Education for All? Not in Iran

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Iran is refusing to implement UNESCO’s education agenda. The country’s religious leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, views it as a Western conspiracy. In doing so he’s discriminating against women and minorities like the Baha’i.

A profound disappointment. The reform-oriented and recently re-elected president, Hassan Rouhani, has capitulated. A member of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, it was he after all who approved the decision not to implement the UNESCO education agenda in Iran.

Many Iranians tweeted comments such as: “Rouhani said: I will forgo many things, but not the Education 2030 agenda. Today, as chairman of the Council of the Cultural Revolution, he definitively scrapped the agenda’s action plan.”

The global Education 2030 agenda was approved by ministers from all over the world in 2015. The Iranian government, led by President Rouhani, also signed on. Signatories committed themselves to – among other things – guaranteeing access to education for all people, irrespective of age, sex and religion. The Education Agenda is one of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

For Iran’s most senior political and religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, this is tantamount to a conspiracy. “What was conceived as sustainable development is merely a plan to spread Western values and culture throughout the world,” Khamenei declared abruptly last spring, shortly before the presidential election. He sharply criticized Rouhani for his cooperation with UNESCO. Iran would “not bow” to the UNESCO education agenda, said Khamenei. Rouhani responded that the religious leader had been wrongly informed – the agenda would be adapted to the Islamic culture of Iranian society.

Unlike the Baha’i people, religious minorities like Jews and Christians are protected in Iran

This was the start of a battle between the government and the conservative opposition for and against the UNESCO education agenda, which has ended with the aforementioned defeat for Rouhani. Khamenei, who has the last word on everything in Iran, declared tersely, “We ourselves know best what’s good for us!’

Angry Iranians gave free rein to their sarcasm on social media. “The religious leader doesn’t like the Education 2030 agenda because it was written in the West. What he’s happy to take from the West are ballistic missiles, nuclear energy and cranes for public executions,” tweeted one user.

Baha’i banned from studying

For many Iranians, the rejection of the education agenda has tangible consequences. “Our children are not allowed to study. Since the Islamic Revolution in Iran this has been forbidden to all adherents of the Baha’i religion,” said Simin Fahandej in an interview with DW. Fahandej is the spokesperson for the international Baha’i community at the UN in Geneva. The Baha’i are one of the biggest religious minorities in Iran. There are no official statistics, but Iranian media estimates that there are between 40,000 and 300,000 Baha’i in the country.

Other religious minorities, such as Zoroastrians, Mandaeans, Jews and Christians, who make up 2 percent of the country’s 80 million people, are protected in Iran. However, the Iranian government does not recognize Bahaism as a religion, because its founder, Baha’u’llah, lived after the Prophet Muhammad, whom Muslims believe was the last of the prophets. The Islamic Republic regards Baha’u’llah’s followers as apostates, and subjects them to numerous forms of repression.

After the Iranian government rejected the action framework of the Education Agenda, activists posted photos online of Baha’i people who were executed in 1983 on account of their faith. One of the photos shows 17-year-old Mona Mahmudnizhad. She taught children who had had to leave school because they were Baha’i. For this, she was condemned to death.

Women are barred from majoring in numerous subjects at Iranian universities

“In 1993 a secret Iranian government memorandum found its way into the public domain. It said that the Baha’i should be kept illiterate and uneducated. The Iranian authorities don’t want to change that,” said Fahandej.

Discussion of women’s rights is banned

Women are also discriminated against in matters of education. The UNESCO agenda’s demand that they be granted equal rights also provoked fierce debate in Iran. The UNESCO Education 2030 Agenda aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, and the regime hardliners don’t like that one bit.

“As soon as people start talking about women and their rights, all conversations and any kind of cooperation are over,” Farideh, a women’s rights activist, told DW. “The rulers see any kind of discussion about women’s rights as an attack on their culture.”

Farideh is one of the activists who started an initiative for women to have equal status under Iranian law – the “One Million Signatures Campaign for Women’s Rights.” Many of her associates, like the human rights activist and journalist Narges Mohammadi, are now in jail. Many of them also supported President Rouhani in the election, because he promised equal rights for women. He frequently spoke out against segregation of the sexes in universities, giving rise to hope that he would put an end to gender-specific education. Iranian women students are currently excluded from majoring in 77 subjects, such as accountancy and engineering.

“There could be many advantages for us in working with UNESCO,” said Farideh. “We don’t have to implement every item; the Iranian government isn’t obliged to do this, anyway. But we could have greatly improved our education system through this international exchange.”


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