Iran has stepped up gender separation in universities, with a number of universities already announcing that men and women will be taught in separate classes, and the government saying further requests by universities would be looked on positively.
President of Allameh Tabatabai University in Tehran, Seyed Sadredin Shariati, announced in January that separation of men and women would be implemented for subjects with large numbers of students.
In a bid to dispel fears that the university might provide a lower quality education to women, he stressed it did not mean separate courses, rather separate teaching for men and women in different classes.
Male and Female students in Iran already sit in separate rows in lecture theatres and classrooms. University libraries and canteens also have segregated areas.
Reza Ameri, general director of supervision and evaluation of higher education in the Ministry of Science, said last week that the ministry would create separate-gender institutions in areas where there was "demand".
In remarks carried in the official Mehr news agency, he said education in Iran in the 21st century had to respond to "different tastes and demands".
Ameri said segregation was already underway in some colleges in Tehran, and that more applications (from universities) for separate classes would be considered.
He revealed that there had already been requests to the ministry for separate-gender institutions in the Iranian capital, and in the religious cities of Qom and Mashhad.
Ferdowsi University's department of Engineering in Mashhad imposed segregation on more than 49 general and laboratory courses from the start of the new academic term this year, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI) reported in January. Last year only a few general courses at Ferdowsi, such as general mathematics and physics, imposed separate classes for men and women.
"Mashhad is under the control of a very powerful cleric. In the constant struggle by hardline [religious] elements to control universities, the university [administration] clearly felt confident enough to impose this," ICHRI director Hadi Ghaemi told University World News.
Calls for gender separation in the country's universities are not new. Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohamadian, a senior cleric, demanded segregated classes in 2006 and again in 2009. But this was resisted by influential members of the higher education ministry and university administrators as impractical. They said it would be too costly to provide separate facilities, particularly in science, technology and medicine.
Ameri said last week that some requests from government institutions to allow segregation dated back 15 years. Requests would now be reviewed favourably by the ministry, particularly those from non-government institutions, he said.
ICHRI's Ghaemi said conservative elements had wanted segregation in universities in the past, but it had not been implemented for fear of a strong reaction from the student population and a possible political backlash against the regime on campuses.
The regime appears to feel more confident it can control university dissent, after a series of crackdowns, human rights groups said.
The number of women university students in Iran has risen dramatically since the Iranian revolution in the 1970s and is said to be over 60% of university enrolments, as high as 70% of enrolments in medicine and social sciences and approaching that figure in dentistry and pharmacy.
Iranian women see university education as a route to greater freedom, including economic freedom and social respect.
"More and more women are going into higher education, and as they have come to dominate universities the [hardliners] feel threatened," Ghaemi said.
"It is part of the government's gender discrimination policies to make it more difficult for women in universities," added Ghaemi. "For example they try to keep women in their home towns even if women get into major universities."
According to the ICHRI, restrictions have been increasing since June 2009. Over the past three academic terms, ICHRI reported that more than 15 disciplinary rulings had been issued against female students for not wearing the hijab (veil).
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