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Admitted to College, Restricted from Work: A Conflict for Young Iranian Women

by Mitra K. Shavarini - 2006

This article examines the phenomenon of young Iranian women who are encouraged to pursue higher education but who are deterred from entering the labor market. It identifies the factors that college women themselves recognize as motivating or inhibiting their participation in these two public realms. The research reported suggests that the impediment to women in Iranian society not entering the work force is not Islam per se, but broader sociocultural elements. These findings reflect one of the most significant challenges faced by countries with significant Muslim populations: the transformation of gender roles through higher education.

My battle starts the minute I walk out of my home each morning. As I am waiting to catch a savaree [ride], I endure honks and lurid comments by passing male motorists; during the ride I am made offers of sighe [temporary marriage]. At the university gate, I am stopped and told that my makeup and hejab [Islamic attire] are improper, and in class my comments are dismissed or discredited by my male peers and male professors as “emotional female viewpoints.” Do I think I will find a job after I graduate? What man in this society is going to take me, take us [women], seriously enough to hire us?

— 23-year-old female engineering major, Tehran Polytechnic


The Muslim society of Iran accepts women in the realm of higher education but fails to integrate them into the broader social framework—namely, the workforce. In 2003, Iranian women’s pass rate on the notoriously challenging national college entrance exam, the concours, far surpassed that of their male counterparts: A total of 61.8% of women passed, compared with 38.2% of men. This superior performance signals Iranian women’s desire to play a more active role in Iranian society.

Further data, however, indicate that Iranian women’s actual participation in the paid labor market is low: Only 15.1% of Iranian women work for wages outside the home (Center for Women’s Studies, 2004). In fact, this figure is not only significantly lower than for Iranian men, but it is also among the lowest in the world (United Nations, 1998).1 Despite being highly educated, few Iranian women are able to participate in the paid labor market.

This contrast between women’s participation in higher education and in the labor market illustrates the tension that young Iranian women experience as they negotiate their status and role in society: Higher education draws them in, while the labor market shuts them out. It is an imbalance that affects not only women, but the larger society as well. Women are earning higher educational degrees, only to return home to become wives and mothers, thus reinforcing the traditional hierarchical social order.

Since its founding in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) has advocated strongly for the education of women. Iran’s revolutionary leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, celebrated women’s roles as both mothers and wives and as educated citizens. Although women are encouraged to become educated, they are also expected to assume their domestic roles. Family is the foundation of Muslim society, and in some modern Muslim societies, women are expected to get an education in order to properly maintain the household (Najmabadi, 1998). In this respect, IRI’s policies to advance women’s education have been successful (Mehran, 1999). Educated housewives, however, have become a contradiction with the society: Women are encouraged to pursue higher education but also to adopt the subservient role of the “educated” housewife, which discounts the power of their college experience and their potential contribution to Iranian society.

For developing nations, higher education advances technical capacity, a critical step toward economic stability and growth (Yousefi, 2001). Higher education also reduces poverty, encourages open and cohesive societies (Salmi & Verspoor, 1994), and lays the intellectual foundation that a country requires to participate fully in the global economy. Like most developing nations, Iran has a limited capacity to provide higher education. Therefore, as Iranian women’s participation in higher education increases, it is essential that their knowledge and skills be used to help develop the nation’s economy.

In this article, I examine the phenomenon of young women who are directed toward higher education but are then deterred from entering the labor market. I identify the factors that college women themselves identify as motivating, or inhibiting, their participation in these two public realms. I have found that the impediment to women in Iranian society is not Islam per se, but the broader sociocultural elements that dissuade them from entering the workforce. These findings are important for two audiences. The first is the Western audience, particularly educators and so-called nation builders, who tend to have a limited and often distorted understanding of the social institutions in Muslim nations and, in the post-9/11 era, often condemn Islam as being inextricably linked to Muslim women’s low social status. My findings show that Islam does not hinder, educationally or economically, the advancement of Iranian women. The second audience is Muslim nations in which the growing numbers of women passing through the doors of colleges and universities are leaving policy makers alarmed. These findings are particularly useful to Iran’s Majlis (parliament), whose members believe that the nation’s sacrosanct family structure may be at risk and are considering placing quotas on the number of Iranian women who enter the university.

The gap between Iranian women’s participation in higher education and in the paid labor market has thus far not been investigated. More important, the literature is silent on these women’s own perceptions and opinions on this topic. Their voices need to be heard. My aim is to advance the discourse on women’s role and status in society by presenting the voices of an important and growing constituency: highly educated Iranian women.


Guiding this research is a relatively new branch of feminist thought in which religion is viewed as fundamental to any discussion that examines the role and status of women in Muslim nations (commonly referred to as the “woman question”). This framework has grown out of efforts to improve women’s legal, social, political, and economic situation in Islamic countries (Afshar, 1996). Muslim feminists believe that modernity has brought about the sexual exploitation, alienation, and depersonalization of women in Western societies. They argue that, unlike capitalistic and communist systems, in which women are often exploited as cheap labor, Islam can provide a sociopolitical and socioeconomic system that does not take advantage of women (Ahmed, 1992). The prevailing belief is that Islam honors, respects, and empowers women. For example, when women have an income, they are not obligated to share their earnings with their family. Women are, in fact, given the right to nafaghe (to charge their husbands for nursing their own babies), an entitlement that affirms women’s work inside the home (Poya, 1999).

