In the 1920s and 1930s women’s public education in Persia was established and grew rapidly. The number of elementary and secondary schools for women increased. In 1926-27 the enrollment of females in primary schools was about 17,000, 21 percent of total enrollment at that level, and in secondary schools about 700, 6 percent of the total enrollment at that level. By 1946-47 female enrollment in primary schools was 26 percent of the total, in secondary schools 21 percent, and in higher education 8 percent (Table 1). It was not until 1939 that the government opened three-year secondary schools for women, with the same academic curriculum as in comparable boys’ schools. In addition, there was a two-year program in housekeeping and hygiene for students not planning to attend university (Wezārat-e farhang, 1319 Š./1940, pp. 3-4; idem, 1317 Š./1938, pp. 693-94).

Nevertheless, women confronted many obstacles. Perhaps in response to religious opposition to female education there was strict gender segregation among both students and teachers after elementary school (see iii, ix, above). A memorandum on employment of women issued to provincial offices by the Ministry of Education (Wezārat-e maʿāref) on 11 October 1935 encouraged the hiring of female teachers, even for boys’ schools, in the first four grades, on the premise that they would be “more useful and effective” with young children (Wezārat-e maʿāref, p. 89). It also included the information that in the current academic year several mixed schools for the first four grades (kūdakestān-e moḵtaleṭ) had been established in Tehran, Qazvīn, and towns in western Azerbaijan and Gīlān. The relevant provincial offices were asked to report the results of this innovation as soon as possible. It seems that the measure was intended to promote female literacy, especially in rural areas and provincial towns, where it was not feasible to establish separate schools for girls but where small numbers of parents were willing to send their daughters to school. As a result there were more girls than boys enrolled in the mixed schools. By 1940 there were in Persia 670 elementary schools for boys, with 114,116 pupils; 117 for girls, with 21,790 pupils; and 1,524 mixed, with 60,169 girls and 70,830 boys (Wezārat-e farhang, 1319 Š./1940, pp. 64-245).

Women who entered Tehran University in 1936 were segregated in the classroom and in the library (Bāmdād, tr., p. 100; Afkhami, 1994, p. 9). Furthermore, as the university system was largely oriented toward training civil servants, there was more attention to and investment in education for boys.

The new concept of education for women adopted in the 1930s demanded new curricula, which could no longer be limited to recitation of the Koran, religious instruction, and moral tales from the Golestān of Saʿdī. Courses on home management, education of children, hygiene, fine arts and crafts, and cooking were offered. Textbooks like Tarbīat al-banāt, apparently translated from French by Mīrzā ʿAzīz-Allāh Khan (Tehran, 1324/1906), Noḵba-ye sepehrī by ʿAbd-al-Raḥīm Ṭālebof (n.p., 1310/1892), Ḥefẓ al-ṣeḥḥa-ye zanān wa doḵtarān by Mortażā Golsorḵī (Tehran, 1304 Š./1925), and Aḵlāq by Badr-al-Molūk Bāmdād (Tehran, 1310 Š/1931) came to replace Mūš o gorba, Ḥosayn-e kord, and Čehel ṭūṭī, some of the favorite texts used in traditional maktabs.

After World War II there were further strides in women’s education (Table 1). By 1976, on the eve of the Islamic revolution, 28 percent of all university students were women. Furthermore, they had begun to enter many fields not previously open to them, including medicine and law. In 1977 Tehran University adopted a curriculum in women’s studies (Afkhami, 1984, p. 335). Furthermore, in 1968 the Literacy Corps established in rural areas had been supplemented by a similar program for women (Eilers, p. 314; see vii, xiii, xx, above).

The increases in female enrollment in elementary and secondary schools had had an impact on overall female literacy, defined as the ability to read and write a simple text. The literacy rate of the total female population aged six years and more rose from 35 percent in 1976 to 52 percent in 1986, from 56 to 65 percent in urban areas and from 17 to 36 percent in rural areas. In the same period male literacy rose from 59 to 71 percent. The gender differential thus declined from 23 to 19 percent. Nevertheless, because of population growth, the number of illiterate Persian women increased from 8.4 to 8.9 million in the same decade; approximately one-third of Persian women remained illiterate. Furthermore, the percentage of women with higher education decreased from 4 to 3 percent in the same period (Kazemipour, pp. 27-28, 31).

During the “cultural revolution” of the early 1980s authorities at the ministries of education and higher education introduced a number of measures to “islamize” gender relations in schools and universities. Thousands of liberal and radical teachers, including many women, were purged; all coeducational schools were converted to segregated institutions; Islamic dress codes were imposed on schools and colleges; textbooks were revised to eliminate illustrations of unveiled women; and female students were dissuaded from entering certain fields of specialization (Mehran, 1989; Higgins and Shoar-Ghaffari, p. 17).

These policies were more apparent in secondary schools, where girls are channeled into fields considered more appropriate for their sex. In 1991-92 women accounted for more than 50 percent of students in business fields and about 35 percent in teachers’ training, but they were virtually excluded from agricultural and technical fields. Furthermore, distribution of secondary-school graduates by fields of study shows that 58 percent of graduates in natural sciences, 50 percent in literature, 45 percent in social studies, but only 27 percent in mathematics and physics were women (Sāl-nāma 1371, pp. 145-46).

In 1983 the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution (Šūrā-ye ʿālī-e enqelāb-e farhangī) barred women from studying engineering, science, technology, and agriculture in universities. Resistance and lobbying through the Council for Policy Making and Coordinating Women’s Cultural and Social problems (Šūrā-ye sīāsatgoḏārī wa hamāhangī dar masāʾel-e farhangī wa ejtemāʿī-e zanān), established in 1987, forced the Supreme Council to abolish all restrictions on female admissions in 1989, however (Jalālī Nāʾīnī).

Success in minimizing gender differentiation in Persia compares favorably with that of the Near East and North Africa as a whole. Table 2 is based on two indicators of gender differentiation in education: the percentage of the relevant age group persisting through the fourth grade and the number of females per 100 males in primary and secondary education. In both respects the Persian figures reveal equal gender opportunity.



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Originally Published: December 15, 1997

Last Updated: December 9, 2011

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Vol. VIII, Fasc. 3, pp. 234-237