Did Iran Really Just Ban Women From Universities?

Iranian worshippers listen to a sermon during Friday prayers as an Iranian flag flutters at Tehran University, in Tehran, Ira
Iranian worshippers listen to a sermon during Friday prayers as an Iranian flag flutters at Tehran University, in Tehran, Iran, Friday, July 6, 2012. Iranian Intelligence Minister, Heidar Moslehi, unseen, delivered a speech during Friday prayers accusing French and German intelligence services of cooperating with the CIA to kill Iranian nuclear scientists. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

As college students in the United States head back to school, their female classmates in Iran are discovering that some women won't be able to register for classes in their desired fields or even attend certain universities.

If you are like me and believe in the power of education, the thought of women being denied the right to learn is frightening.

However, having often gone back and forth between Iran and the United States, I also know this move is not representative of Iran's higher education system. My own female cousins in Iran have studied advanced sciences and mathematics at the country's top institutions.

In a nation that stands out in the region as committed to women's education, it is understandable why this announcement that "Iran Bans Women From Universities" seems odd.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has one of the highest female to male education ratios in the world.

Indeed, 36 Iranian institutions of higher learning are limiting the fields to which female students may enroll. But it is important to note that the decision to ban women from certain fields is an individual, university-level decision, not being imposed upon women by the government.

While I agree banning women from any field of study sets a dangerous precedent, in 2011 President Ahmadinejad actually halted plans by the Ministry of Science and Health to segregate university classes based on gender.

The 1979 Islamic revolution allowed previously sheltered religious women to challenge oppressive systems by developing and relying upon an interpretation of Islam that facilitated women's participation in public spaces, which today is often called Islamic feminism.

As Alex Shams notes, if the university and the workplace are officially "Islamic" then it's much harder for conservative parents, university administrators or government officials to tell a woman she can't study or work.

The bonds of patriarchy are hard to break free. Iran's Nobel Peace laureate, Shirin Ebadi, is right when she says that the women's movement for improved rights is under threat but misleading and sensationalized headlines don't help the cause either.