Ongoing protests from students and faculty may have forced the Iraqi government to back off a controversial plan to carve out a new female-only institution from Baghdad University, the country’s oldest establishment of higher learning.
On Monday, Education Ministry officials announced they would not proceed with the plan. Faculty members, students—and their parents—hailed the move.
“Students…chose to join Baghdad University, not Baghdad University for Women,” said Nada Khalil, a computer science student who led demonstrations since mid-October against the ministry’s decision. “The latter would not have been accredited globally. Its rank would have been even lower than the new and private universities despite that our faculties were established in the 1980s.”
Earlier this year, former minister of higher education, Ali Al-Adeeb, announced that three departments that were already exclusively for women and housed in Baghdad University would become the new Baghdad University for Women, with classes commencing in January. The women would also have to move to facilities away from the current campus.
Al-Adeeb had framed the change as creating a place for the daughters of conservative parents who disapprove of co-ed universities, and to help more female academics assume leadership positions. He cited American institutions like Wellesley College—alma mater of Hillary Clinton—as proof that women’s schools produce leaders. (The number of all-female colleges has actually shrunk in the United States, with many women’s institutions going coeducational.)
“The administration of Baghdad University for girls would be all-female as a means to improve women’s capabilities in the society,” Al-Adeeb said in March, according to the Al Arab Today newspaper. “Establishing this university will open the educational door for women whose families do not allow them to study due to the mixed universities.”
Opponents said they feared the ministry’s proposal might be the first step towards complete gender separation in the Iraqi universities in the future, an accusation disputed by the ministry. But they scoffed at that refusal as well as attempts to “help” them become more prominent in society.
“They say it was a decision to give women more rights…but a separate university will not give women their rights,” said one biology student who declined to give her name. “Interaction is necessary, society is composed of both men and women.”
“They wanted to exclude our male professors,” she added. “Personally I like them and see them as professionals. We would lose their academic experience.”
After a few days of street protests in October that included students, their parents and faculty, current Minister of Education Hussain al-Shahristani told a gathering of students on Monday that the government was tabling the proposal.
Hussain al-Shahristani took office after former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki resigned in the wake of the Islamic State’s defeat of the Iraqi army earlier this year. Since then, the new minister has been busy: The Islamic State forced a handful of Iraqi universities to close, forcing others to find seats for displaced students.
Still, many faculty members and students are skeptical: Hussain al-Shahristani hasn’t issued an official decision on the matter, though he has pledged to do so soon. Also, it’s still not clear if Iraq’s former government had goals other than what were stated, critics said.
The government didn’t need to create a friendly academic space for women, said opponents. The departments that would have comprised the new school—education, physical education and the sciences—were already reserved entirely for female students who use separate libraries and cafeterias.
The departments have been segregated—an uncommon practice in Iraq that occurs in other more conservative Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia—since they were founded in the 1980s. Other departments at Baghdad University are co-ed.
Although some have applied to the women-only science programs, even these students are not in favor of separate universities.
“I love biology, so I applied to the department of science for girls because of its 79 percent acceptance rate,” said the biology student. “The general science faculty ‘for girls and boys’ accepted me in chemistry, but I chose the faculty for girls.”
The protests, meanwhile, illustrated the ambition of Iraqi students. Those who would have transferred to Baghdad University for Women complained that their unknown school would have cost them opportunities.
“My average in high school was 85 percent, so I came to study at Baghdad University to benefit from the opportunities,” said the biology student. “I might have joined engineering or higher departments in my governorate if I had applied there, but I choose to study in Baghdad because of its good reputation.”
They also complained that Baghdad University for girls would only start granting postgraduate degrees after 10 years, in accordance with Iraqi law, too long a delay.
Other concerns including the loss of the “rich” history of the facilities, and the selective central admission system–opponents said the new university would have accepted students with lower grades.
“Our averages in high school were in the 80s,” said Rusul, 21, who studies chemistry at the university, and asked that only her first name be used. “Girls with averages in the 50s would have been admitted. Why ruin the legacy of distinguished faculty that have shaped professors and academics?”
Students also said the change would affect student scholarships, job opportunities and participation in study abroad programs.
“We would lose our scholarships to other universities,” said Khalil. “And who would recognize Baghdad University for Women if we competed for the same jobs as graduates from Baghdad and Technology universities? Current graduates would have to change their diplomas to read “Former Baghdad University”—we would have never accepted this situation.”
Rusel said her parents joined in demonstrations against the decision because they, too, feared that she might have to graduate from a less-respected school than Baghdad University. “Our parents are supporting us,” she said.
Her parents were also concerned about her safety. A major objection among students against the new university was that it would be in Al-Za’franiya, a neighborhood in southeast Baghdad where an empty technical school campus stands idle. Traveling to that district was a perilous journey, said Rusel.
“We can never go there amid this deteriorating security situation,” she said. “It is getting worse.”
Khalil was overjoyed that she and her fellow students’ voices were heard. “We are satisfied,” she said. “We will take our lectures again and the label of the University of Baghdad for Women has been removed.”
* Watch a video of a demonstration against dividing Baghad University: