Educational Discrimination in Iran: Denied the Right to Learn; at University of California @ Berkeley, full report



The systematic denial of education to Baha’i students in Iran has been condemned by many Governments, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s), groups and individuals. A recent event at the University of Berkeley, in the United States, considered this denial in a conference under the title of “Educational Discrimination in Iran: Denied the Right to Learn.” Below is a detailed report of this event prepared by Meghan B. Morris. Videos of the presentations can be seen in an earlier post:


Educational Discrimination in Iran: Denied the Right to Learn
by Meghan Brenna Morris
PhD Student, Social Welfare, UC, Berkeley

Berkeley, California, April 22, 2011: On a Friday evening almost a month ago, students, faculty, and community members from throughout Northern California gathered in solidarity to acknowledge an often overlooked but appalling human rights abuse that occurs in Iran: denial of the right to education. In the weeks since then, the situation has become even more urgent: On May 21, 2011, officials raided the homes of 30 people who were offering education to young Baha’is barred from higher education by the Iranian government, and some 16 people were arrested. According to the official Baha’i news service (, this is the latest attempt by the government to keep the Baha’is, Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, on the margins of society.


Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations, has stated that the Iranian authorities are “determined to make it impossible for the Baha’i community to educate its youth whose opportunities are blocked by the state.” She has explained, “This action demonstrates the lengths to which Iran is willing to go in its campaign to demoralize Baha’i youth, erode their educational hopes and eradicate the Baha’i community as a viable group within their country.”
A large number of students are denied the right to formal higher education in Iran. Those present at the April gathering came from different ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. Members of academia from the University of California, Berkeley, and from throughout Northern California comprised the audience at the event. These were not simply Iranian students showing solidarity, but Brazilians, Anglo-Americans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorians, and Afghanis. In fact, one of the emcees for the evening was a Brazilian woman, and the other an African American woman.

The presentation began with Soha, an undergraduate student majoring in political science, who provided an overview of religious persecution in Iran. Soha was born in Tehran, Iran and raised as a Baha’i. Soha’s family had to leave Iran and come to the United States due to religious persecution. They wanted her to pursue the higher education denied to her as a Baha’i. Soha concluded her remarks by addressing the severity of the current religious persecution in Iran: “This system even discriminates against Shiite Muslims themselves and only favors a very small group of clerics and government officials at the cost of persecuting many diverse Iranians.”
Zeeba, a third year Sociology and Consumer Behavior student at UC Berkeley, was the second speaker. Zeeba gave an eloquent talk on ethnic minorities in Iran. She started her speech by emphasizing Iran’s diversity: “Iran is a very diverse country with a lot of different languages, cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds. Unfortunately this isn’t respected by the government of Iran, and it is not celebrated.” She cited the unemployment rate for Baluch Iranians, five times the national average: 45% of Baluchis live below the poverty line. Zeeba explained that they also have the highest rate of illiteracy in nation.

Zeeba was followed by Tuba, who represented the Afghani students at UC Berkeley. Tuba’s presentation focused on migration patterns of Afghani refugees into Iran, and the historic discrimination of Afghanis in Iran. She also summarized the widespread institutional ethnic discrimination in all sectors of society, including education. Afghani children often cannot go to school for multiple reasons. There are approximately 400,000 Afghan children in Iran totally deprived of basic education.
Next, Farshad, a PhD student at UC Berkeley, shared his inspiring journey from Iran to the US. The audience wept at his courage and tenacity, and his incorruptible belief in his own abilities to achieve his education. Like many other young Iranian Baha’is, he was denied the right to education in his homeland. He spent his childhood and most of his adolescence in Iran, and left at 19 to come to the US. He represents a shining example of the potential of Iranian students who are given the opportunity to pursue their dreams free from the religious and ethnic persecution rampant under the current Iranian government.

