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Iran's female students protest at segregation

Medical school sit-ins reflect growing demands for sexual equality More about Iran
By Geneive Abdo in Qom, Iran
Friday January 28, 2000
The Guardian Observer

In a daring challenge to the Islamic system, female medical students in Iran are refusing to attend classes and are staging sit-ins in protest at their segregation from men in universities.

The students believe they receive an inferior medical education to their male peers.

One medical school in the holy Shi'ite city of Qom is for women only, and in Tehran's universities men and women must attend classes in separate rooms or sit on opposite sides of the classroom.

"We suffer because we have little interaction with our male classmates. We rarely have an exchange of ideas. There is a wall between us," said Homa, 24, a student at Tehran university's medical school.

"Many classes are for women only, and the best professors and facilities go to the men. We get the leftovers," she said.

This week a group of female medical students called upon President Mohammad Khatami and the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to reverse what they believe is sex discrimination. They have also complained to the health ministry.

Such action may not guarantee immediate change. But their public dissent adds a significant voice to a growing demand for sexual equality.

Even some reformist theologians now say that the clerical establishment has misinterpreted the Islamic texts taken as the basis for Iranian laws.

Ayatollah Yusef Sanei, a reformist cleric, ruled two months ago that women were free to run for president of the republic, and to be given more rights in cases of spousal abuse and divorce.

There is growing opposition to the inequality between the sexes that continues despite the significant gains women have made since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Today, there are more women than men in higher education, and women are increasingly seen in important positions of authority.

Women were encouraged to attend medical school after the revolution so they could treat female patients, in line with conservative readings of Islamic teachings. But these opportunities no longer satisfy women in modern Iran.

"In theory, our government says women are equal. But in practice and in our culture this is not the case," said one woman, a 25-year-old medical student, who wished to remain unidentified.

"I know when I begin practising medicine, male doctors will always have more authority over me. It doesn't matter if I am smarter than they are or if I am a better physician."

One medical professor said sex discrimination had led to her resignation from the women-only Fatimieh medical school in Qom.

"In Islam, male doctors are allowed to treat female patients. So why should the state separate men from women in medical schools?" she asked.

"When I went to medical school 23 years ago under the shah, men and women studied together and we had no problems.

To enter medical school, you have to be at the top of your class, and students are there to learn, not to flirt."

Parliament passed a law in 1998 to segregate health services to reflect conservative MPs' interpretation of Islam.

Under a pilot programme prompted by the legislation, the Fatimieh medical school in Qom, the intellectual centre for the Shi'ite Muslim clergy, dismissed all its male staff.

But experts say the quality of medical education has suffered as a result, with women students deprived of the wide range of patients and teachers they need to complete their education.

Taha Hashemi, a cleric and MP who sits on the school's board of trustees, told the daily Aftab-e Emrouz he had proposed hiring older male staff to bolster student training. "I and several other members have stopped attending board meetings in protest of the existing situation," he said.