On May 22, a student at Amir Kabir University, also known as Tehran Polytechnic, posted a picture online of an information board about the upcoming Islamic Student Society elections. Only the male candidates were pictured.
This was widely perceived as a sign of the times. In late April, there were reports that motorbike-riding “morality police” patrols had been active on campus at the once-liberal and progressive Amir Kabir, harassing and admonishing students – especially female students – over their outfits
The student who posted the picture, Behnam Hosseini, noted that nine young women were standing for election, all of whom had had their picture removed. “In what century are these people living, to be ashamed of sticking up 3x4[cm] pictures of girls?” he tweeted. “How low have we fallen that students’ associations are now controlled by this crowd?”
Hosseini’s complaint was retweeted more than 600 times and was close to 10,000 times. Some of the respondents compared it to what Taliban were doing in Afghanistan. Others claimed, however, that the female students themselves were comfortable with this, thus their being allowed to run in the first place.
Iranian student societies are now largely affiliated with the Student Basij, whereas until the early 2000s there was still a proliferation of secular, pro-democracy groups. To weaken the student movement, the security establishment, universities’ security departments and the Basij closed most of those societies’ offices and banned many outright. Candidates for their committees now have to be approved by the security divisions.
How Did Amir Kabir Get Here?
Once upon a time, students at Amir Kabir were known for anti-government rallies and calls for liberal democracy in Iran. Now, a student activist named Mohammad told IranWire, “The Amir Kabir Islamic Society is now no different from the Student Basij. This has happened at all the universities in Iran that are considered important by the government. Just a small number of Islamic societies, which basically stay silent, have remained in the hands of the reformists — if you can call them reformists.
“In 2007, after a series of summons and arrests of members, they demolished the society’s office and turned over the permits to the Student Basij. For the past 16 years, the ‘Islamic Society’ has belonged to those associated with the Basij. We at the university call them the ‘Fake Society’ or the ‘Basiji Society’.”
The office was destroyed after the students had protested a visit by then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, forcing him off the premises. Pictures of the destroyed office can still be found online. During the presidency of Hassan Rouhani, Mohammad said, Amir Kabir University issued permits just for three other societies to students who followed the Basiji line. This cleansing of student politics, of course, was not limited to Amir Kabir/Tehran Polytechnic but took place across the country.
Misogyny Against Even Dead Women
Mahdieh Golroo, a former political prisoner who used to be a member of the Student Islamic Society at Tehran’s Allameh Tabatabie University and now lives in exile in Sweden, told IranWire: “The removal of the Islamic Society candidates’ pictures follows on from the removal of the pictures of girls from textbooks and from funeral notices for deceased women. By restricting the fields women can choose to study in, by imposing gender quotas and now by removing their faces from campaign billboards, the Islamic Republic wants to squeeze women out of higher education.”
A law passed by the seventh parliament in the mid-2000s allowed the National Organization of Educational Testing, which runs the university entrance exams, to restrict the number of women allowed to register in order to “create the correct ratio” and to “safeguard the sanctity of the family”. Between 2012 and 2013 alone, the number of women entering university fell by 8,600. All were replaced by men.
Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, Chairman of the Guardian Council in 2008, said of the law: “One of the problems women’s university education has caused us is that when suitors seek their hand in marriage, perhaps the first question asked is his educational level. They [women] should know that they are destroying their own lives and the country will also face problems. Women’s university education has become problematic.”
Then in 2012, more than 30 universities introduced new rules banning female students from almost 80 different degree courses. These included engineering, nuclear physics, computer science, English literature, archaeology and business.
“The Islamic Republic does not want women to participate in social and political spheres but also wants to pretend it’s the women themselves that don’t want to,” Golroo said. “In the last parliamentary elections only 10 percent of the women who registered were approved as candidates.”
Golroo holds that it’s no one individual pushing for these policies, but a pervasive pattern of thought informing Iranian institutions that flows from the Supreme Leader down. “A school forces little girls to wear chador, a university orders female students not to use nail polish, and a president can decide on a whim that women can’t go to classes after sundown. All these are the result of a systemic, misogynistic worldview. Iran’s patriarchal religious system wants to eliminate women from public life and possess both their bodies and minds.”