An Iranian woman buys a gift during Valentine's day shopping at a shop in Tehran
An Iranian woman buys a gift during Valentine's day shopping at a shop in Tehran February 13, 2012. Reuters

The Iranian government has implemented a policy restricting women's access to higher education, claiming that it is counterproductive to train women for fields where job opportunities are limited.

Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi raised the alarm on Monday with an open letter to the United Nations.

"For the coming academic year, 36 universities have closed 77 academic fields to women," she said.

The now-restricted fields of study are some of Iran's most lucrative. They include computer science, civil engineering, English translation and chemistry.

"The gender segregation policy ... suggest[s] the imposition of a patriarchal culture that aims to strengthen the role of women at home and within the family unit in order to undermine their important function in society," said Ebadi.

Some university officials defended the education ban, according to Bloomberg. They argued that women who study science stand a poor chance of finding employment after graduation.

But Ebadi suspects the Iranian government -- a theocratic regime with a poor record for women's rights -- has more sinister intentions.

"They are trying to push women back to the private sphere of their homes so that they may abandon their opposition and legitimate demands," she wrote.

Another Pretty Face

Three years ago, a young woman who died on the streets of Tehran became a powerful symbol of opposition to the clerical regime.

Neda Agha-Soltan was not a politically active woman, according to her family. She and an acquaintance were driving near anti-government protests on June 20, 2009, when they stopped the vehicle on Kargar street and stepped out. Moments later, a single bullet shot rang out -- it seems to have been a sniper attack, and many onlookers have blamed a regime-allied militia that had been suppressing the nearby protests.

Agha-Soltan fell to the ground, and several passers-by ran to help her. One of them carried a video camera, and Agha-Soltan's final moments were caught on film. For a moment, she is wide-eyed and looking toward the camera as strangers frantically apply pressure to a bullet wound in her chest. Seconds later, blood begins to stream from her mouth.

That face, in those final moments, became a powerful symbol of Iran's 2009 resistance movement. Agha-Soltan's death was a lightning rod in the public debate over the Iranian regime, and it cemented women's role in the anti-regime struggle.

This was Iran's Green Movement, which grew in response to the election in which incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed victory and his second term in office.

Opposition candidate Mir Houssain Mousavi, a center-left reformist who had pledged support for women's' rights, had claimed victory before the final results had been tallied. So when Ahmadinejad was announced the winner on June 12, angry protesters took to the streets. They suspected a rigged election.

Both women and men were present on the streets of Tehran during those violent months. More than 5,000 demonstrators were arrested, and Agha-Soltan was one of dozens who lost their lives.

Two Steps Back

It is no surprise that women would have been heavily involved in the ill-fated Green Movement, which fizzled in the face of government clampdowns. During the reign of the grand ayatollahs, which began in 1979, women's status has regressed considerably.

Before 1979, gender equality had been making some progress in Iran under the repressive but secular rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Women won the right vote and run for public office in 1963. They were granted greater rights in cases of divorce or child custody disputes under a Family Protection Law in 1975.

But the Shah was a dictator who found himself increasingly at odds with Iran's majority-Shia Muslim population. Men and women alike participated in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which overthrew him. The monarchy was replaced by a theocracy, headed up by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who instituted Sharia law and held supreme authority over an elected president and parliament. Other clerical bodies also held vetoes over the elected government's actions.

Since then, a series of laws has set women's' rights back by decades. Today, women risk being stoned to death for such crimes as committing adultery. Legislation mandates that all adult females must cover their hair in public, though this is not always enforced. Polygamy, while not technically legal, has been essentially reinstituted with an amendment allowing for "temporary marriages" so that men can pursue extramarital affairs with impunity.

And so women had quite a stake in the 2009 Green Movement. Though it began as a protest against Ahmadinejad and his shady re-election, it has since evolved into an anti-regime counterculture that still bubbles beneath the surface of Iranian life.

Crossing the Line

Though women's progress has suffered under Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, who has been the "supreme leader" since his predecessor's death in 1989, the situation could be far worse. The smattering of draconian laws implemented over the last three decades has not resulted in a thorough subjugation of females -- far from it. After decades or progress, women's sense of political efficacy has not been dampened by recent setbacks.

Women can still run for public office, and there here have been two female vice presidents during the last decade. About a third of the workforce is female, according to PBS News -- that's more than double the amount from 10 years ago. Women have high literacy rates, due in part to their freedom to pursue an education. Currently, according to Ebadi's letter, females constitute about 65 percent of university students.

That's why the new policy on women's education is such a serious threat: It could undercut one of the very foundations of women's social status.

"[T]he government is seeking to bar women's access to education and active presence in society; it is pushing them back to into the house in the hope that they abandon their demands and leave the government alone to pursue its wrong policies," said Ebadi.

Her statement hints an underlying issue -- the Iranian regime has good reason to restrict young people's access to education, regardless of gender.

Stunted Growth

Due to a baby boom that occurred just after the Iranian Revolution, more than 60 percent of the population is under 30 years old.

These youths had nothing to do with the 1979 overthrow that brought about the age of the ayatollahs; they came of age politically during the brutal crackdowns of 2009.

Today, times are tough for young Iranians -- especially with the sanctions that have been imposed on the country due to Tehran's pursuit of nuclear technology.

With the economy in shambles, Iran's youth are struggling now more than ever. According to a primer from the United States Institute for Peace, unemployment among young Iranians has nearly doubled over the last 20 years.

"Among males [ages 15 to 29], roughly one in four is unable to find a job. Among women with higher education, unemployment is estimated at around 50 percent," said the report.

Furthermore, "young Iranians have borne a large share of the regime's retributions for unrest in 2009. Thousands were detained in the tumultuous months following the disputed election. Many student activists were also given failing grades or threatened with expulsion from universities."

Dissent has been quietly bubbling for years, making educated young people one of the biggest emerging threats to the theocratic regime. By blocking women from the free pursuit educational opportunities, the government may hope to suppress the threat of growing political opposition -- and religion can be used to back up its policy.

But tactics like this may not work for long, especially since Iranian youth -- women included -- are politically active, highly tech-savvy and eager for change.

According to the USIP, "the impact of Iran's baby boomers, born in the 1980s, is only beginning to be felt. Now in their twenties, the boomers will become even more important as they age in defining -- and potentially redefining -- Iran's political, economic and social agenda over the next quarter century."

Many Iranian women, Ebadi included, are determined to take full part in this progress.

"To disregard women and bar them from active participation in political, social, economic and cultural life would in fact be tantamount to depriving the entire population of every society of half its capability," said Ebadi won she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.

"The patriarchal culture and the discrimination against women, particularly in the Islamic countries, cannot continue forever."