By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
Too common for Iranian authorities: a female medical student
"Parisa" is among the thousands of young women who have transformed the once male-dominated field of medicine in Iran.
Whereas men made up 70 percent of the country's medical students and physicians about 20 years ago, women have reversed the situation to the point that women like Parisa -- who asks not to use her real name -- now account for 70 percent of Iran's medical students.
"It demonstrates what women can achieve despite all the limitations they face in [Iranian] society," she tells RFE/RL. "It offers them job security and independence."
Under a new plan being discussed by Iranian authorities, however, women's advancements in the field of medicine could be flatlined.
Health Ministry officials have indicated that measures would be taken "to balance" the percentage of male doctors by introducing gender quotas at medical schools.
Last month, Health Minister Hassan Hashemi said Iran was considering ways to curtail the number of female medical students.
"There is a need for male nurses and physicians in the country, and the ratios should be adjusted in the future," he was quoted by Iranian media as saying on March 4.
Hashemi also said he didn't have the "courage" to announce the steps, because of possible criticism.
But the general argument appears to be that, by admitting a greater ratio of men, the country will be better able to tackle its longstanding shortage of physicians in rural areas.
"There are problems in sending medical forces to remote regions," Amir Mohsen Ziaee, a Health Ministry deputy in education, told the semiofficial ISNA news agency on April 5.
Iran has an "insufficient" number of male nurses, general practitioners, and specialists, he said. "Therefore, it is necessary for the Health Ministry to create changes in admissions in medical-sciences universities in order to regulate the medical-service system."
Officials suggest men are better suited to practice in rural areas, where women could face more social restrictions. Some lawmakers have claimed that women refuse to serve in rural areas.
Babak Gharayi Moghadam, an Iranian neurosurgeon, tells RFE/RL that the shortage of physicians in remote areas is real.
"It is more difficult for women to go to these places," he says in a telephone interview from Iran. "It is a genuine problem."
But Gharayi Moghadam also notes that "even when men made some 70, 75 percent of medical students, there was a shortage of physicians in those regions."
Medical students who graduate from Iran's state universities are currently required to serve in areas of need, such as rural regions, for two to four years. But there are signs that the system is failing.
The daily "Hemayat" reported earlier this month, for example, that 8,000 graduates from medical schools decided to quit medicine rather than fulfill their obligation to serve where they were most needed.
Poor living conditions and a dearth of scientific and professional opportunities are among the reasons that doctors -- both female and male -- say they are unwilling to practice in remote areas.
The answer to encouraging doctors to practice in such places, Gharayi Moghdam suggests, could be to improve conditions and offer better financial support for physicians in faraway areas.
(2008 file photo by Mona Hoobehfekr, ISNA)
On the occasion of Women's Day, which was celebrated in Iran on April 20, Iranian President Hassan Rohani called for equal opportunities for men and women. Speaking at an event in Tehran called the National Forum on Women Shaping Economy and Culture, the president noted that some still considered "women's presence in society as a threat" and said Iran still had "long way to go."
"We will not accept the culture of sexual discrimination," Rohani said.
But Saeed Paivandi, an expert on Iran's educational system, says the plan to admit a smaller percentage of women at medical universities should be viewed as state discrimination against women.
Paivandi, who teaches sociology at the University of Lorainne in France, says Iranian authorities have over the years cited various "excuses" in order to limit women's progress and supervise their growth.
"In fact, if a society has the will to resolve this issue, regardless of whether the [students] are male or female -- then such excuses shouldn't be brought up," Paivandi says.
Paivandi adds that any attempt to curb women's presence at medical schools is a violation of their rights.
"It doesn't mean [authorities] want to stop women's education," he says, "but I think they don't want women to be engaged in a healthy and equal competition [with men]."
Parisa believes that, ultimately, the plan to improve medical services in rural regions by imposing quotas on men will fail.
"You can't force men to study medicine if they don't want to," she says.
The answer, she added, is to applaud the advancements made by women in the medical field, and to encourage even more women to pursue medical careers.
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