The next speaker was equally compelling: Firuzeh Mahmoudi [video 1, video 2], co-founder and Executive Director of United4Iran, spoke of the history of her organization and the student rights movement in Iran. Her work focuses on networking and movement building, collaborative leadership, and NGO management. She is an alumna of UC Berkeley, where she earned Master’s Degrees in both Environmental Science and Public Affairs and a Bachelor’s in Economics. She has worked directly in more than ten countries and with partners in another thirty countries. She shared the stories of students denied the right to higher education in Iran, and also shared the stories of student activists currently imprisoned in Iran. She spoke with the classic cadence and the oratory style of a community organizer calling students to action, building solidarity and unity in the audience before her. By the end of her talk, many students in the audience felt compelled to sign on to support the current campaigns of United4Iran.
She began by explaining that United4Iran has three main pillars of activity, which work to enhance one another: networking, public awareness, and advocacy. The vision is to assist with a civil rights movement similar to that in the US and South Africa, but she predicts that the development of this movement in Iran will be slow. Yet, as a result of some of their combined efforts with other groups using these three pillars, ten of the greatest human rights abusers in Iran have been sanctioned by the US. She encouraged students to advocate for sanctions such as these.

She went on to explain that 70% of the Iranian population is under 35, telling the audience, “the vast majority of the people are young: they do not see ethnic, religious, and geographic boundaries and they have a different vision.” She spoke of the history of the student movements in Iran and explained that in July of 1999, over a week riots and activism, police arrested students and conducted violent raids on dorms. She continued by describing the 2002-2003 protests against the death sentence of a reformist lecturer, and against the government’s plans to privatize some universities. In 2005, the Office of the Consolidated Unity advocated a voting boycott. Then, from the post-election period in 2009 to the present, protests led to an increase in the number of students imprisoned.
Ms. Mahmoudi continued by providing examples of students who have been imprisoned recently. First, she gave the case of Majid Tavakoli, age 24, who was born May 22, 1986. Tavakoli was a student at Tehran’s Amirkabir Polytechnic University of Technology. He gave a speech at his campus in 2009, and was arrested shortly after. He was sentenced to 8 years, 6 months in prison, and will not be released until his early thirties; he also received an additional 5-year ban on political activity and will not be allowed to leave the country.
The next example she gave was Bahareh Hedayat, a 30-year-old woman, born on April 5, 198. Ms. Hedayat is a women’s rights activist, a student activist, and one of the founders of the One Million Signature/Change for Equality campaign. Ms. Mahmoudi describes her as incredibly brave. She was arrested for making a ten minute video, for which she received a Peace Award from one of the Student Unions for whom the video was produced. She was arrested and sentenced to 9½ years in prison. She was recently married, and “instead of being wither family will end up spending most of her 30s not raising her kids, but behind prison walls.”
Ms. Mahmoudi then outlined the present number of prisoners and their situation: 74 students remain in prison; close to 10 of these students have reported being raped, tortured or forced to give false confessions. The conditions in the prisons are horrific: they are malnourished and there is no medical support when it’s needed. “They’re overcrowded and much more, and students are more severely treated than others and I believe that’s because they are the Achilles’ heels of the regime. Their vision of Iran is completely different and they put a different twist on it, and they fight for it and the regime knows it, and it’s just a matter of time before they win their country back and the regime knows it and they fight back by severely punishing them.”
She further explained that the judges that are sentencing give “horrific sentences” that are “decades long, if not more, and no one is holding them accountable.” She described “prison guards who are torturing and raping students. No one is asking questions. You basically have militia thugs that are going into the dorms and beating up and killing students and none of this is being accounted for, talked about and or addressed in any way…the situation is becoming more systematized which is not a good thing. Specifically, this is all targeted, as has been discussed at religious minorities, ethnic minorities, in particular, the Baha’is and anyone who is politically active: part of a news group, student group, part of a newspaper, any of those things.
“So, what they are doing is they are depriving them of school, of graduate school, they are banning our resources such as subsidized dorm rooms, and student loans and so forth. They are holding the suspension and expulsion of students over their heads. They are punishing them with it and threatening them to keep them quiet. It doesn’t just stop there with the students. The professors and the academics that stand up, who voice their concerns and want to teach humanities and want to see the students have their basic academic rights are also being targeted. They’re forced to leave their jobs early, to retire; they’re demoted. They’re attacked, and so forth.”

