(photo credit: AP [file])
An increase in efforts to separate men and women in Iranian institutions has sparked concern that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has ordered a substantial tightening of state policy on sex segregation since his June reelection.
Since Ahmadinejad was elected, the government has made various moves to further segregate office buildings, hospitals, public parks and primary schools and in the half year since the president was reelected a number of Iranian ministers and religious leaders have called for a more strict adherence to sex segregation in various aspects of public life.
"There has definitely been a concerted effort to rekindle the kind of policies that enforce gender segregation," Dr. Mehrdad Khonsari, a senior research consultant at the Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies told The Media Line. "There are efforts to have separate dining areas in universities, to close co-ed places, the atmosphere is just generally different."
"It's not out of control and Iran is not becoming Saudi Arabia," Dr. Khonsari said. "These things are relative, and relative to the atmosphere that existed under Khatami, Ahmadinejad's predecessor, there is a much more puritanical approach to gender than there was before him."
Dr Eldad J. Pardo, an expert on gender in Iran at the Harry Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, argued that the new Ahmadinejad administration was using sex segregation as an intimidation tactic after the regime's authority was questioned by June's disputed elections.
"They want to enforce their ideology," he told The Media Line. "It's not new - men and women already sit separately in buses - it's just that efforts towards segregation have come in waves."
"The entire Ahmadinejad regime is a conservative reaction to the 1990's," Dr. Pardo said. "What's new is that since Ahmadinejad's reelection, the government has less legitimacy so they resort to intimidation."
"They want to crush the opposition and to create this holy pristine Islamic primordial ideal type of Islam which never existed and is just in their imagination," he continued. "They want more Islam and segregation but even the hardcore Revolutionary Guard don't want a Wahabi style Saudi country."
"I think the majority in Iran want gradual liberalization without turning into a Western country," Dr. Pardo stressed. "They want to keep their religious and spiritual identity but without repression."
"What is unique about gender relations in Iran is that in the 1960s and 1970s a variety of egalitarian laws were passed," he said. "After the Islamic revolution, the regime could not strip women of the right to vote because of their participation in the revolution, so women became a class of people who's rights were gradually stripped from them."
"It's one thing when women have limited rights, like in Saudi Arabia," Dr. Pardo added. "It's another thing when women have rights and they are then taken away. This is what happened in Iran."
Ahmadinejad's administration began strengthening sex segregation laws in his first term, beginning with a ban on women being present in government ministry offices after working hours. This was followed by a program to replace male teachers in girls' high schools with female teachers. Shortly thereafter the country's science ministry launched a plan to create separate entrances for men and women at the country's universities and segregate some of the classes.
Only a portion of the segregation programs have been implemented.
Following Ahmadinejad's reelection, the former speaker of the Iranian parliament Haddad Adel, who is close to both President Ahmadinejad and Iran's supreme religious figure Ayatollah Khamenei, called on the country's new science minister Kamran Daneshjoo to segregate Iranian universities.
"Islamization of universities is a long awaited task for the new minister of science and we hope to accomplish soon with the help of theology centers around the country and the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution," Adel was quoted as saying.
Late last month the minister seemed to comply, stating that Iran "shall segregate students on sexual lines as the Islamic worldview requires."
But Dr. Seyed Mohammad Marandi, a lecturer at the University of Tehran, said that the issue had been overblown.
"It's just rhetoric," he told The Media Line. "There are always calls for this by some religious people but I've not heard of anyone seriously talking about such things and I haven't noticed anything on the ground.
"I don't see such changes, I don't know anyone who would be for such a move and I don't' foresee it," he said. "High schools in Iran have been segregated since the Islamic revolution, so whatever changes there were to the gender landscape took place in the first three or four years after the revolution, and not much since then."
"The only difference between today and ten years ago is that you have more female post graduates at university," he added. "So if anything we are seeing an increase in female participation in academics. Indeed over the past three months I brought three people into the department. All of them are women."