Ahmadinejad opposes plans to segregate the sexes in Iran’s universities, rightist alarmed


Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has ordered the immediate cancellation of plans to segregate sexes at some universities, blasting the move as “shallow and unwise.”

“In some universities, single-gender courses and classes are implemented without considering their consequences,” the president said in a letter to the ministers of higher education and health that was published on his website.

“It is necessary that these shallow and unwise actions are prevented immediately,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said against the backdrop of a lively debate in the media and among officials over reports of plans to divide female and male students.

The order comes during a campaign by the ultra-conservative and religious camps dominating the Iranian regime for the abolition of co-education in universities for the new academic year.

Science Research and Technology Minister Kamran Daneshjou denied having any plans for gender segregation at universities.

“Men and women must sit in separate rows in university,” he said, while insisting his ministry was pressing ahead with plans for the “Islamization” of the education system.

“We do not want to create a wall, but we are against the mingling of men and women based on Western styles,” Mr. Daneshjoo said, adding that students would not be prevented from “cooperation when it comes to acquisition of science.”

Health Minister Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi also rejected talks of gender segregation plans, saying it was unrealistic, for example, to separate male and female medical students who would have to face patients of both sexes as future doctors.

Since the Islamic Revolution, which took place in 1979, the number of university students in the country has grown about 20 times, to nearly 3.5 million, according to Iranian media.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s opposition to sex segregation will further alienate his conservative and religious critics, who have becoming increasingly outspoken against him and his circle of advisers they say belong to a “deviant current” that puts secular nationalism ahead of Islam and poses a potential threat to Iran’s clerical rule.

Seen as an extreme hardliner by many in the West due to his comments against Israel and his country’s refusal to curb its nuclear program, at home the populist Mr. Ahmadinejad is outflanked on the right by ultra-conservatives, who charge that he has not adhered closely enough to the values of the Islamic Revolution.

More than half of Iran’s 3.7 million students are women, studying alongside their male classmates, and education has become a focus for conservatives who want to head off what they consider corrosive western values among the youth born long after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

On the instruction of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran is already reviewing the curricula of certain subjects deemed too western, including law, philosophy, psychology and political sciences, to ensure they do not run counter to Islamic teachings.

Ahmad Khatami, an influential conservative cleric who regularly leads Friday prayers in Tehran, came out in favor of segregation.

“With what logic should a head of a Tehran university be reprimanded for separating the classes of women and men? We should give him a medal.”

In a television interview last year, Mr. Ahmadinejad said women who fail to cover their hair completely in public should not be harassed by the police.

Nevertheless, the enforcement of the Islamic dress code has been stricter since his election in 2005, with “morality police” staging regular crackdowns against women dressed too immodestly.

The president’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaie, the main target of opponents of the so-called “deviant current”, has publicly stated that women still face “oppression” in Iran.

Mr. Khamenei has called the infighting between rival factions of the ruling elite ahead of parliamentary elections a propaganda gift to Iran’s foreign enemies.

(Sara Ghasemilee, a senior editor at Al Arabiya English, can be reached at: [email protected]