This ideology contrasts distinctly with Western feminism, which espouses female participation in the labor market as a way to achieve liberation and equality. Muslim feminists reject this model, arguing that it promotes a capitalistic paradigm, and consider Western women’s gains in the labor market to be damaging to the family unit and part and parcel of a patriarchal capitalist economy. Islamist feminists instead focus their discussions on four areas: religion, culture, law, and education; the economy is notably sidestepped (Poya, 1999). The labor market is an unexplored area that ignites a fear that financially independent women will threaten the paramount feature of Islamic society: the family. As such, arguing that Iranian women should have a role in the labor market runs counter to the core principles of Muslim feminism—and of the Islamic Republic—which focus on women’s roles as mothers and wives (Nashat, 1983). Thus, the Muslim feminist framework that guides this analysis asserts that education is an important component of Muslim women’s lives but does not acknowledge that women’s education, specifically higher education, should be parlayed into substantive gains for Iranian women in the labor market.


Higher education in Iran has a short history, but during the past decade, it has moved forward considerably. Today’s Iranian women can claim many educational achievements: More women than men are entering the university, and they are increasingly entering fields that have been traditionally associated with men. Moreover, the female student body is far more diverse than in prerevolutionary Iran and encompasses a wide range of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. These are striking accomplishments considering Iran’s relatively short history of women’s higher education.

In 1932, Tehran University first opened its doors to a small cohort of female students (Arasteh, 1969). Women’s inclusion in higher education coincided with their compulsory unveiling, which was decreed by Reza Khan of the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1941) as an essential step in his modernizing agenda. Supported by liberal intellectuals and secular feminists, Reza Khan promised reforms in the status of women through their participation in the educational system (Sanasarian, 1982). His son Mohammad Reza Shah espoused a similar political agenda and looked to the West for models for Iran’s modernization and advancement. His policies accelerated the expansion of the secular education of girls and women during the 1960s and 1970s (Sedghi & Ashraf, 1976).

When the Pahlavi dynasty collapsed in 1979, female enrollment in higher education had only reached 30.9% (Mirani, 1983). Although hailed by the Shah’s supporters as evidence that women had advanced under his leadership, this statistic concealed the vast number of women who remained outside the educational system, primarily rural and poor women. Women from Iran’s low socioeconomic stratum dropped out of the educational system long before college; dropout rates for girls were concentrated at the primary level (Mojab, 1991). The percentage, then, reflects the small portion of women whose families’ socioeconomic status enabled them to remain within the educational system (Arjomand, 1988). Access to higher education was limited to Iran’s upper and middle classes, and the number of women in institutions of higher education reflected this social class divide.

Institutions of higher education in the Islamic Republic are drastically different, and they reflect changes that are rooted in IRI’s first years in power, when the nation underwent an Islamization process. During the change in government, new policies rejected the previous regime and mandated that the “new Iran” rid itself of Western values, ideas, and beliefs. Islamicizing the nation was often a violent process. One of many brutal acts was the execution of Farrokhru Parsa, the first female minister of education under the disposed Shah, who was accused of corrupting young girls while serving as minister (Esfandiari, 2001). Her case exemplifies how the new regime instilled fear and forcefully established Islamic ideology as the foundation of Iran’s system of higher education. It was more than a decade before IRI began to moderate its aggressive policies.

Even though IRI has been widely criticized for its often brutal policies, these policies have nonetheless led to some positive outcomes (Shavarini, 2003). Access to higher education, for example, has been significantly increased. By screening applicants and establishing quotas based on service to the state (e.g., families of martyrs, crusaders, and literacy campaign workers), the government widened access to higher education to include rural and lower class populations (Habibi, 1989). Iran’s public universities, once accessible only to society’s elite, now facilitate the participation of diverse and traditionally disenfranchised groups. In effect, the process of Islamization has secured the favor of traditional, religious families who trust that institutions of higher education are safe havens for their daughters. Iranian sociologist Jaleh Shaditalab stated,

Before the revolution some families did not want their girls to go to school because their teachers would have been men. But since it came in an Islamic packaging, people were more willing to accept it as Islamic education. That’s why you see the rate of enrollment in schools rise. . . . Families now think the universities are teaching Islamic beliefs, and that there is no harm in their daughters going to university because they are sleeping in [single-sex] dormitories. (Howard, 2002, p. 84)

With Islamicized institutions of higher education, Iranian families are allowing their daughters to pursue higher education, and these institutions are supporting that shift—a combination that recognizes women’s abilities, at least in the educational realm. According to Iran’s 1996 Housing Census, out of 19,324,104 college graduates, 9,071,752 (46%) were female. Moreover, most recent admission rates show that women now outnumber men by nearly 24 percentage points.