Ms. Mahmoudi went on to describe in detail the admissions process for universities in Iran. Initially, the process involved one rigorous test, called “Konkoor.” Students studied for months, if not years. It dictated what city and what major and what university students would enroll in.
She then explained the “star system” to the Berkeley audience. This system targets the active groups previously mentioned: religious minorities, as well as the politically active. For these groups, the star system determines whether they are permitted to attend graduate school or not. Currently, there are hundreds of people who are “starred.” Ms. Mahmoudi estimated that there may be more than that but that people are “quiet about it. They don’t want to risk persecution. They also don’t want to risk the chance of maybe it being reversed so they are fairly quiet about it.” In March 2009, after many protests, the government claimed it would stop using the star system, but it nevertheless continues to do so.
Ms. Mahmoudi described the way in that the Ministry of Information and Ministry of Research Technology and Science work together to create a file on all students. These files have the number of stars in them, which depend on the level of activity of each student. Based on the number of stars, their future is determined: “one star means you’re reprimanded. You have to sign a letter and you can continue to work but they continue watching you. Two stars mean you may or may not be able to continue. Your file is considered incomplete, and if you continue, two stars mean you may or may not be able to continue. If you are continued, they are really closely watching you. You could quickly be asked to leave the schools.
“Most of the public schools in Iran don’t cost anything. However, if you are expelled from schools for such reasons you are forced to pay back the tuition. Three stars means that you are not allowed to go to graduate school in Iran ever, period.”

She continued by describing the discrimination faced by women in Iran: “We know that, and the university area is no exception to that rule. So if women dress or act in ways that are not culturally appropriate — having a boyfriend for example — they would be reprimanded or suspended from school for a semester or two.” She described the segregation of schools: women usually have different rooms for public areas and for lecture halls, and these tend to be smaller. As a consequence they also tend to be more crowded and have less adequate facilities. Ms. Mahmoudi believes the greatest form of discrimination toward women in the arena of education is admission because there is a quota for the number of men that have to enter schools. She explained that “often women with better scores will not get in, and their fellow male counterparts get in with lower scores.
Ms. Mahmoudi concluded by explaining the human rights that the Iranian Government has breached. Iran has accepted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and both major international human rights treaties: the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Iran has signed both of these, which means that they approve it, and they have ratified both of these, which means that they are legally obligated to follow these treaties. Ms. Mahmoudi explained that the Iranian government has breached their obligations in many ways. “Here are some of the ways that are relevant to the academic setting: freedom of expression, freedom of association, belief, religion, privacy, right to participation in public forums, gatherings and protests; freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention; right to due process and fair trials; freedom from torture; from movement – that means being able to leave Iran, right to membership and participation.”


The next speaker was Dr. Farhad Sabetan [video 1, video 2], who is the spokesperson of the Bahá’í International Community (BIC). The Bahá’í International Community represents the five million-member Bahá’í community at the international level. He is also a lecturer of economics at California State University. Dr. Sabetan spoke of the solidarity that Baha’is feel with other ethnic groups and religious minorities who are also facing educational discrimination in Iran, particularly those denied access to universities and some secondary schools. He explained to the audience the importance of NGOs, journalists, human rights activists, and the Iranian diaspora in advocating for the students who are in Iran and are denied the right to matriculate into universities.
He stated that his goal was to explain the “pathology of the discrimination.” “When a country deprives its young generation of access to education, at least two things happen: first of all, just imagine that all of us sitting here don’t have access to education. Without that education, the immediate impact is that we cannot find jobs. Essentially there will be unskilled jobs available that we could do, but that is not what the country is about. If you cannot have a job, this means that if you cannot sustain yourself economically, that means it would be very impossible or difficult, if not impossible, to form a family. If we cannot form a family, then very cleverly, the government has uprooted the basic structure of the society”.
Dr. Sabetan explained that this “very simple manipulation” transforms the nature of the society. Essentially, it creates a class that “is not educated, cannot sustain itself, it cannot form a family, and many of them, of course, have to leave the country.”
He also explained the significance of the government preventing students from studying the social sciences. He asked the audience to imagine the outcome if a good percentage of the student bodies became familiar with the latest political theories, with the latest sociological theories, economic theories. If that were to occur, students would likely raise questions as to why it is that the government is “creating a predominantly Islamic society of a very particular brand, of a very particular strand.” “So, the implications actually could go very far.”
Dr. Sabetan characterized this denial of education as “arbitrary,” because it is based on the regime’s particular prejudices, but also “systematic”: “It is predetermined. It is calculated. It is premeditated and it is a systematic campaign to deprive a certain educated class of progressing in higher education.”

