Twenty-four years ago, after Ayatollah Khomeini headed the Iranian revolution to form a new Islamic government, he endorsed the growth, rather than control of the population. Therefore, the new government stopped the distribution and promotion of contraceptive devices and encouraged people to have more children. Consequently, in a couple of years, the population growth rate of Iran soared to a record high of 3.4 percent per year.
The unintended consequences of this baby-boom are now surfacing in Iranian society. For one thing, after over twenty years, the girls born in the early 1980's are getting to the age of marriage. Following the traditional norms, these girls should find a match with older boys, who were born before the 1980’s baby-boom. However, the numbers do not match: there are now about 1.5 million more girls in the traditional age of marriage than there are boys. In fact this imbalance puts a lot of pressure on young girls who traditionally should find a husband after high-school if they cannot enter the university.
The percentage of girls vs. boys admitted to public universities for the period 1997-2002. The 2002 statistics are not on the SCI website, the reported number for 2002 is based on some news I heard last year and therefore may include both public and private universities. Source: Statistical Center of Iran.
It seems unlikely that the Iranian government can find any solution for this massive social problem, however, the Iranian girls are finding their own ways to deal with the challenge. One of the most interesting self-regulating processes is that girls are increasingly determined to continue their education after high-school; indeed, in this academic year, girls constituted over 63 percent of new university entrants! They are also opening their way into the male-dominated job market and are increasingly gaining financial independence. Finally, girls tend to delay marriage, resulting in an increasing age of marriage.
The imbalance in the number of girls and boys of marriageable age is not the only cause of these social changes, and it will not persist for long. In fact, in a few years, the trend may even reverse: boys who are born in the baby-boom should match the girls born in the early 90's, when the population growth was significantly reduced. Nevertheless, the large number of well-educated women and their participation in the job market, which have followed the current demographic and economic dynamics, will have persisting effects on the Iranian culture and society.
As these trends are challenging the foundations of traditional, male-dominated society, they have created some backlash among conservative policy makers. In fact there have recently been discussions about setting limits to the number of girls admitted to some university programs. It is an irony that this policy, by blocking the natural regulatory process that society is depending on to relieve the imbalance pressure, can create even worse problems. Unfortunately policy makers hardly learn from the backlash of their own messing up with complicated social issues.
* An earlier version of this article was posted in another weblog, which never took off!