By Shirzad Abdollahi, Tehran (Source: Mianeh)
When part of a school in northeast Iran collapsed last year, a local official blamed it on boisterous schoolgirls - one of whom died when the walls caved in. This excuse was dismissed by a more senior educationalist, but the story serves to illustrate the obsolete, sometimes ramshackle state of Iran's schools.
It also highlights the limited provision for girls, in particular, especially when it comes to sports and recreation.
The accident, in the village of Rud Majan near the town of Baig in Khorasan province, happened last October when a wall and a steel door collapsed on a group of girls playing in the school grounds. Zahra Barati, 12, was killed instantly and five others suffered severe injuries.
Javad Ansari, the head of education for Torbat Heydarieh district, said the school structure had been perfectly rigid but fell down because the children pushed them while playing. He denied negligence and said the school authorities were not liable.
But this view was contradicted by deputy education minister Habibullah Bur-Bur, who heads a national agency responsible for rebuilding school infrastructure. He said the Rud Majan secondary school for girls was on a list of education establishment earmarked for demolition and reconstruction.
In 2006, the Iranian parliament approved a bill to spend the equivalent of four billion US dollars on a programme to repair the country's schools by March 2010. According to Bur-Bur, 54,000 schools are scheduled for refurbishment.
Many Iranian schools are old and run-down, and lag far behind the modern needs of education.
The situation is worst in the cities. In the capital Tehran, for example, seven out of ten schools are more than 35 years old. The age and poor state of repair of such buildings raises questions about their ability to withstand the earthquakes to which Iran is prone.
The high brick walls, heavy steel gates, long gloomy corridors of the old-style schools make them look more like army barracks or prisons.
The original architects made no provision for sport facilities, dining, community areas, exam halls, libraries, laboratories and workshops. At break time, children often have nowhere to go except a small paved yard enclosed by high walls.
The lack of space extends to the classrooms - Tehran has 20,000 fewer than it needs. As a result, many urban schools have to run two shifts, and an estimated 25,000 schools across the country operate this system. This is despite an annual decline in pupil numbers, which have fallen from nearly 19 million in 1999 to 14 million in the current school year.
Facilities at girls' schools are especially flawed, with poor provision for sports and recreation. They have the added complication of a requirement for privacy - school grounds should not be overlooked by the buildings around them. A plan to "camouflage" girls' schools is now being implemented, involving raising walls to a height where no one can see in from outside.
In addition to the unsuitable physical environment, sport suffers from a lack of encouragement at all-female schools.
Some headmistresses believe sport is completely unnecessary.
As Zeinab Bozorgzadeh, an assistant head at a Tehran secondary school, put it, "Some headmistresses prefer sombre colours so they require the pupils to wear dark clothing. In many girls schools, exercise time is a period of inactivity."
Tayebeh Karami, head of a girls' secondary school, is definitely in the conservative camp on this issue. "A girl should be sedate, shy and humble," she said. "Rapid exercise, running, laughing loudly and loose veils are damaging to a girl's personality."
In her view, "Play and exercise are not priorities for girls. A girl should prepare herself for performing the role of mother and wife."
Nor does she believe girls need to go to university - all they need is the ability to read and write, and higher education is a waste of time.
Since Maryam Sadeghipour is studying chemical engineering at university, she naturally disagrees strongly with such views on both intellectual and physical education. She added, "In my opinion, exercise is even more important than study. Physical health and a balanced personality are achieved through exercise. The sports facilities in our schools are inadequate."
Not all headmistresses impose restrictive rules. Fariba Salehi runs a high school for girls, and argues that narrowly-defined regulations are more a matter of interpretation than absolute truth.
"Islam doesn't impose any restrictions on women working or studying," she said.
Salehi has done her best to promote her pupils' health and self-image.
"I have mounted full-length mirrors on the corridor walls so that the girls can see themselves, even though possessing mirrors was regarded as a disciplinary matter by my predecessor as headmistress," she said. "At exercise time, the girls wear sports gear - sweatshirts and pants - and play volleyball in the school yard. We have a bicycle which the girls use at exercise time in the schoolyard."
She concluded, "My goal is to help girls be proud of being girls."
Female pupils told Mianeh of their desire to do sports activities, and the restrictions placed on them.
"In our class of 28, four or five of the pupils do exercise, ten don't do any at all and the rest occasionally do some," said Niousha Mehdizadeh, 15, who is in the third year of secondary school in west Tehran.
"At exercise time, we play volleyball in the school yard wearing headscarves, topcoat and trousers. It's hard to bend and stretch to get the ball. Last year, our exercise instructor allowed us to wear sports pants and sweatshirts, but this year we're only allowed to wear sport pants with headscarf and topcoat."
Outside school, Niousha does taekwondo at a gym near her home, during the designated time-slot for women. Taekwondo is popular in Iran, and many girls are keen to learn.
By contrast, 14-year-old Melika Bagheri's passion is cycling. As she grows up, she finds it harder to go out for a ride.
Last year, she went to Chitgar Park in Tehran twice with her family, and had a chance to use the all-female cycle tracks.
"Until two years ago, I used to cycle up and down our alley, but my parents have stopped me doing that, saying it was bad and I was now grown-up."
About the author: Shirzad Abdollahi is a journalist and education expert in Tehran.
This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers
About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (iwpr.net) the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.
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