“No-one can ban me from learning”

Photo montage of 7 imprisoned Baha'i educators in Iran

Imprisoned in Iran for working at the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education.

Imagine that you, and all those who are like you, are forbidden by the government to undertake further education after finishing school.  Perhaps you did well at school, but once your identity became known to your teachers they told you that it was a shame – why don’t you change?  You see your friends go onto university – some with school results that were not as good as yours.  They commence a new life, talking about what they would do in the future.  Gradually their lives become very separate from yours.

What do you do in these circumstances?  The government have jailed your community’s leaders on spurious charges that human rights organisations and parliaments around the world have condemned.  Many other members of your community have been arrested on dubious charges, released on payment of exorbitant bail, and live with the knowledge that any time, anywhere, they may be re-arrested. Your community’s members are banned from government employment, essential business licences are hard to come by.  Your community’s children are harassed by teachers at school, cemeteries used by your community are desecrated, the media is filled with messages of hate towards your community.  This has been occurring for over 30 years.

You have left school, are banned from further education and are a member of a persecuted community.  What do you do?

This is the situation that faces the Baha’is in Iran.  They live out their lives as best they can under constant pressure from their government.  This is their country, they want to stay, they want to contribute.  This is difficult when the Iranian government’s policy clearly states, “[t]he Government’s dealing with them must be in such a way that their progress and development are blocked.” (A Faith Denied, p. 49).

Despite all these impediments, the Baha’is of Iran have done something extraordinary.

It is called the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education.

With no prospect of higher education for an entire generation of Baha’i youth, the Baha’is have responded by creating their own educational organisation.  Six years after the government first fired Baha’i academics from the nations universities and banned Baha’is from enrolling in higher education courses in Iran, the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education was created in 1987.  There were no grand announcements or ceremonies accompanying the foundation of the Institute.  It had to operate quietly in a nation whose government was hostile to the educational advancement of the country’s Baha’is (A Faith Denied, p. 50).

The new Institute was staffed by academics who had been fired from Iran’s universities and other Baha’is working in the private sector.  Its students were a few Baha’i youth.  From this tenuous start it has now grown into a significant organisation with 475 academic and administrative staff, a first year cohort of around 450, 17 undergraduate degrees and 10 graduate courses (BIHE – Quick Facts). The Institute’s website reveals a flourishing educational organisation with the kind of courses that any university around the world would offer.

The Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) is an internationally recognised institution.  While Iran does not recognised the degrees it grants, over seventy universities in North America, Europe, Australia and India have recognised its degrees and accepted BIHE students for post-graduate courses. Professors from many universities around the world volunteer for the Institute helping to develop, implement and assist with the delivery of its courses.  In Australia the University of Wollongong and the University of Technology, Sydney are assisting the Institute. (BIHE – Quick Facts, Sydney Morning Herald 27/6/2011)

The Baha’i Institute for Higher Education is a tremendous achievement from a population living under severe restrictions. Any Iranian who contributes to the work of the Institute is aware that it could be attacked at any time.  Care has been taken to restrict the curriculum to subjects that would not transgress, or be seen to transgress, Iranian laws, but still the life and progress of the Institution is uncertain (Iran’s Outcast Religion).  In 1998 over 500 homes and offices were raided by government security officials, people involved with BIHE were arrested, Institute material was confiscated.  (New York Times 29/10/1998). In 2001 and 2002 authorities closed classrooms, took exam papers during exams and harassed staff (A Faith Denied, p. 50).  Yet the Baha’is were not deterred.  The Institute continued its operations.  The students and academics work in constant fear of raids, confiscation and arrests.  In this trailer for a documentary about BIHE, Education Under Fire, those who worked at BIHE explain some of the conditions under which they worked:

BIHE continues to deliver quality education and contribute to the training of Iran’s youth.  The government continues to harass its staff and students.  Last year BIHE academics and administrative staff were arrested and are now serving prison sentences for “membership of an illegal group with intent to commit crimes against national security” (Amnesty International, 2012 p. 13).

The Baha’is do not want to leave Iran.  They want to stay and contribute to the progress of their country.  The success of BIHE and its graduates is extraordinary, yet Iran’s government does not allow them to fully contribute to Iranian society.  Iran’s universities could only benefit from opening their doors to Baha’is.

The Iranian government’s discriminatory education policy is not only detrimental to the welfare of the nation, it is an act of cruelty towards the country’s Baha’is.  The government is attempting to reach into the minds of these people, to stop them from learning, to restrict their access to knowledge, to hinder them from expressing their full potential.   Ultimately this policy is futile.  In the words of a former teacher at the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, Farzaneh Sabetan, “no-one can ban me from learning”.

What You Can Do to Help Iran’s Baha’is

Why should BIHE students and academics work in constant fear?  Why should they be excluded from Iran’s universities?  Join Universities Australia and over seventy Australian academics and help to shine the light on the Iranian government’s exclusion of Baha’is from the country’s higher education system and persecution of those working at the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education.

  • Write to the Iranian Ambassador in your country calling for an end to the persecution of Baha’is in Iran.
  • Write to your country’s minister for foreign affairs expressing your abhorrence of the treatment of Baha’is in Iran’s education system and request the minister to follow this up with the Iranian government.
  • Write a letter expressing your concern about the persecution of Baha’is in Iran’s education system to the Director-General of UNESCO and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
  • If you are an academic encourage your university to consider accepting qualifications issued by the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education and give opportunities to these students to study at your institution. Use your university’s networks to express concern to Iranian universities about the Iranian government’s exclusion of Baha’i students from higher education.
  • Sign the online open letter to Iranian government leaders and officials voicing your objection to their persecution of Baha’is.

Many academics, prominent people, organisations promoting human rights and governments around the world have already expressed their objection to the exclusion of Baha’is from Iran’s higher education system – see list.  Nobel laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu and José Ramos-Horta have publicly urged the Iranian government to change their policy towards Baha’is in education.  See their open letter here and José Ramos-Horta discussing the issue here.

Further Reading

Disclosure

I became a Baha’i in 1987 and worked as a public information officer for the Australian Baha’i Community between 2003 and the beginning of 2007.

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