Iranian women’s gains in higher education, however, are far different than their success in the labor market, according to employment figures that reveal only a small percentage of female college graduates participating in the economy. The 1996 census shows that 1,013,848 male university graduates, but only 38,879 of female graduates, were gainfully employed; that is, nearly 10% of college-educated men found jobs, compared with a dismal 0.4% of college-educated women. The census data do not indicate how long after graduation men and women find jobs, but it does illustrate that both male and female college graduates have trouble finding work after college; in fact, the prospect is nearly impossible for women.

Since the Revolution, women’s share of total employment has fluctuated. In 1976, when the Shah’s modernization rhetoric supposedly embraced women’s public role, the rate of women who were active in the labor market was 12.9%. During IRI’s first two decades, these percentage rates plummeted to 8.2% in 1986 and to 7.9% in 1996. Since the late 1990s, under the presidency of Mohammed Khatami, government policies have encouraged women to participate in the labor market. Current female employment, college educated or not—now stands at 15.1% (Center for Women’s Studies, 2004). Iran’s current female employment rate reflects a global trend over the past two decades of a steady increase in women’s employment in both developed and developing nations. Women’s relatively low wages largely explains the growing demand for female labor in the developing world (World Bank, 2004).

Nevertheless, Iranian women’s labor market participation is still one sixth of men’s. Iranian women’s work is heavily concentrated in the public sector, with 87% employed in health or education (Zahedi, 2003). With such low percentages of labor market participation, it is not surprising that Iranian women rarely hold managerial positions, which generally call for a higher level of education. A United Nations report ranks Iran 97th among 102 countries with respect to the percentage of women in managerial positions (United Nations, 1998). This report compares Iran with other Muslim nations: Only 3.5% of employed Iranian women hold managerial positions, compared with Turkey’s 10.1%, Egypt’s 11.5%, Tajikistan’s 23.3%, and Morocco’s 25.6%. The percentage in prerevolutionary Iran was even lower; only 2.8% of women held such jobs, most of whom were affiliated with the royal family (Zahedi, 2003). By and large, the profession” that most college-educated women continue to pursue is motherhood. Muslim feminists claim that motherhood is women’s most natural and sacred duty. But is this also the perspective of educated women? This article explores this question by presenting the results of fieldwork conducted among college-educated women in Iran.


The role of gender in Muslim societies is an understudied phenomenon that lends itself to an inductive approach to data gathering, a method that can best be characterized by grounded theories (Patton, 1990). The approach employed in this study is consistent with social anthropologists and phenomenologists who “consider social processes to be too complex, too relative, too elusive, or too exotic” to be studied within structured and explicit conceptual frameworks (Miles & Huberman, 1994, p. 17). The approach is essentially an organic process in which, once in the field the researcher identifies the sample, recognizes the appropriate data collection process and designs the instrument. The method, which must adapt to cultural and political nuances, accommodates a wide range of perspectives so that findings may be triangulated.


The data presented here were collected during fieldwork in Iran in the summer of 2002 and the winter of 2003. This was a time of heightened sensitivity, as the U.S. presence in two neighboring countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, threatened IRI’s legitimacy. One event particularly captures the government’s state of alert during this time. In the summer of 2002, a professor of history, Hashem Aghajari, was arrested on charges of insulting the clergy (and thus Iran’s political structure) during a speech he made to students in Hamedan, Iran. Aghajari was given a death sentence, which sparked a wave of student protests around the country and shook the legal system, eventually forcing the president to reverse the sentence. This event dramatically illustrates how potentially powerful Iranian college students are and why the authorities work to keep them within bounds.

The college students in this study are part of a cohort known to Iranians as children of the revolution, or the “fruit of Iran’s 1979 revolution.” Born after 1979, this generation entered school during the early 1980s and were educated in a system that had been reformed to transmit the Islamic ideology to Iran’s future generations (Sobhe, 1982). Ironically, it is precisely these students who are challenging the ideology under which they were raised. Exposed to other social norms, political systems, and ideologies through the media and the Internet, these college students reveal their frustrations around gender roles and expectations, challenging and questioning some of the strict religious and social norms of behavior dictated by revolutionary tenets that restrict women’s advancement in Iran. The students’ robust responses to the questionnaire that I administered reflect this eagerness to share their aspirations and frustrations with an outsider—one who happens to be an Iranian American. Despite the students’ willingness to share their thoughts, collecting data on Iran’s system of higher education is an arduous task. In a milieu of heightened Islamic fervor, coupled with young Iranians’ questioning of strict religious and cultural norms, the wealth of available data must be gathered cautiously.


I translated a self-designed questionnaire from English into Farsi and subsequently edited it several times for clarity and political sensitivity. It included one page of demographic information and 29 questions (9 multiple choice and 20 open ended) designed to illuminate participants’ college experience. The questions touched on family life, and perceptions and experiences of college. For example, respondents were asked about dormitory living, classroom and curriculum issues, and the students’ hopes and aspirations.

