As Iran's academic year kicked off on Saturday, a US-based rights group raised concern about new restrictions putting scores of university degree courses off-limits to women.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the restrictions extended a creeping "Islamicisation" of Iran's universities that have been imposed under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Citing an August report by the Iranian news agency Mehr, the group said that women were barred from 77 courses in various universities, including those in computer science, chemistry engineering, business administration and sciences.
A much smaller number of courses were also barred to men in some campuses, including studies in history, linguistics, literature, sociology and philosophy.
"As university students across Iran prepare to start the new academic year, they face serious setbacks, and women students in particular will no longer be able to pursue the education and careers of their choice," Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch, said in the statement.
Some in Iran and elsewhere saw the restriction as an attempt to reduce women's access to higher education and reinforce the patriarchal domination. Currently, around 60 percent of students are female and 40 percent are male.
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But the dean of Iran's Petroleum University of Technology, Gholamreza Rashed, was quoted by the IRAN newspaper last week as blaming market forces -- implying job prospects were shrinking because of Western sanctions.
He said his school was no longer accepting female students due to "the hardship of the work situation, and because the oil industry does not need female students right now."
Iranian state media have made little or no mention of the new restrictions.
But other news websites spoke of extra curbs imposed on campuses, particularly a new push to segregate men and women into separate classes to prevent mixing of the sexes frowned upon by Iran's ruling clerics.
Mehr last week quoted the minister of science, research and technology, Kamran Daneshjou, as saying authorities in the Islamic republic "welcome the establishment of one-gender universities, schools for only men or women."
He said that was the direction "our religion envisions for us."
Daneshjou dismissed Western criticism of Iran's steps, saying: "The angrier Western media gets, the more we realise we are moving in the right direction."