The segregation of the sexes in Iran is a strict and commonplace parctice. Although it has traditional roots in the Iranian society, but the Islamic Republic has given it new dimensions. The explicit exmaples include: there is no co-ed elementary or secondary education in Iran, and the mixing of girls and boys in universities has always been controversial and a subject of commotion (some branches of the Islamic Free University even introduced separate classes for men and women); there are different sections for men and women on the buses; most seriously, being in the company of a person of opposite sex, other than an immediate family member or the spouse, is a crime punishable with lashes (in the recent past in public places) and/or jail.
The scope of the effects caused by the separation of men and women goes beyond what this limited space can afford: from the daily sufferings of the individuals of a very young society or the large scales of a people's psyche, to the waste of time, energy and resources of a nation to enforce it, this official policy has many severe consequences. So, here I would only talk about a few rather arbitrary points that have occupied my mind in the recent days and leave the rest to other people to explore.
A direct consequence of the present sex segregation in Iran is the way in which families are formed. Specifically, the current situation naturally increases the number of arranged marriages. There is little lawful room for the average boy and girl to meet up and date,* so they can choose a partner out of their own free will. The main venue of their lawful union passes through their families: they are the ones who meet up, discuss the matter, set the costs and the dates. Although in some classes of the society, the boy and the girl are given a bigger say, still it is the family that usually has the upper hand. I believe the separation of sexes has greatly aggrevated this issue.
Image of the Opposite Sex
The image of women in a society has been of central importnace to the feminist** movements. After all, wemon as second-rate citizens, women as child-bearers, women as housewives, and other traditional images of women in the patriarchal society are what feminists have fought in their struggles. Although the revolutionary nature of the rulers in Iran has somewhat resulted in bringing women into the spotlight of activity, the strict isolation of male and female circles has blocked the way to any fundamental change in the image and therefore the status of women in the bulk of society. In particular, all the three above-mentioned images of women have been, explicitly or implicitly, promoted by the official stance of the Islamic Republic governments.
The low success rate of girls in higher education, in spite of their equal and even higher rate of acceptance in post-secondary schools, is a rather staggering issue. It is in part due to the society's image and expectations of an adult woman in which, as discussed above, a higher education has a minor role to play. So, why should a girl continue her studies, or even study as hard as a boy who is expected to make a living and earn bread for his future family. Just a handful of the women comprising 50% or more of all university enrollments, who have a burning zeal for knowledge or success will overcome the high barriers and pursue their studies, in most cases in another country.
However, in my conversations with my female peers or friends, I have been told many times that girls in universities face a rather big issue of confidence. Many of those brilliant high school students find themselves in a discouraging environment in which they cannot show off themselves or are not paid due attention or respect. In my opinion, this lack of self-confidence, if truly universal among Iranian girls, is yet another, indirect, consequence of the unisex system of education: girls do well in their own schools, but when in university they feel unequipped to challenge their successful male peers who are brought up by the society and the educational system to think they are the stronger and wiser party of the competition.
Of course, the issue of co-ed vs. unisex education is not a simple matter to decide: each one has its own advantages and disadvantages. However, in a society like Iran, the separated system of education only aggrevates the situation, since the practical way to solve this problem is through a controlled environment where the sexes can come in terms with themselves and gain self-confidence. Such an environment could only be achieved in the schools.
The problem of self-confidence is not limited to girls. It can show up for boys who, for instance, leave their winner position in the Iranian society and find themselves in the unfamiliar and stressful settings of a Western society, where they have to play the dating game to find a girlfriend/partner. I think that is a main reason, among others, why so many Iranian men, living abroad, come back to Iran to find a wife. In most cases it is simply because they they cannot win a partner in their new host societies.
And the coda: all in all, the segregation of sexes as an official code, is yet another brick in the wall of a strictly patriarchal society's guarantee of the continuation of its structure.
* Dating, as is understood in the West, is an unknown practice in Iran. Here the word is used for lack of a better one in English.
** I'm using the term "feminist" rather loosely and in a broad sense.