The questionnaires were officially sanctioned and supervised by the Ministry of Education and each college’s administration. Securing permission from governmental authorities was mandatory before I approached any colleges or universities. For this research, they provided a letter granting me permission to conduct research, providing that each school would distribute, collect, and review the questionnaires before handing them back to me. Despite previous approval of the questionnaire and its distribution, one institution (Shariati University) alerted authorities that students’ responses could be politically sensitive, and thus 160 of the 300 completed questionnaires were confiscated.

In reaction to this official action, I used personal contacts to distribute another 100 questionnaires at Sharif and Tehran Universities, two of Iran’s most prestigious institutions; 10 students distributed 10 surveys each. Altogether, I collected a total of 417 completed questionnaires.


Respondents in this study attended five Iranian universities: Shariati University,2 one of two women’s universities established after the revolution, which has a student body of approximately 4,000 and an all-female faculty and administration; Tehran Polytechnic,3 a coed institution that has traditionally been male dominated, although in recent years it has seen a dramatic shift in the composition of the student body; Bu Ali Sina University, a coed institution in the city of Hamedan;4 Sharif University; and Tehran University (see Table 1).5

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It should be noted that access to higher education has been expanded to include Iran’s minorities, and as such, this sample captures Iran’s unique linguistic and ethnic diversity. Among the respondents are Iranian Fars (69%) Turks (15%), Kurds (8%), Lors (6%), and Gilak (2%). It should also be noted that some of the respondents were older than the typical Western undergraduate. One explanation is that some students who fail the concours take it until they pass, a practice commonly referred to as “staying behind the test” (posht-e concours hast).


Data analysis in this study is based on grounded theory, an inductive approach that required each questionnaire response to be considered independently. The open-ended responses generated a myriad of issues that were coded and organized along themes. These themes are purposefully not quantified. Instead, I have presented the data according to major themes, along with quotations that capture the myriad voices within the sample.6



Why are young Iranian women drawn to higher education like no other institution in the society? The findings reveal four reasons that Iranian college women name as their motivation for pursuing higher education. First, and most important, these women say that a college education guarantees them respect. Second, higher education gives them a haven in which they can experience temporary autonomy. Third, college is a context in which they learn about the opposite sex, which they say provides important lessons for their future, especially marriage. Finally, they are drawn to higher education because a college credential increases their social value in marriage.


Women in Iranian society are described as marginal second-class citizens. They write of their frustration with not being respected, not having rights, not being able to pursue their dreams or marry whom they desire. They describe Islamic Iran as a restrictive society in which higher education has become the most accessible means through which they can raise their social status.

A college credential in Iran carries so much social status that an acceptance to one of Iran’s public colleges or universities is, in and of itself, a feat that immediately earns an Iranian woman tremendous respect. Passing the notoriously difficult national college entrance examination has become synonymous with prestige and status for Iranian families, such that those who successfully pass the concours automatically become revered by family and friends. Many women describe this test as a rite of passage—of being recognized, of being accepted, and of being respected. A 22-year-old literature student at Tehran University wrote, “Women are always looked at as gheshr [an extra layer] in this society. They’re small and hagheer [insignificant]. College finally grants us our share of the society. As a result, girls get their worth and importance in this society.”

To gain this hoped-for social respect, Iranian women are willing to work hard to pass the college entrance examination. Responses to my questionnaire are replete with comments about the amount of time that goes into preparing for this exam—at last one full rigorous, intense year. Because the prospect of getting a college degree is no longer limited to Iran’s urban elite, this goal now transcends all socioeconomic classes. Many students noted how their parents, despite financial hardships, paid for private tutors and classes to help them pass the college entrance examination. Those who lacked other financial resources would even sacrifice family valuables to pay for such assistance. Such sacrifice created an atmosphere of intense pressure around the examination. These women described preparing to enter college as “a monumental task with too much at risk” and “a fierce competition,” yet they also expressed that the stress of preparing for college was balanced by hopeful goals and, as one student described it, “I studied with a world full of desire and hope.” As a 21-year-old student at Bu Ali Sina University majoring in sociology explained,

All my family expected me to do was to study. From the moment I woke up to when I went to bed I couldn’t do anything else. Just study. My mom even made me extra-rich foods so that I had extra energy to study. I studied day and night. There is nothing harder than getting ready for concours.

Her words capture how the entrance examination becomes the focal point of the family. One could well ask whether women’s reasons for going to college have more to do with family pressure than with gaining respect. This woman went on to explain, “more than anything I wanted to go to college. My parents, my relatives, my friends, everybody, I wanted to show them all that I could pass concours and get in. I would get a lot of respect if I passed. My parents would be most proud.” She pointed out that what she really wanted was respect.

The respect that a woman gains by being accepted into college transforms her presence within and outside her family. This in itself is a strong motivator for young Iranian women. What this reveals about their pursuit of education is that in a society in which their rights and choices are curtailed, higher education, extolled as an equal right for all in this society, has come to hold the promise of respect and recognition for women.


A second compelling reason that Iranian women strive for a college education is that it allows them to delay marriage, however briefly. After high school, Iranian women are faced with two alternatives: to get married, or to delay marriage by going to college. Marriage at an early age is increasingly less popular with today’s Iranian girls, and going to college allows them not only to delay marriage, but also to experience something that they have hitherto been deprived of: independence. Their descriptions of their high school lives make this dual-faceted reason more comprehensible.

