The Case of Arash Shahsavandi: Expelled from University for Being Baha'i

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[On Monday, 13 October 2008, the well-regarded organization “Human Rights Activists of Iran” published the following account by Arash Shahsavandi, a Baha’i student expelled from his university on account of his religion: http://www.hrairan.com/Archive_87/1114.html.  The report was file no. 87-1091; it appears below in translation. Ahang Rabbani.]

At the insistence and request of one of my friends I have agreed to retell this old tale.  Even thought this is a story with which many among my co-religionists are thoroughly familiar, it might be of interest to the esteemed reader.

Although for many expulsion from university is a rare and frightful phenomenon, for us Baha’is, who from the beginning of our education journey are confronted with every form of barrier and hindrance solely on the account of our religious convictions, this is not a strange experience at all.

This is what happened:

In September 2006, I learned that after I had participated in the national college entrance exam, I had been accepted in the Industrial Engineering major at a technical and engineering university in Gulpaygan, which in those days was known as Sharif Institute of Technology and had a well-regarded branch campus.

In the same way that the thought of attending university is most thrilling to others of my age group, for my co-religionists and I it is an unknown “monster”, since for 30 years now doors to all colleges have been so completely closed to us.  For this reason, it was clear as day to me that being admitted to university was no more than a new game played with much-wronged Baha’i teenagers such as myself.

At first I had thought that they wouldn’t even allow my initial registration at the Institute to go through, but I was wrong and my registration was processed with no hindrance.

Even though the endpoint was clear and evident to me, I decided not to give any excuse to school authorities, and avoided participation in any activity that would provoke anyone’s sensibilities.  For instance, I decided to forego residence in a college dormitory and lived in a guest-house in town.  I studied with great determination every waking minute, and all my energy and concentration were solely devoted to my studies and school work.  I thoroughly avoided any involvement in political activities or participation in protests, which was common among university students.

Despite all my worries and uncertainties, the first semester concluded with me receiving excellent grades — I was named an outstanding student.  More important, I found new friends, who, unlike the authorities, conducted interactions with me in a manner full of equity and humanity, and whose sense of justice and honesty was proven in ever-greater measure in the days that lay ahead.

In January 2007, I returned to school to register for my second semester classes.  The person in charge of registration told me that because of a problem, he had been unable to process my course selection and that I needed to refer to another school official, Mr. Bayati.  At that instant, I said to myself, “What I have been expecting has occurred. Goodbye higher education.  Goodbye industrial engineering.  Goodbye Sharif Institute of Technology.”

When I approached Mr. Bayati, he said, “Your file has a deficiency, which must be investigated and rectified.”  He told me that he would look into the matter on the following day.  It appears that the famous “Come-Back-Tomorrow” adage has reached Gulpaygan and our small college.

Of course, it was most puzzling why it took the authorities in this small college with fewer than 400 students an entire semester to discover a “deficiency” in my file – and to discover it  on the registration day for the second semester.  But I leave that to the reader’s good judgment.

After several days, Mr. Bayati finally admitted, “The deficiency in your file is related to the field for religion on the form.  It appears that you have not selected one of the four listed and acceptable religions.” [N.b. Iran’s constitution only recognizes Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christianity and Shi‘a Islam as accepted religions.]

My response was clear, “I’m not a follower of one of the four religions listed in the form, so I left that field blank.” At last, at this insistence I completed the form by writing “Baha’i” in that field.

Several days later, the decision of the university’s president, Dr. Akbari, was conveyed to me verbally: Because of my belief in the Baha’i Faith, I was no longer permitted to attend classes or register at this university.

I went to visit Dr. Akbari.  Even though previously Mr. Bayati had plainly told me that the reason for my expulsion was my membership in the Baha’i community, a different excuse was given during this meeting.  At first, for some 15 minutes, I enumerated various arguments and recited provisions of both constitutional and lesser laws regarding universal access to higher education, concluding with, “Your institution has barred me from registration and you must answer for this decision.”

His response though was only, “This is not a matter for me to interfere with.  I do not know anything about your difficulties.  You must go to the Science Ministry and ask them.”

Naturally, I went to the Science Ministry, and also to the Education Measurement and Evaluation Organization, where I paced many corridors and waiting rooms, and where I submitted many appeal letters that would be forwarded from one office to another.

At the end of this laborious and tangled process, I ended up at the office of Dr. Nurbakhsh, who is the head of instructor and student placement.  In several face-to-face meetings he suggested that he had not held back any effort on behalf of maltreated Baha’i students, so that they could regain their rights.  Of course, the evidence clearly showed the opposite.

At the end, he dashed all my hopes by saying, “You must go home now.  If an improvement in the situation should appear, we will notify you.”  Or as they say:  don’t call us, we’ll call you.

As such, one semester of study at the Engineering Institute of Technology in Gulpaygan and another semester devoted to constant journeying from Tehran to Gulpaygan ,and pacing corridors and sitting in the waiting room of the Science Ministry and its auxiliary agencies and talking with various high officials in these offices came to an end – all that has remained for me is just the memory of that time.

My country’s constitution has promised that every Iranian is entitled to higher education regardless of his personal convictions and that no Iranian would be deprived of this right on any grounds.  Yet the practice is vastly different.

However, I’m not saddened or remorseful for what has happened.  Nay, indeed, I hold my head high and am joyful that I did not sacrifice my religious belief for access to a university education – a religious belief that enjoins social and economic development and devotion to my much-loved country and service to her as an inseparable and foundational principle.

I also firmly believe that the sighs of the wronged will seize the oppressor and the Lord of Creation will not overlook the wrongs inflicted upon anyone.

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