Amir Reyahi was presented as an example. He was sent to prison on April 13 of this year. He was a member Islamic Society of the Ferdos University of Mashhad. He is accused of propaganda against the Regime, supporting illegal organizations, and committing acts against the Islamic Republic of Iran. He and many other students in Mashhad were sentenced en mass. In Iran they call it “Mohakemeye Faleyee,” a “group sentencing.”
Dr. Sabetan asked the audience to “imagine a court like this, and all of you who are sitting there; you are accused, and obviously you cannot have your attorney sitting next to you – so all of you would be tried all at the same time in front of the judge. Now, Iranian attorneys have specifically stated that such a sentencing is completely against the Iranian Constitution, and Iranian civil laws. In another words, each defendant has to have a separate lawyer; has to be defended separately. But these trials, specifically of the students, are happening en mass. Suddenly all of them are accused of these allegations that I mentioned and they are sentenced”.
His next example comes from last year (2010), in a university in Babol, where Moein Islami Jam, Farshid Satarifar, Jalalodin Sadeghi, and Mohamad Askari were all deprived of access to education for very similar charges. Sabetan stated that, “some of these people have been tortured, abused, interrogated”.
He then explained in more detail how theses arrests are very systematic: “Consider this: I managed to look at the articles of that very council I mentioned. This is the Revolutionary Supreme Cultural Council of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and it has certain articles and this is number one: [that] universities should become Islamic…Islamic values should be preserved, and all kinds of manifestations of the backward cultural aspects of the West should be removed, and anything that is against Islam which originates from foreign cultures has to be removed. The rest of it goes about the structure of the Cultural Council and so on and so forth. These two principles apparently have remained [after] all these years…. Kamran Daneshjou, the Minister of Higher Education, has repeatedly declared, ‘Universities are no place for secular professors and those who do not believe.’”

