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The Dilemma of Iranian Female Undergraduate Students

Keiko Sakurai
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2015, Iran is near the bottom of the Gender Gap Rankings—141st place out of 145 countries. Ranking particularly low in the fields of economy and politics, it also comes in 143rd place for labor force participation (18%) and 137th for women in parliament (3%).

In Iran, women’s participation in society has been limited because of institutionalized gender roles, for instance, “men and women must undertake obligations and responsibilities that are appropriate for their gender” and “the best place for women is at home.” In public, women must wear a veil under the teachings of Islam, which prohibits women from showing their beauty to men who are not their relatives. At the same time, public spaces themselves have separated men and women. For example, boys and girls attend single-sex elementary, junior high, and high schools. At school, teachers are the same sex as their students. Such segregation is also visible in sports centers and public transportation systems such as the subway and buses. Islamic gender roles have even been incorporated into the Iranian Civil Code, and men and women are treated differently for rules regarding divorce, marriage, custody, and inheritance. Men are granted the rights to polygamy, unilateral divorces, claiming children's custody, and permitting or prohibiting their wives to work. On the other hand, they must also pay a mahr (nuptial gift) to their wives and provide maintenance.

While these gender roles work against women’s participation in the workforce, they have also become a factor for the increase in women’s school enrollment. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, rules on veils and segregation of space were introduced. Although Iranians who appreciated Western values strongly opposed, the conservative class who felt reluctant towards co-education and teachers of the opposite sex welcomed these new rules. Consequently, women’s enrollment from elementary to high schools reached the level of developed countries. Interestingly, university enrollment for women, most of which are co-ed, continued to rise. By 1999, more women passed the Iran’s unified entrance examination for government universities, and the number of women in higher education has exceeded that of men since 2002. However, former President Ahmadinejad (presidency: 2005–2013) raised the alarm that Iranian women had become more educated than necessary, causing 77 courses in 36 universities to stop accepting female students. Although this led to a decrease in the percentage of female students at universities, enrollment rate in higher education continued to rise for both men and women (Graph 1), which is in fact much higher than Japan. Another unique feature is that the percentage of female students in science and technology departments, supposedly advantageous for future employment, is high in Iran. Despite these trends, school enrollment does not translate into employment for women. Sexual discrimination in the labor market is believed to be a major factor, but could that be the only reason?

In order to find out how women felt about education and employment, I conducted a survey of 96 female students in the Department of Education and Psychology at a national university in Tehran in 2011. The target group was 21 years old on average, and 17% of them were married. When they were asked if university education would help them acquire the jobs they wanted, 45% answered, "Strongly agree" and 36% answered, "Agree." Some students wrote in the comment section that they would need a master's or PhD for very competitive positions with few openings. When they were asked if they wished to work after graduating, 57% answered "Strongly agree" and 26% answered "Agree." Less positive responses were received for questions regarding working after marriage or becoming a mother.

I also asked them an open-ended question about the kind of jobs they wanted. Most students answered that they wanted to take advantage of their university majors and become professionals, such as teachers and counselors, or public officials. Later, I asked why they chose these careers. Many women in the target group answered that: being a teacher would allow them to work in a women-only environment; their families would not accept deskwork and customer service jobs; and they would lose respect unless they become professionals. When I inquired them about their preferred employment style, only 16% of them wanted to work fulltime. The students commented that: time spent with their families was important; a career-focused lifestyle is not suitable for women; they wanted a job appropriate for a university graduate; flexible working styles are available for professionals; and teachers did not have to work overtime and had summer vacation. The survey results indicated that many female undergraduates thought they should choose a profession considering the social status of their families and themselves, since women are not required to support the family financially, and that the female students did not necessarily want to work “like men.”

In Iran, prolonged economic sanctions have reduced the size of the labor market. As a result, the high unemployment rate among the younger generation has been a social issue. Female undergraduate students in general are well aware that they may not be able to get the job they want even when they graduate. Yet, they still choose to go to university because they can be a part of society without being opposed to their families, and acquiring additional value in the form of a degree will raise their status in their own families as well as their husband’s. For Iranian women, going to university seems to be a meaningful investment even though the end result does not necessarily equate to employment. There are unique circumstances in Iran as to why the female employment rate is only 18% despite 64% of women attending higher education institutions.

Keiko Sakurai
Professor, Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University

Keiko Sakurai obtained her bachelor's degree and PhD in International Relations at Sophia University. After serving as a professor at Gakushuin Women's College, she became a professor at the Faculty of International Research and Education, Waseda University in 2004. She has been the director of the Organization for Islamic Area Studies, Waseda University since 2012.

Her major publications include Kakumei Iran no Kyokasho Media [Textbooks as Media in Iran under the Revolution] (Iwanami Shoten), Gendai Iran [Modern Iran] (Iwanami Shoten), Nihon no Musurimu Shakai [Muslim Society in Japan] (Chikuma Shinsho), Shiia-ha [Shiah] (Chuko Shinsho), and Iran no Shukyo Kyouiku Senryaku [Iranian Religious and Educational Strategies] (Yamakawa Shuppansha). She edited Isuramu-ken de hataraku [Working in Islamic Countries] (Iwanami Shinsho). She co-authored and edited The Moral Economy of the Madrasa (Routledge) with Fariba Adelkhah and Shaping Global Islamic Discourses (Edinburgh University Press) with Masooda Bano.