The academic year is underway again, and once again Bahai’s are being denied their right to higher education.
Among those who have been prevented from continuing their education this year are Farid Rastegar, Mahyareh Nedaf, Afsaneh Asadnejad, Nowgol Zakerian, Ava Amini and Pourya Ighanian, who have all qualified for university but were told in mid-September they will not be allowed to go to university on grounds of their applications being “incomplete.”
Many Baha’i young men and women choose not to take entrance exams, fully aware that an unwritten law dictates that they will be blocked from pursuing higher education.
But public statements by Mohammad Javad Larijani, Secretary-General of the Iranian Judiciary’s High Council for Human Rights, deny discrimination exists. “Based on the constitution, the Islamic Republic authorities recognize the rights of Iranian citizens and support these rights,” he told the Iranian Labour News Agency in April this year.
Mahyareh Nedaf from Mashhad took university entrance exams this year to study business administration, communications, information technology and tourism management at the University of Tehran. But when she arrived at the Educational Testing Organization on September 9, she was informed that no decision had been reached about her application.
“The moment I entered the room the employees looked at each other and smiled.” Nedaf was told that “there were a thousand or two thousand people” in the same situation. “The final results will be published on their site on September 17. He implied that I should not expect anything,” Nedaf says. But she was also told that a decision might be reached in a month — though university classes are due to begin before then.
Nedaf asked for written documentation for her application, but was refused. She made sure she took a photograph of the form she had been given, which authorities eventually took off her.
Nedaf was told she could try to contact the head of the organization, a Mr. Nourbakhsh based in Tehran. Nedaf says she would be willing to travel to Tehran to discuss her application. She spoke to several other Baha’i students who had similar experiences.
In 2007, Baha’i student Sepehr Atefi was banned from university — he was told his application was “incomplete”. It led him to become an activist, fighting discrimination in education, in collaboration with the Committee of Human Rights Reporters, set up in March 2006 by university students, and also through other initiatives.
“When the results of the entrance exams were published, at first I really thought that my file was defective,” Atefi told IranWire. “Then I contacted a Baha’i friend and realized that what they meant by it was that I had been banned from education.” It was at this point that he realized that his experience was shared by many Baha’i students on an annual basis.
This is just one tactic authorities use to keep Baha’is out of further eduction. Others are allowed entry only to be expelled on trumped-up charges after a semester. Still others are simply denied registration.
Nedaf, who was born in 1978, began her pursuit of higher education in the late 1990s. But even before this, she encountered discrimination. In one case, her family moved to a new town and she was told he would not be allowed to enter school there.
But this year she hoped things might be different. “I was more hopeful and more motivated. I carefully answered all the questions. But the day that the results were announced they sent me a letter and told me that because my application was defective, I must write a letter to the Educational Testing Organization.”
In Atefi’s case, he appealed not only to the Educational Testing Organization, but also to MPs and religious leaders. “I sent numerous letters to the offices of the president and the Supreme Leader. They all asked if I belonged to a religious minority.” He said the issue of educational discrimination was being reviewed by parliament. Some authorities accepted that the exclusion of Atefi and others was wrong. “But the order is coming from the top,” they told him.
Atefi continues to raise awareness about what he calls the the wider “painful discriminations” against Baha’is. Baha’is, he says, are subject to persecution on a daily basis — “on the street, when looking for a job or in education.”
“It was in high school where I first seriously experienced discrimination. All students were expected to follow the same religious routine. Everybody had to start the morning with the Koran, then had to participate in group prayers at noon. They had to say, ‘Peace be upon Him [Prophet Mohammad]’ many times a day, every day.”
Baha’is are willing to learn about Islam and the Koran, Atefi says. But problems arise when teachers of these classes spend lessons insulting the Baha’i faith. And according to Nedaf, “Islam does not deny anybody knowledge and education because of their beliefs.”
Nedaf describes discrimination against Baha’is as forced “social deprivations.” Baha’is are often denied passports and so cannot leave Iran. “Our marriage contracts are not officially recognized and sometimes we cannot even register marriages. We [she and her husband] had to try for seven years before our marriage was registered.”
Mahyareh Nedaf speaks of the talent, expertise and commitment wasted because of the education ban against Baha’is. “We are born in the same land and we are its human capital. If the ban continues, this capital will be wasted.”
She describes university as a “sacred place,” and the quest for education as central to her life. “The yearning for education never leaves me. I am not able to express my true feelings about being denied what I love. I really am in love with learning.”
There have always been people who have supported Baha’is’ right to learn, says Atefi, though they rarely show this support publicly. He remembers a fifth grade teacher who did his best to make sure Atefi was able to learn.
Given the level of discrimination against Baha’is, it is easy to see why some might feel tempted to abandon the faith. “The truth is that being a Baha’i is a choice for each Baha’i,” says Atefi. “Searching for truth and choosing religion and beliefs is up to the individual, and nobody can pressure anyone else and impose his own beliefs.”
For Baha’i women, Atefi says, it can be even more difficult. “In a society where women are surrounded with discriminatory laws and traditions, naturally Baha’i women are under more pressure. One of the basic teachings of the Baha’is is equal rights for men and women; it invites women to participate and be active in society. Baha’i women — like other Iranian women — want to be educated, be active and be free to achieve these goals.”
There has been a shift in society, says Atefi, and Baha’is are more widely accepted than they have been in the past. “Fortunately, I never lost a friend because I was a Baha’i. Sometimes there were misunderstandings about Baha’is and their beliefs but they were cleared up after we talked. I think that in recent years ordinary people believe less in the propaganda by the Islamic Republic media.”
Nedaf agrees that attitudes have changed. “A lot of my fellow citizens have sincerely expressed regret and sympathy. It is really not like before.”
“Now that the goodwill of the Baha’i community has been proven, I hope the government of Iran will take positive steps in this regard. In spite of all the pressures and the arrests during all these years, the Baha’is have shown that they obey the laws.”
But the power of this propaganda is still strong. “Prejudices that have taken hold over the years are not going to disappear so easily,” says Atefi. “There are still people who believe that their fellow citizens must be discriminated against — and some of them are on the frontline of imposing these discriminations.”
“Like any other human being I dream of a world where nobody is judged by his faith, where people of every faith have equal opportunity for education and that god created this earth for all human beings and that we are equally entitled to life, education and choice.”