Before going to college, teenage girls have few social, intellectual, or physical activities that they can engage in outside of school and home. A girl’s reputation is of paramount importance to her family and can be easily tainted if she partakes in activities outside the home. Girls raised in Iran’s smaller towns and cities remark that neighbors and family carefully guard their whereabouts. Even a seemingly innocuous place, such as a local food bazaar, is off limits because they could attract a male gaze, which in itself could threaten a girl’s chastity. High school girls are, to a large extent, forced to stay at home, where they spend their time studying—almost the only activity that is not restricted, condemned, or monitored. A 19-year-old respondent from the small town of Malayer recollected her confining life while in high school:

Outside of school I didn’t have any particular activity but to study. I spend most of my time at home. I didn’t have a special place to go. I loathed the small town mentality/environment of shahrestan [provinces]. I wanted to be free, to be able to engage in sports activities. I sigh that I was not permitted to do so.

This lack of activity and boredom fosters a yearning for independence in young Iranian women. For example, a 20-year-old woman raised in Tehran who was studying graphics at Shariati University recalled her high school years and how her life was limited to her studies: “In our society, girls have nothing else to do except study. They can have no fun, entertainment. They cannot work. With all the societal limitations for girls, we have only one thing to do and it is to study.”

Ironically, the “safety” of studying serves these young women well in preparing for the college entrance examination. To these homebound young women, college represents a place where they can spread their wings. Access to higher education, then, enables young women to delay marriage, but also, on a more macro level, reduces fertility rates and improves child mortality.7 Educated women also come to appreciate their sense of volition, understand their status and rights in society, and become aware of their legal rights.


Another major reason for young Iranian girls’ pursuit of higher education is that college is a place where they can learn about the opposite sex. This is a theme that consistently emerged in women’s responses to the questionnaire. One 20-year-old female dental student at Bu Ali Sina University expressed women’s naivete about men:

While I was living at home I had no contact with the opposite sex. Actually, I better say I didn’t have permission to have contact with the opposite sex. But since I have been in college, my unique experience has been to have contact with the opposite sex. I am more comfortable around them [men] now. My perception of the opposite sex has completely changed.

This young woman’s statement is not hyperbole; her perceptions of the opposite sex have likely changed in powerful ways. Before college, Iranian women barely come into contact with the opposite sex. They typically see men close to their age only at family gatherings, and these are often only male relatives. And that many families segregate their events by gender places further restriction on women’s association with males their age. Even though the women prepare and serve the food for male guests, they socialize separately. At weddings, for example, the sexes, including the bride and groom, celebrate in separate rooms. This practice is grounded in religious dogma. Relationships between girls and boys and women and men are highly guarded in Islam. Although this dogma has different interpretations in different Muslim societies, in the IRI, men and women who are not immediate relations may not have contact. In public areas, for instance, officials may ask for proof of the relationship between a young male and female seen together. Those who are not related may be detained, questioned, fined, and even punished. In this gender-segregated context, women view college as an opportunity to explore the enigmatic male gender.

Higher education is the only component of Iran’s education system that is not gender segregated, the rationale being that by college age, Iran’s youth should have been fully indoctrinated as to what is morally and religiously acceptable sexual conduct. Therefore, college is the first time that many young women come into contact with men who are not their relatives, and they use this opportunity to discover men and play the game of courtship.

In college, female students share classrooms and corridors with “unrelated” male students. Under the scrutinizing eyes of college administrators who enforce Islamic guidelines that preclude male-female social contact, students surreptitiously meet. Beyond the campus walls, guards of a government organization known as the komite patrol city streets searching for gender and other social violations.

Despite these tight controls, young women comment on how their college experience has allowed them to understand the opposite sex—a valuable lesson for their goal of finding a husband. This nonacademic growth, however, often comes at a humiliating cost. One 19-year-old freshman at Shariati University related her experience of socializing with male college friends:

One night a whole bunch of us were walking back to the girls’ dormitory. A patrol drove up and asked what the relation was of the boy walking next to me. I told him we are college mates. He started shouting and yelling at him, but then found out that [my friend] was from his hometown, Hamedan. So he hit him across the head and told him that he better watch his step next time. He let him go because he was from the same town.

These confrontations leave women feeling disgraced, but they explain that if not for these encounters with men in college, they would not have the chance to learn about them. For Iranian girls, marriage is inevitable after college, and they begin to prepare for it during college. Statements about playing courtship games help explain why attending college is a critical factor in the process of finding a husband.


The fourth and perhaps most interesting theme that emerged about young Iranian women’s drive toward higher education is that their college degree is of great importance to marriage proposals. Just as people value a college degree for improving their ability to find employment, finding a husband holds a promising “financial” outcome for Iranian women. A common descriptor used repeatedly to describe a husband who would guarantee a good economic future is “suitable.” The way to find that suitable husband, these women explained, is by going to college. Higher education increases the likelihood of finding a husband with a suitable socioeconomic status.