The same blueprint document that the Islamic Regime used to discriminate against Baha’is is now used to justify discrimination against other religious minorities, and to anyone whose opinions and beliefs are against that of the standard “Twelver” Shiite Islam of the sort that believes in Velayate Faghih (rule by clerics, or theocracy). It says Baha’is can be enrolled in schools provided they have not identified themselves as Baha’is.
According to this policy, Baha’is should preferably be enrolled in schools which have a strong and imposing religiousideology. They must be expelled from universities either in the admission process or during the course of their studies once it becomes known they are Baha’is. “First of all [Baha’is] were not even allowed to take the exam as of 2003; they definitely couldn’t take the exam. Because of the pressure by UNESCO in 2003, [Iran] finally removed that question about one’s religion. So they went and took the exam, but when they were actually going to go and enroll in universities, then they were prevented at that stage.”
Then, in the year 2006, the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology wrote a general letter to 81 universities in Iran officially expelling the Baha’is or denying them access to education. Some of the students who went to these universities asked what the legal justification was for this denial of education. Some of the students were shown the actual letter:
Respectfully, we inform you that in accordance with decree number 1327/M/S, dated 6/12/69
[25 February 1991], issued by the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council and the notification
of the responsible authorities of the Intelligence Office, if Bahá’í individuals, at the time of
enrollment at university, or in the course of their studies, are identified as Bahá’ís, they must be expelled from university. Therefore, it is necessary to take measures to prevent the further studies of the aforementioned individuals and forward a follow-up report to this Office.
Aṣghar Zári‘í [Asghar Zarei]
Director General of the Central Security Office
A similar letter was written on November 2, 2006, and sent to four provinces in Iran:
To the Honourable Directors of all the Centres,
With respect, according to the ruling of the Cultural Revolutionary Council and the instructions
of the Ministry of Information and the Head Protection Office of the Central Organization of
Payám-i-Núr University, Bahá’ís cannot enroll in universities and higher education centres.
Therefore, such cases if encountered should be reported, their enrolment should be strictly
avoided, and if they are already enrolled they should be expelled.
Confirmation comes from God alone.
Yet another letter was issued on March 17, 2007:
From the Office of Ministry of Science, Research and Technology to theEsteemed president of Payám-i-Núr University, Province of Sístán and Balúchistán
Pursuant to the letter, reference M/12/H/37870 (meaning the previous letter that I just mentioned), from the university’s Central Security Office
concerning the non-enrolment of Bahá’í students, given that the period of enrolment for
Farágírán [Farageeran, students taking preparatory courses] is commencing in the next few
days, please issue the necessary instructions to prevent the enrolment of the Bahá’í applicants
for the Farágír [Farageer, preparatory] courses, and, furthermore, have the names of such
applicants submitted to this Office for its use….
Dr. Sabetan explained, “Now not only they are preventing the Baha’is from entering universities; when they do enter, they are collecting information about them so that they would use these names in the online registration. So when Baha’i students would go to register, some of them without even wanting to mention their religion, they are pre-recognized. So some of the students actually sent us webpages that would come back with an error message….an error message that would not register them.”
Dr. Sabetan continued, “When I examined the actual webpage, at the top of the error message it noted ‘error = BAH.’ So, ‘BAH’ is obviously the first three letters of Baha’i which means someone actually coded it, that this student has been identified as Baha’i, and if prompted, as such, you need to tell then that this is an error message about registration which is of course indicated that this is completely systematic.
“Finally, just very recently, about a week ago or so, the Keyhan newspaper wrote an article with an appalling surprise that an open university in Iran has now recognized the Baha’i religion as a religion, and therefore they should be reprehended for doing so. In other words, apparently in one university in Kermanshah, where students were actually given the option to take the entrance exam: Islam, Christianity, Judaism Zoroastrianism, Baha’i. Because they actually included the option, they have now been identified by the Ministry of Information (and now it is in the media) that they have violated the Iranian Constitution.”
Dr. Sabetan said that many more documents exist but that all of these essentially demonstrate that discrimination in education is systematic, and targeted at anyone who thinks in ways that are not approved by the regime: “they could be politically active; they could be reformers; they could be atheists; they could be anything as soon as it is recognized that they are following a different ideology than the standard understanding of Islam, and because the universities are supposed to be Islamized then they are deprived from the right to education. So it is our hope that with our knowledge and these kinds of activity that we could do we could put an end to this by our active participation and knowledge of this.”
Dr. Sabetan was followed by Parham Holakouee, a PhD student at UC Berkeley, with a degree in Law from Columbia University. He provided an outline of the limitations of international law in defending educational rights, and the crucial role played by NGOs and human rights groups in changing the human rights landscape in Iran for students there.
The final words spoken that evening inspired students to rise up in solidarity. In that same moment, images of their fellow students in Iran burned into their memories as they flashed onto the screen in the lecture hall: images of young students, of activists with dreams of justice and peace, just like themselves.
-Meghan Brenna Morris
PhD Student, Social Welfare, UC, Berkeley


3 Responses

  1. Meghan Brenna Morris

    June 12, 2011 6:30 pm

    Thank you Owen, for this wonderful response! Yes, Germany, France, the UK, and many other NGOS like Human Rights Watch, and others have come out in support of human rights, particularly civil and education rights for Baha’is and other religious minorities. Just to specify, though, this was not a conference at UC Berkeley, but actually just an evening event. It was a chance for the academic and human rights community to unite across religious and ethnic lines and share information, experiences and support for human rights of all minorities in Iran. This was the beauty of the event which was co-sponsored by the Berkeley Baha’i Club, United4Iran, and the Berkeley Baha’i Community. We love that the event WAS so united and created this sense of solidarity. You would have LOVED it, Owen!


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