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Last Updated: Friday, 20 February, 2004, 15:50 GMT
Iranian penfriends: Tehran to Toronto
Fariba was born at the start of the Iranian revolution, but her parents emigrated and settled in Canada when she was 11 months old. Mehrnaz is in Tehran studying economics. Here is what they said to each other in an email correspondence.

In Iran, when you enter university, it doesn't make any difference whether you are a boy or a girl. All secondary school students are expected to work towards passing the national university entrance examinations.

I loved physics and I wanted to study electronics or mechanical engineering, but I was offered a place on a humanities course
But, even if you pass, you are not able to choose your university courses based on your favourite subject. Instead, it is based on complicated calculations as to what grade will get you into what kind of course and who got onto a particular course with those grades last year. You go from one educational adviser to another.

When I saw my name in the newspaper among the ones who had been accepted, I thanked God, but then there was a feeling of having lost four years of life in high school. I loved physics and I wanted to study electronic or mechanical engineering, but I was offered a place on a humanities course.

In Canada, it's the same, your gender doesn't affect university acceptance. That does not mean that there is no discrimination at all. There is structural discrimination against women within the education system.

I realised in university that I had no background in the subject I was studying. On top of that, my idolisation of university and of being a student soon melted away. There is no research anywhere to be seen and it doesn't make a difference if you come to class or not.

Reading a book the night before an exam is enough to pass a whole unit. Students want to skip classes, the lecturers are thinking of finishing classes all the quicker to get to their second or third jobs and the library and computer room staff want to lock up and leave as early as they can.

I too was disappointed with the realities of university life, but the students' lack of motivation and the lecturers' lack of attention to teaching matters did not surprise me too much.

I'm lucky I got my degree in international studies, since passing the units and doing well is easy. I could study what was really interesting for me and think about important issues. Studying law, my second degree, leaves little time to think about subjects that interest me.

At school, boys and girls were separate in every sense. Even the school bell at the end of the day rang at different times so that boys and girls did not meet in the street.

One negative aspect of the mixed classes is that the lecturers, whether male or female, pay more attention to boys
But at university, the situation is different. Men and women sit in the same classroom and can mix freely. But, since they haven't had this freedom right from the beginning at school, they're not used to it. Usually everybody has some sort of a problem in dealing with this new situation, especially boys. One negative aspect of the mixed classes is that the lecturers, whether male or female, pay more attention to boys.

I knew that boys' and girls' schools are separate in Iran, but I had no idea that there is so much restriction that they mustn't meet in the street on their way back from school.

When I first entered university, a special fair for newcomers was organised in which a number of cultural, artistic, scientific, political and research activities were suggested for students. The students who wanted to get involved in these form their own groups, but there are usually difficulties in arranging times to meet and getting everyone's support.

Students can invite MPs or other political figures to give talks at the university, but you have to keep your fingers crossed and pray that a row or fight doesn't break out between students, as has happened in the past.

I do voluntary work for an advisory centre which provides free legal counselling for those who can't pay. I have taken part in protests against high university fees, and for several years I participated in the activities of an organisation that was against Canada's policy of supporting the sanctions imposed on Iraq. I also took part in anti-war demonstrations.

Being a girl is not an obstacle to my activities. The only thing that may stop me from doing what boys do is the culture and norms of society where I have grown up. It is useless for girls to study in most technical fields because afterwards nobody trusts their work enough to give them a job.

However, in the case of subjects such as economics, my own subject, being a woman is no barrier. Yet, the main thing is whether we will be able to find a job that fits our particular degree. An economics graduate becomes a language teacher, a graduate in mechanical engineering teaches maths and a pharmacist has to teach chemistry.

Worse still, these jobs are not officially recognised. There is no permanent employment in schools, just temporary work, often paid on a daily basis.

I am surprised to hear that in Iran nobody is prepared to employ woman engineers. I don't see being a woman as an obstacle to my future job opportunities, although some people might not have the same opinion. In the field of law, women face more discrimination in the big law firms compared with legal advice centres. For example, there are fewer women than men partners in the big firms.


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