In essence, higher education increases women’s social value, which in turn increases their chances of marrying into higher class families. One married 23-year-old premed student at Tehran University explained how her prestigious education improved her chances of “marrying up”: “My husband’s family was very educated and so I was able to match with him. If I weren’t studying for this degree, I wouldn’t be able to find such a high-caliber family. They’re very high; his father is a doctor as well.”

In Iran’s class-conscious, hierarchical society, education offers a means by which women can raise their social and financial status—not by improving chances of employment, but through marriage and a husband’s socioeconomic standing. One respondent8 explained, “Parents now have a better understanding and pay a lot more attention to their daughters’ [education]. The expectation is that once college educated, they will have a better place in society and will have a better chance for marriage.”

Attending college in order to enhance their marriage prospects is a dramatic force behind poorer women’s pursuit of higher education. For example, parents who are characterized as either illiterate or having “some high school education” seem to believe that higher education is an asset, and that their daughters will provide them social mobility through marriage.

This ambition is, however, being challenged in today’s Iran, where increasingly fewer men are pursuing higher education. The words of a female 23-year-old dental student at Bu Ali Sina University illustrate the negative side of women attaining a higher education:

The positive part of my college education is that I will be able to be a better mother and find a better husband. But here is the negative part to it—I’ll also have a hard time finding a suitor. It disqualifies many of the suitors that our family knows. Boys are at a disadvantage for marriage when women have more education than they do.

Her comment reveals that although women go to college to improve their marriage prospects, they may in fact be lowering them.9 Men who marry women with more education are often stigmatized. A 23-year-old petrochemical engineering student from Tehran Polytechnic University pointed out this grim side of gaining a college education: “After graduation we get married and end up at home and we will never use our education. In regard to marriage, when boys have less education than us that will create a problem for us . . . outdoing them in education.”

Her comment suggests that she might never use her college skills and that her credentials may even weaken her chance of marrying. Young women go to college with the hope of raising their value in order to marry into a higher social class, yet higher education often overqualifies them for most men, which has become a central paradox in an educated Iranian woman’s life.

As has been seen, the responses of the women students reveal that college helps them gain respect, delay marriage, experience independence, learn about the opposite sex, and supposedly increase their value in the marriage market. It is thus clear that their stated reasons for earning a college degree are not about academics, about learning, or about acquiring skills. Of particular interest is that earning a college degree is not linked to entering the labor market, even though, as shown in the next section, these women do have a desire to enter that market. Hence, it is important to explore the barriers that prevent women from entering the workforce.


As already noted, only a small fraction of college-educated Iranian women join the workforce. There are sociocultural forces that present obstacles to employment after college. In a tight job market, women encounter a labor market that favors men as breadwinners. Women also encounter family pressure to secure a “good” marriage. These two forces feed into one another, and together they create a powerful barrier to the labor market for women.

Nonetheless, college-educated women do want to work, and they express a strong desire to do so. One 20-year-old’s desperate need to find a job after college captures that sentiment:

I will work under any condition, any condition at all. I believe that a woman, in particular an Iranian woman paying attention to her psychosocial condition, must have a job outside of her house. Iranian women are under a lot of pressure. They don’t have the same freedom that Western women have so they have to make sure that they push their way into the job market.

Another 22-year-old student at Shariati University expressed a similar conviction about women’s responsibilities towards paid employment. She stated,

I believe that a woman, even in her marital relationship, if she can have a source of income of her own and not be fully dependent on someone else, she will have tremendous self-respect and at the very least she will not feel like a burden on anyone, at least financially. Similarly, when a woman finds employment, her work will have a positive impact on her social interactions.

Indeed, the findings reveal that college women do want to find jobs after graduating, but that their aspirations are diminished in light of the sociocultural forces with which they must contend.


The now well-known statement by President Clinton’s political strategist was, “It’s the economy, stupid.” This statement applies well to Iran’s underdeveloped economy. There are simply not enough professional jobs for men or women, and those that exist are prioritized for the breadwinners. Highly educated women find that professional jobs are in scarce supply. As one 23-year-old laconically put it, “Kar koo [what job]?”

The public sector (i.e., state funded), which has hitherto been the largest employer of educated women, is rapidly shrinking. College-educated women have typically found employment in this sector because these jobs tend to offer flexibility that meshes with women’s household duties. Moreover, state-run organizations enforce strict observation of hejab (veil and proper, modest Islamic dress), creating a work environment in which husbands feel their wives are safe and secure. In recent years, however, the government has shifted toward privatization, subcontracting private firms to perform functions previously carried out by government employees. And as IRI continues to privatize, women’s share of the labor market risks shrinking further. A 22-year-old computer science major at Bu Ali Sina university succinctly described Iran’s changing economy and how it has an impact on women: “There are no public sector jobs. At the very least, these jobs were usually unbiased about hiring women. Teaching is the only thing really left to consider if I want to work.”

