain the ever-increasing hopefuls by setting up local branches in several Iranian cities.

For postgraduate anthropology student Mariam Ansari, studying has been a way to get out of the house and meet men, since "young people are not allowed to mingle freely elsewhere."

"College has boosted my confidence and taught me how to deal with men," she added.

Under Iranian law, a husband can prevent his wife from working outside the home, but this prospect does not faze 23-year-old Ansari.

"I have learned to think for myself and I will not marry a man with such a mindset in the first place," she said.

According to Jalaipour, economic hardships are also responsible for women flocking to college.

"Few families can live on one income so women have to work and get educated to find better-paying jobs," Jalaipour said.

On the other hand, some analysts say a poorly performing economy and high unemployment rate -- officially 15 percent -- have dampened young men's enthusiasm for college.

"In our patriarchal society the man is expected to be the breadwinner and in the past years education has become less relevant to financial success," said single mother Simin Ronaghi, 43, a university lecturer and doctoral student of psychology.

The falling number of men in universities has prompted some conservative members of parliament to debate whether affirmative action needs to be taken for "adjusting" the male/female ratio, especially in medicine and engineering. The argument, lambasted by reformists and women's rights activists, has never been introduced as a draft bill.

Ronaghi deems the growing number of women seeking higher education a natural process in modernization, saying "women are now less willing to sacrifice careers to stay home and care for children."

Despite their qualifications, women only form 15 percent of the work force and "still lots of them face discrimination by prejudiced employers over payment and promotion," Jalaipour said.

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