IRAN: Ahmadinejad halts segregation, firings

Plans to segregate male and female students in Iran's universities have been put on hold after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad intervened personally last week to oppose the move. He also insisted that no more professors should be forcibly 'retired' until new ministry guidelines have been approved - but purges of some professors in the humanities are already underway.

Ahmadinejad described the segregation plan, to be implemented this September, as "unwise" and "unscholarly" and called for it to be halted immediately.

In separate letters to Science, Research and Technology Minister Kamran Daneshjou and Health Minister Marzieh Vahid-Dastjerdi, Ahmedinejad urged them to take measures to prevent the implementation of the plan to separate the classes of male and female students at universities, the official Mehr News Agency reported on 6 July.

"We're hearing that some of the classes at universities are being segregated with no regard for the consequences," the president wrote in the letters published on his official website. "It is essential that these shallow and unscholarly actions are halted immediately."

Political analysts said Ahmadinejad's opposition to segregation was a populist move intended to gain more support from the upper middle-classes, including women.

Science minister Daneshjou has said that Iran will separate male and female student at universities from the start of term on 23 September.

"Following the implementation of the Hijab [Islamic dress] and Chastity Plan, university classes will be separated. If there is no facility to separate classes, students will sit in separate rows," he is quoted in official reports as saying.

Daneshjou back-tracked on Thursday, saying that the president's demands would be carried out immediately.

But he underlined that Ahmadinejad's was not questioning the move to make universities more compatible with Islamic principles. Rather, he explained, the president was concerned about "creating a double standard" in universities by separating only a handful of classes.

The Iranian parliament's education and research committee, which has been known to criticise some government policies, had confirmed Deneshjou's plan.

Committee member Ali Karimi Firouzjayi said: "The science minister has announced that during the summer, when universities are closed, there will be a plan to determine how much gender separation the universities can accommodate, and those universities that have the capacity will begin to implement it in September."

He added: "We must make every effort to reduce contact between male and female students, and this is a policy called for by families, the parliament, the clergy as well as supporters of the regime and religious leaders."

Firouzjayi added that segregation had been on the education ministry agenda for more than a year. Apart from the separation of men and women into different classes, parliament is willing to fund and legislate the building of single-sex universities, he said. He also spoke in favour of single-sex cafeterias and uniforms for students.

A religious leader, Ayatollah Safi Golpaigani, said recently: "Mingling of male and female [students] thwarts scientific achievement and causes great corruption. The costs of segregation are affordable however heavy they may be." This was seen as a reference to the slowing of segregation plans in recent years because it was deemed too expensive to have separate classes.

Students at several universities have protested against segregation. Tehran University students also held a rally in April to protest against a requirement to use separate campus buses.

Ahmedinejad did not confine his remarks last week to the segregation issue. He also called on the two ministries to refrain from indiscriminate retiring of university professors "until the relevant bylaw is ratified".

The move comes in the wake of reports in May that 150 professors in the humanities at Allameh Tabatabai University in Tehran, one of the largest such departments in the country, will be fired or forced into early retirement, according to the Kaleme opposition website.

It said the administration at Allameh Tabatabai, which has more than 15,000 students, was preparing the files of 150 senior professors of business administration, sociology, economics, communications, law and political science for dismissal or early retirement.

The report added that over the summer holidays the university would prepare to merge with the Imam Khomeini Institute, which belongs to senior hardline cleric Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi.

According to Kaleme, Allameh Tabatai University has already fired scores of professors over the past six years and closed down several graduate programmes. The university had the backing of Ahmadinejad and his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, the website claimed.

Law professor Mohammad Sharif was dismissed by university in May. Sharif told the Human Rights Reporters Committee that despite 25 years of service, he was handed a letter saying his "general qualifications have been rejected and [his] services have been terminated at the university." The university cancelled all of Sharif's undergraduate, graduate and PhD classes without explanation in February.

Sharif was one of the founders of the Human Rights Defenders Centre in Iran, which was outlawed by the Islamic Republic following the post-election protests of 2009.

As part of an ideological cleansing of universities, Daneshjou has said all professors who are not 'aligned with the system' will be dismissed. This has led to the firing or forced retirement of more than 50 professors at Iranian universities, according to human rights groups.

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