This woman’s comment reveals her cynicism about the grim reality that college-educated women face. Her reference to teaching is condescending but also reveals disappointment at not having any good choice of jobs when she graduates. The public sector offers a wide range of positions, but the most common profession in this sector is teaching. It is not surprising that women are channeled into teaching, a vocation that has historically been accepted as being most compatible with women’s traditional role of mother and caretaker. This option is not, however, attractive to today’s college-going women, particularly those who are studying and competing in fields that have traditionally been male dominated and that demand dedication and perseverance. To work just as hard as their male peers in college only to find that they cannot apply their acquired knowledge is surely frustrating. For example, a 21-year-old female electrical engineering student at Sharif University, where one’s concours scores have to be among the highest in the nation to be admitted, feels frustrated that she worked so hard to get to college and compete with men in her classes, only to find that her best alternative after graduation is teaching:

Employers think that technical jobs are for men. If I work, I will probably teach. Private sector jobs are coed and I know I will face harassment. In this society, teaching is an acceptable profession that provides a moheet-e sa’alem [safe and healthy environment]. I have better grades than half the men in my class, but I’ll end up teaching and they will end up with the well-paying jobs.

This woman could apply to jobs in her field, but women feel that employers, especially in the private sector, commonly do not grant interviews to women. Moreover, the work environments are often rife with male hostility, and hence such jobs are not considered a viable option. Even though employers are required to advertise positions as open to women, social barriers place these jobs far beyond their reach.

Employers may be biased toward female employees, but women themselves feel that they make better employees than men. Respondents provided many reasons, ranging from women’s “innate managerial skills” to their “interpersonal skills.” One 24-year-old English translation major at Tehran University captured some of the reasons that women should be hired in place of men:

If there was a position and it came to a man and a woman, they would hire the man. Men usually hold a couple of jobs in order to maintain their family, but with women they would have a dedicated employee. The men are either tired between the jobs, or can’t work longer hours, don’t concentrate. . . . There are a host of reasons why women make better employees than men. The bias or sexism that exists in the labor market has to do with our farhang [culture].

She astutely identified the cause that most women say holds them back from the labor market: Iran’s socioeconomic culture. The culture, or far-hang, that she refers to is a complex web of social mores that are based on religious, legal, social, and political elements and spun around economic factors. For example, if a married woman holds a job, her employment reflects poorly on her husband’s ability to provide for his family. Legally, the man has the right to forbid his wife to work, and thus her economic independence is restricted. Women’s independence threatens the core Islamic unit: the family structure. Blocking women’s economic freedom ensures that they remain faithfully within the institution of family, preserving a pure Islamic society, one that affirms the current Iranian political structure.

Women’s description of this farhang goes beyond the work environment to include the broader society. Women described an antagonistic environment in which they must contend with male glaring, harassment, and pestering. This article’s opening quote, from a 23-year-old electrical engineering major at Tehran Polytechnic, reveals that women’s social interactions can be construed as jangidan (battle):

My battle starts the minute I walk out of my home each morning. As I am waiting to catch a savaree [ride], I endure honks and lurid comments by passing male motorists; during the ride I am made offers of sighe [temporary marriage]; at the university gate I am stopped and told that my makeup and hejab [Islamic appropriate attire] are improper; and in class my comments are dismissed or discredited by my male peers and male professors as “emotional female viewpoints.” Do I think I will find a job after I graduate? What man in this society is going to take me, take us [women], seriously enough to hire us?

Many respondents used jangidan to describe their daily clash in the university. For highly educated women, this dilemma is perhaps more pronounced because it is this male-favoring farhang that precludes them from entering the workforce. Women’s responses abound with comments concerning this form of social hostility, and they explained that these men believe women should stay at home and assume their “natural” role as wives and mothers. One might assume that this is common in Iran’s smaller towns, where overall education levels are lower, yet college women noted that although this phenomenon may be greater in small cities and towns, it is a social characteristic that permeates even the cosmopolitan capital city of Tehran. They also explained that these biases are not limited to the uneducated or to the poor, and that education and class do not necessarily alleviate this cultural tendency.


The Iranian social context dictates that women need to be married. Unmarried women face community and family scrutiny. Once a woman is no longer in school, it is not acceptable that she remain unmarried. So prevalent and so immediate is the institution of matrimony that circumventing it seems impossible. Even college-educated women who are adamant about establishing their economic independence are pressured into marriage. A 20-year-old finance student at Bu Ali Sina University expressed this issue poignantly:

For us women, if we are to be someone, we have to get there on a leash. And that leash is held by husbands. If we want financial security, if we want to have a good life, so important in this society, it’s only possible through finding a good husband.

Her comment reveals that women find not only that there is no alternative to marriage in this class-conscious society, but also that as college-educated women, they are caught between establishing their own independence/economic power and gaining social status. Moreover, their social status is demarcated by a husband’s ability to provide for them, not by their own economic viability. These women’s responses reveal a belief that their holding a job would lower their husband’s status. Regardless of their own desire to work, it is better for the family status that the image of a strong male provider remains untainted. Women often feel that their roles as mothers and wives are far more important than any job they could hold. In this way, they self-perpetuate their primary role as mother and wife, and men’s as breadwinners. The words of a 22-year-old visual arts student at Shariati University express this duality: “I’m willing to work as long as it does not latmeh [hurt] the balance of my life. The revered position for women is motherhood.”

