Liberals and conservatives alike know the fight for women’s rights begins with access to education, which is how education becomes a flashpoint for conflict—especially in today’s Iran. Real changes, for better or for worse, in education are manifesting as a result of competing ideologies as Iran introduces reforms and opens up to globalization.
In August 2017, Iran’s Minister of Science, Research, and Technology Mohammad Farhadi announced the introduction of an award for young women engaged in the sciences. The award will be named after Maryam Mirzakhani, the only female recipient of the Fields Medal, which is awarded to mathematicians under the age of 40 for outstanding contributions to the field. An Iranian mathematician and university professor, Mirzakhani passed away in July 2017 from breast cancer.
The international STEM award dedicated to her achievements and legacy is a nod to Iran’s recent progress toward gender equality as well as an impetus for further progress. President Rouhani has greatly contributed to recent progress, such as opening up new education and employment opportunities for women in formerly gender-segregated sectors. In a ceremonial announcement of the award, Minister Farhadi mentioned that female professors in Iran are ranked amongst the top scientists in the world, and many women hold managerial positions in research centers and knowledge-based companies.
In 2016, President Rouhani put a hold on hiring exams for public-sector positions to investigate gender-based discrimination in the job market. He also made headway with his appointments of women to important political and economic posts, including the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, ambassador, governor, deputy oil minister, and CEO of Iran’s national carrier. Rouhani’s cabinet nominations following his May 2017 election support his goals for more education and economic reform.
Both despite and because of these efforts to further women’s rights in Iran, female unemployment reached an all-time high in 2016. Thanks to incentives, women are increasingly entering the job market—the rate of women entering into the job market is approximately 50%—and participation reached an all-time high in 2016. Despite these efforts, women more often face unemployment than men. The female unemployment rate at roughly 20% is double the unemployment rate for men.
But all that said, teaching, a gendered profession that skews female, is now the target of new regulations preventing sub-groups of women and minorities from entering the field. Among the gender-specific “disorders“ that determine ineligibility are infertility, ovarian cysts, and breast or cervical cancer, in addition to other gender-nonspecific disqualifications that target teachers from other minority groups.
This announcement of disqualifications from the Ministry of Education is just the most recent indication of conservative hardliners’ backlash to President Rouhani’s reforms. With limited popular support, conservatives are utilizing other avenues of influence. In fact, the Supreme Leader and conservatives have considerable influence in all ministries most relevant to education. For example, the Ministry of Science-approved university chancellors implemented several gender-based quotas to keep women out of certain majors, namely in STEM fields, in 2014.
The Iranian Parliament also has the power to deny Rouhani’s cabinet nominations. Many speculated that young progressive nominees for Minister of Education, Minister of Communications and Technology, and Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports were likely to be rejected by the Majilis, or Iranian Parliament. To their surprise, all but the Minister of Energy were approved.
Though notably, a Minister of Science, Research, and Technology has yet to be nominated or appointed. If recent tensions are any indication, an appointment may be hard to achieve. However, the growing rift between reformers and conservatives leaves no doubt that the appointment will have a profound impact on the future of women in education and employment in Iran.