In the 1980s, the state sought physically to separate men and women on campus, in keeping with the idea that mingling of the sexes outside the home was “un-Islamic” and dangerous for public morality.Today, the hardliners want to “Islamize” the campus anew, but also to redress the unintended consequences of the feminization of higher education in Iran.The new gender segregation measures are primarily aimed at protecting the life chances of men, in education, marriage and the job market, and at shielding the state from political pressure amidst high unemployment and overall economic malaise.
Only 31,000 applicants (5.3 percent) would commence study in men-only programs, and 30,000 (4.7 percent) in women-only programs.
Nevertheless, the overall gender segregation regime is far larger than these numbers imply.
It is a patchwork of different practices that are applied, albeit unevenly, at universities across the country.
On August 6, with the new academic year approaching, the government-backed Mehr News Agency in Iran posted a bulletin that 36 universities in the country had excluded women from 77 fields of study.
The reported restrictions aroused something of an international uproar.
Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel laureate exiled in Britain, wrote a letter to Ban Ki-Moon, the UN secretary-general, and Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, condemning the measure as “part of the recent policy of the Islamic Republic, which tries to return women to the private domain inside the home as it cannot tolerate their passionate presence in the public arena.” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland read a statement on August 21 calling upon “Iranian authorities to protect women’s rights and to uphold Iran’s own laws and international obligations, which guarantee non-discrimination in all areas of life, including access to education.” In Iran, higher education officials went on the defensive, denying the existence of gender discrimination and blaming “clerical error” for what they claimed were misrepresentations in the media.
The Education Evaluation Organization, which administers the nationwide entrance exam called the Concours, released a statement saying that a mere 0.3 percent of study programs would be affected by the new policy, which would apply to admission of entering classes.
Kamran Daneshjoo, the cabinet minister who is the public face of the restrictions, suggested that the story had been blown out of proportion by the Persian-language services of the BBC and Voice of America.
“If they are unhappy,” he said, “it means we are doing the right thing.”  With the fall semester well underway in Iran, it is clear that the spin from both the Islamic Republic and the West was somewhat misleading.
The new restrictions affect both men and women, and are part of a long-standing scheme of gender segregation that is not an invention of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hardline conservative government.
Such schemes date back to the early years of the Islamic Republic and have been tried by different governments in the service of different goals.