Iran's higher education minister, Kamran Daneshjoo, has ordered a study to gauge the feasibility of enforcing gender segregation when the academic year starts in September.
Iran may separate sexes at universities
When Iranian students return to university in September the men and women may find themselves in separate classes, laboratories, canteens, buses and even administration offices.
Iran's higher education minister, Kamran Daneshjoo, has ordered a study to gauge the feasibility of enforcing gender segregation when the academic year starts in September, the khabaronline news website reported this week.
Mr Daneshjoo is a fervent advocate of gender segregation in universities and has repeatedly said the problem with Iranian universities is that they "copy western models in both form and content". In February, Mr Daneshjoo proposed to transform some universities to single-gender ones.
Gender segregation was enforced in all Iranian primary and secondary schools following the Islamic revolution of 1979. However in universities, male and female students attend class together but sit in separate rows of chairs.
In the 1980s, attempts were made to separate male and female students in several universities around the country. Curtains and room dividers were placed in classrooms but were taken away without explanation days later. Family members of Ayatollah Khomeini, who was the country's top clerical and political leader at the time, claim he considered segregation insulting to the students and ordered the removal of the dividers.
Segregation in universities has strong support among parliament's hardline legislators. "Mingling of male and female students must be prevented as much as possible," Ali Karimi Firoozjaie, a higher education committee member, told Khabaronline. Mr Firoozjaie said a segregation policy is supported by families, parliament and the top clergy.
Advocates say gender mixing in universities "causes moral corruption" and distracts students from their studies.
They have appealed to religious authorities several of whom have recently said that gender segregation should be enforced by the state.
Ayatollah Safi Golpaigani, one of the top Shiite sources of emulation, said in a decree last week: "Mingling of male and female [students] thwarts scientific achievements and causes great corruption. The costs of segregation [for the government] are affordable however heavy they may be."
Students in several universities have signed petitions and staged protests against segregation. In April, Tehran University students held a rally to protest against a requirement to use separate campus buses, boarding the buses together.
"This plan is totally ridiculous," said Sanaz, 22, an architecture student from Tehran University, who would only give her first name. "It will badly damage our academic performance because they simply don't have enough people to teach separate classes. I wonder what their next step will be, to draw curtains in corridors or have separate passageways?"
Some observers say the pro-segregation movement was drummed up by the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,, whose government is embroiled in a standoff with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In a similar way to when his government enforced stricter dress codes in Mr Ahmadinejad's first term, segregation would alleviate the pressure on the president from the hardline camp.
Shadi Sadr, a London-based human rights lawyer and women's rights activist, said: "Many supporters of hardliners voted for Ahmadinejad because they expected him as a hardliner to enforce a stricter dress code and to limit social contact between men and women. The government has had to resort to a propaganda campaign now and ahead of the upcoming parliament elections [in February 2012] in an effort to conciliate them with promises of taking action on those demands.
"They've chosen this time to talk about their segregation plans because student protests are not likely to happen now that students are in their summer holidays."
Hardliners are also troubled that more women are attending university than men. For more than a decade girls have surpassed boys in the national university entrance exams at undergraduate level. In 2009, of those who passed the exams and enrolled in undergraduate courses, 62.7 per cent were women and only 37.3 per cent men.
Nourollah Haydari, a member of parliament's higher education committee was quoted by Mehr News Agency as saying this week: "[Bigger] presence of women in universities deprives men of education and job opportunities,".
The higher education ministry under Mr Ahmadinejad has quietly been taking measures to change the disparity, such as limiting women's admission to certain courses. Iran University of Science and Technology, for instance, is not admitting women in any but two of its post graduate courses this year, Daneshjoo News, a student news website reported last month. Several courses, such as mining engineering, have been off the list of choices for women even at undergraduate level for many years.