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Iran Barring Women From Atomic, Oil Fields Draws Rebuke

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Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi
Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi wrote in an open letter to the United Nations dated Aug. 17, “They are trying to push women back to the private sphere of their homes so they may abandon their opposition and legitimate demands.” Photographer: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

Aug. 21 (Bloomberg) -- Iran’s decision to forbid women from studying dozens of subjects including nuclear physics and oil engineering threatens to wipe out one of the last vestiges of gender equality in the country, a Nobel Peace laureate said.

The Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Science, Research and Technology has barred women in 36 universities from 77 fields of study, according to state-run media including the Mehr news agency. Female students learned of the curbs when they received their registration letters in recent weeks.

The new rules “demonstrate that the Iranian authorities cannot tolerate women’s presence in the public arena,” Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi wrote in an open letter to the United Nations dated Aug. 17. “They are trying to push women back to the private sphere of their homes so they may abandon their opposition and legitimate demands.”

The restrictions follow gender-segregation guidelines that Science Minister Kamran Daneshjou tried -- unsuccessfully -- to impose last year. While the government requires women to cover their hair and bodies in line with religious values, they had been eligible to study on equal terms with their male counterparts. Improved female literacy and gender equality were key elements in human development gains after the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Not Needed

About 52 percent of Iranian university students who graduated in 2009 were women, according to the latest data published by the UN Education Scientific and Cultural Organization. Sixty-eight percent of science graduates were women, Paris-based UNESCO said.

High unemployment among women graduating from science-based degree programs is a justification for the ban, the chancellor of the University of Isfahan, Mohammad Hossein Ramesht, told Mehr. About 98 percent of women who graduated from mine-engineering programs are without jobs, he said, citing surveys.

“We do not need female students at all,” said Gholamrez Rashed, head of the University of Petroleum Technology, Mehr reported today. Difficult working conditions in Iran’s oil industry is the main reason for not admitting women, he said.

Iran, the third-biggest oil producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting, is pumping less crude than Iraq for the first time in 20 years, OPEC said in an Aug. 9 report. The country is under international sanctions over its atomic work.

Feminist Movement

The feminist movement “has witnessed significant growth in the past two decades,” wrote Ebadi, an Iranian human-rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 and lives in exile in the U.K. “The government is seeking to bar women’s access to education and active presence in society.”

Iran’s leaders are “pushing them back to into the house in the hope that they abandon their demands and leave the government alone to pursue its wrong policies,” she said.

Other subjects restricted to male study when universities open next month include English literature, hotel management, computer science and accounting, according to local media.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who opposed Daneshjou’s push to segregate male and female students because it was “unscientific,” hasn’t commented publicly on the decision to ban women from coursework.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Tirone in Vienna at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at

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