"In Iran, there are now more women working in research and university teaching than men"

 Foto: FUOC

Foto: FUOC

ngels Doate
"My thesis analyses the communication strategies that fertility clinics use to convince women to freeze their eggs for social reasons"
Leila Mohammadi, researcher with the GAME group at the UOC


Leila Mohammadi is a force of nature. Happy and cosmopolitan, she graduated with a degree in Translation and English Literature in Iran. She came to Barcelona in 2012, at the age of thirty, to study for a master's degree, and, today, she speaks Spanish surprisingly fluently. She defended her thesis on 16 September at the UOC, and is currently a researcher with the GAME group. The daughter of mathematicians and with professional experience in the advertising world, Mohammadi is the graduate who has been chosen to give the speech for her graduating class on 30 November at the Auditori de Barcelona. She speaks passionately about her Iran – although she states that going back is not an option –, of her research into issues that affect women, and of the strength of the new generations, whom she meets every week in class as a professor of International Business.


What did you study at university in Iran?

I started studying business, but I discovered that I needed to do something more social. Then I did Sociology, but I only lasted a year of that as well, it was too structured for me. I thought that what I wanted to do was study abroad and that I'd need English, so in the end I studied Translation and English Literature. But I didn't move abroad straight away. First I worked in an advertising agency as a creative. Then in 2012, at age thirty, I came to Barcelona.

Did you always want to leave your country?

The idea was to study abroad. Leave and go back, not stay abroad to live. Studying abroad is very fashionable. In my mother's or my grandparents' day, Iranians went to France or the United States for a time. More than half the professors that teach in university have studied abroad. You think about it from when you're very young because you've got family that's gone abroad, and when they come back, you see their job prospects are better. The year I left, the US sanction began, and I couldn't return. When I came to Barcelona, one euro was worth a thousand tomans.  In three months, it went up five times. And it's got worse, now it's thirteen times more. Those who can, emigrate.

Why did you choose our city? What did you want to study here?

My boyfriend was an architect and he wanted to do a doctorate in the home of Gaud. He suggested I come too, so I looked up Barcelona on the internet and just from the photos alone, I fell in love with the city. The problem was the language, but I discovered that people speak English here. In fact, up to a year ago, when I went to the Universidad de Chile for a doctoral visit, I didn't speak Spanish. I was there three months because I wanted an international mention. In Barcelona, first I studied for a master's degree in Business Administration at the Universitat Autnoma de Barcelona, and then I got my master's degree in Social Communication, focusing on advertising and marketing.

You didn't stop there and started a doctoral degree...


Yes, I started at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF), but I switched in the second year to the UOC. The GAME group told me that the subject of my thesis, Study of the Social Egg Freezing Applying Theories of Framing and Social Domains: From the Communicative Treatment to the Perception, fit in with their line of research and that I could do it with them. It analyses the communication strategies that fertility clinics use to convince women to freeze their eggs for social reasons. They don't explain the contraindications or the problems, and when they do, they try to convince women to go down this route. If they don't, they almost make them feel bad!

How would you define your experience at the UOC?

It's been incredible. Right from day one, I've been in contact with professionals who could help me, from the GAME research group or from other groups. Every year, the UOC awards ten or fifteen doctoral scholarships in different fields, and although they can't give you direct help in your field, they do become an essential support both emotionally and personally. At this university, accessing people is very easy. You write an email or phone someone and they answer. That way, you establish a different, closer type of relationship with the professors.

And now you're a researcher...

I read my thesis on 16 September and I got a cum laude. At the UOC, if you get a cum laude, you can apply for a fourth year. I'm working on two large GAME projects. They're very interesting, although I haven't fully got into them yet. One's related to women, which I love, and looks at care for women in dangerous situations. The other is about education and media for young people.

Are you considering returning to Iran?

At the end of this year I have to look for new opportunities. Returning to Iran isn't an option. I'm thinking of applying for the Juan de la Cierva scholarship to carry on researching. Or of becoming a teacher. I'm teaching a course at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF), at the School of International Studies. It's brilliant being with another generation and learning from them. It's a very good feeling when you teach what you know to the ones who are coming after you. It's a fruitful exchange.

What's the level of education like in your country?

It's very high, both in school and at university, but focused solely on theory. You learn few practical things. All that matters is studying all the time and very intensely. If you don't have that skill, you get left out, you're a failure or you end up depressed. But not everyone's like that. There are people who find it harder or who are perhaps more creative or would prefer something a little more practical. There, studying is very serious. People don't laugh. It's like they're doing a very important job... I don't like that. The most prestigious thing you can do is become an engineer or a doctor.

Is it easy to get an education?

Yes. School's free. And as for university, we have three types. There's the public option, with a very difficult entrance exam for which they put you under a lot of pressure; it's free and they also pay all your maintenance costs. Then there's private university, where the competition isn't to get in, but to get a place for what you want. In terms of getting in, everyone gets in.  And then there's a third type: public-private collaboration. It's more prestigious and the degree is worth more than a private one.

How about for women?

Nowadays, they can study on any degree programme. Before, in my mother's day, there were some they couldn't do, such as mechanics or electrical engineering, because they couldn't go on to work in that field. Now they can work in any of them. They can, but maybe they don't want to, sometimes society... So, some Iranian women study engineering and go to another country to work, they do it with friends or they set up their own business. Working in a big company with hundreds of men or in a state-owned company isn't very comfortable.

What is their presence in university like?

In Iran, there are now more women working in research and university teaching than men. There are also more women students in these fields. The financial situation is difficult and men enter the job market. Remember that, legally, the man is the one who has to pay the costs. Even today, a woman can work and earn money, but that money's for her. If she wants, she can spend it on eating or on the family, but if she doesn't want to, she doesn't have to. It's true to say that lately, you need to combine two salaries to live on.

Do you think we have things in common?

Yes! At first, I thought that since Spain had so much of a relationship with Arabic culture, which has also been present in Iran for many centuries, I thought I'd find a mutual influence between the two cultures. And that's how it's been. People are warmer and more welcoming than in other countries. The Iranian people are too, although for religious and political reasons, some things have changed now.  Many things are banned or not viewed well culturally speaking. We live in an Islamic republic: a woman can't talk to a man she doesn't know, you have to cover up your skin and hair, you can't drink. We're very similar to people here, although in our society these days you can't behave differently from how they tell you to. However, there's a very large group of people who don't want to live like that.

Can you live outside the rules?

As many things are banned in public, everything in Iran goes on in private. At home, we live the same as here. At least the group of people I mix with. I go out into the street, but I cover my hair only with a coloured handkerchief, like other friends or family members. That way we show we're different, but within the legal framework because we comply strictly with the minimum necessary. Other women go out completely covered up. There's a whole group of people out there that are different, and there are more than just a few of them. And the food fascinates me! We don't have much in common, except paella without pork, but it's all so tasty! Did you know that saffron is grown in Iran?

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