Findings also showed that most college-going women expect to marry within the first year after graduation. Many fourth-year college students were in serious relationships or had entered aghd (marriage). Delaying marriage would reduce their chances of finding the optimal husband, and those who wait are viewed as more torsheedeh (old and soured), further reducing their hopes of finding an ideal suitor.

Marriage is a powerful social model that seems unavoidable for college-educated women. It often turns them away from the labor market and toward the private realm of home and family. For many college women, employment may be a desire, but matrimony is a goal.


A little over 70 years ago, under the Pahlavi dynasty, Iranian women gained access to higher education. Women’s education was opposed by religious forces as being immoral for Muslim women. Educated Iranian women, they argued, would destroy the family unit. Surprisingly, it is under the Islamic Republic that Iranian women have been most successful in entering institutions of higher education. IRI declares that, within a properly Islamicized educational system, women are welcomed and even encouraged to participate. And young Iranian women are indeed successful in gaining access to higher education. For more than a decade, more women than men are being accepted at Iran’s revered public colleges and universities. Yet this positive movement is clouded by the disconcerting figures on female employment. Data show that educated women are not applying their education, at least not in the workforce. College-educated women are relegated to the confines of their homes, a social phenomenon that leads us to question the value of women’s higher education in a Muslim society such as Iran. If educated women are not entering the labor market, as evidenced by the dramatically low levels of female employment, then what is the purpose of college education for women? It is a question that urges us to understand the forces that drive women toward higher education and, more important, to learn how women can capitalize on their education, for their own benefit and that of society at large.

The findings of this article reveal that young Iranian women are motivated to attend college in order to gain respect, to experience temporary independence, to learn about the opposite sex, and to increase their worth in marriage—none of which has to do with academics, knowledge, or skills. Women seem to start with some element of hope and determination that they will be able to apply their college education in the workplace after college, but such dreams are rendered hopeless as they encounter biases toward women in the job market. What Iranian society strongly dictates is that women become mothers and wives after college, because respect is synonymous with matrimony and motherhood.

Iran is unique in that its institutions of higher education embrace a wide array of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. But its education system is being taxed by the growing number of women who are returning home after graduation. These women have studied in competitive and challenging fields such as physics, engineering, finance, and architecture, all comprising knowledge and skills that are valuable for a country in a global 21st-century economy. Yet such knowledge and skills are not being carried into the workplace and thus are not benefiting Iran’s developing economy. The solution is not to place quotas or limits on women entering colleges, but to apply educated women’s talents, energies, and determination in the workforce rather than putting them aside once women’s higher education credentials have been earned.

Muslim feminists rightly argue that Islam recognizes women’s rights to become educated and enlightened, and the Islamic Republic certainly has widened access to promote higher education for women of all backgrounds. This Muslim society deserves praise for not only closing the gender gap in higher education, but even assuring more places for women. What remains to be resolved, however, is how college-educated women can apply their acquired knowledge and skills. Muslim feminists would say that motherhood is the most revered and respected position a woman can hold in a Muslim society. Higher education is, however, also a valuable resource for developing nations. College graduates, male or female, have a responsibility to the greater society to help develop the public sector. Women need not necessarily become tools of a capitalist labor market, which Muslim feminists argue would be their fate if they followed in the footsteps of Western women. Iranian women must instead grapple with balancing family and work, with preserving the sanctity of the family unit while applying their education skills—allowing women to be recognized as mothers and professionals.

Whether Iranian women should enter the labor market is a debate that needs to begin with women themselves. Only through their own voices, as evidenced in this study, will we come to understand the complexities and barriers confronting women’s advancement in Muslim societies like Iran. When questioned about these conflicting realms, educated Iranian women claim that they are willing and able to participate in the labor market, but they say that they are blocked by tightly woven cultural factors that they call the Iranian farhang. It is critical to note that culture, not religion, was identified as a barrier to women’s employment. Religion and culture in Iran need to be untangled, and future research should examine the shifting course of Iran’s farhang. Women’s frustration with not being able to enter the labor market demonstrates how higher education is shifting women’s farhang, and that men’s own farhang is lagging well behind.

The voices of college-educated women should also inform future research in trying to find ways to phase women into the public sphere without jeopardizing important values within this Muslim society. Until Iranian society respects the contributions that educated women can make to Iran’s public sector, their advancement in the field of higher education is of only limited value.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 10, 2006, p. 1937-2186
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12718, Date Accessed: 1/17/2022 2:19:39 PM

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About the Author
  • Mitra Shavarini
    The Aga Khan University, Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations
    E-mail Author
    MITRA K. SHAVARINI earned her doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is currently a research fellow at Aga Khan University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations in London, United Kingdom. She is the author of Educating Immigrants: The Experiences of Second-Generation Iranians (LFB Scholarly Publications, 2004) and the coauthor of Women and Education in Iran and Afghanistan: An Annotated Bibliography (Scarecrow Press, 2005).
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