“Illegal” Education Triumphs Over Religious Persecution

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In late June 2012, a professor at Georgia State University (USA), offered to have his public relations class write articles for Education Under Fire. At the beginning of July, his students began a series of interviews with various individuals associated with the BIHE and Education Under Fire. Here is the first…

Illegal” Education Triumphs Over Religious Persecution

Morgan Scroggs, Public Relations Student, Georgia State University
an interview with BIHE administrator and former student Mojdeh Rohani

A group of students are seated, scattered around a small living room. Barely a sound is made as they collectively pray and make the decision to take their test without the supervision of their teacher. They diligently begin, and not one considers cheating or asking a fellow student for answers. They are not motivated by grade point average, scholarship money, or a degree conferral. They attend class in different homes each day, never know who their professors are, and have no official recognition or accreditation. The threat of being discovered, arrested, or even tortured lurks just outside the door of the livingroom they sit in. This is education for the sake of pure knowledge. Mojdeh Rohani remembers the moment as a deep experience. To her, it proved that education was the sole reward as a student in theBaha’i Institute for Higher Education – a university that was, and still is, illegal in the eyes of the Iranian government. Mojdeh is a Baha’i and a former student of the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education – an underground university of makeshift classrooms and volunteer professors in Iran. She attended the university from 1989 to 1995, and suffered constant persecution and oppression from the Iranian government as did countless other families and youth of the Baha’i.

Her voice is friendly, but reserved. Having been in the United States over ten years now, she speaks perfect English with a poignancy and attention to detail that many native speakers have not even mastered. “I was a psychology major. If I had a choice, I would have gone to university for medicine. To become a doctor was my first choice, but of course that wasn’t possible. You could study biology, but I knew that down the line there was not an option for me to be a physician. What came closest for me to being a physician and being able to help people was psychology.”

Education has always been important to her. Under the threat of being arrested, tortured, or even executed, Mojdeh pursued her undergraduate degree in secret from the Iranian government. She shared the experience with many of her childhood friends, choosing to attain knowledge and a future denied them by an Islamic government that persecuted those of her faith. “Just to be a student at BIHE was dangerous; it was dangerous for everyone involved. Basically we did not have permission from the government because the government did not want the Baha’i youth to be educated.”

The Iranian government meant to destroy the Baha’i community. After the revolution in 1979, the government began systematically persecuting the Baha’i community for their beliefs in universal peace and progressive religion. Mojdeh, then seven years old, remembered how her family – and the families of her friends and relatives – suffered confiscation of property, dismissal from employment, arrest, and execution for their beliefs.

“We started to see what would happen – schools were out for many months during the revolution, boys and girls were separated in schools, and then the war broke out between Iran and Iraq shortly afterward. This affected, of course, all Iranians, but we had additional layers of being persecuted for our religious beliefs, and the denial of education was just one of the things that the Baha’i’s were deprived of as youth.”  Baha’is could not work; they were all released from their jobs. Property was confiscated, as well as money. “For my own family – and many others – my father was a member of the administrative body of the Baha’i Faith. It was a group of nine people. Many of this group were arrested and executed; my father was one of them.”

Mojdeh’s determination to be educated and to overcome the oppression shown towards her faith led her to join the underground university, and shaped her decision to pursue a degree that would allow her to be of service others. She began to question her life, her happiness, success and future. “All of those things lose meaning and then you create new meaning for yourself – I guess at least, that’s how it was for me. It very much affected the choices I made in life – to be a part of human rights work, not just for my own group and my own experience. I think if we only focus on what matters to us, we cannot make a difference in the world. It really makes a difference for us to think of everyone’s issue as if it was our own, and hopefully this way we can make a change, or a dent.” The simple act of spending time with friends became something important. Mojdeh played piano and started a music therapy program during her time in the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education. She found happiness in helping others, and worked hard to make that part of her life. “When you live in a situation like I did, every little thing you have you take advantage of it – and you don’t take it for granted. It wasn’t the mentality that I am the victim here, though in many ways we were being victimized, it gave us more a perspective of a survivor. We bonded together and appreciated just what we could get. You create something for yourself, you knew you were doing something important. Those type of activities and work gave me happiness.”

Although the Institute did not have a graduate degree program at the time, Mojdeh knew she wanted to continue her education. Eventually, she was able to travel to Cyprus as an escort for her mother who had spent two years attaining a medical passport. Mojdeh remained in Cyprus for eight months while her mother traveled to the United States for treatment. Finally, at the age of 23, she decided to apply for asylum. She volunteered with the Red Cross to help with other cases of Iranians seeking refuge, and then spent another four months in Austria before coming to the U.S. Mojdeh applied to five American universities, using her transcript from the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education and a personal essay about her experiences there. She was accepted to all of them. She chose a master’s program in social work from Boston University.

“The outcome will be good. I do not know if it will be in our lifetime. There will be a lot of pain and agony before we do, but hopefully we will get there. I think what matters to me always is that about 20,000 Baha’i’s have been killed, and if something matters that much to people who were so successful and accomplished in life, but they were willing to give their lives for … I would just encourage others to see what it is that we see, and how we can reach the ultimate goal of peace and learning to live together.” Mojdeh now teaches as an adjunct professor in a proper classroom. She coordinates a program for refugees and immigrants that want to pursue education in social work, and works full-time at a non-profit organization where she manages a torture treatment program. The threats of arrest and torture no longer lurk outside her classroom door.

For questions and comments, email us at [email protected].

Source: Education Under Fire newsletter, 18 Oct. 2012



One Response

  1. Esteban

    October 25, 2012 9:42 pm

    First of all, my first objective was aocmplished. It was to gerate some polemics here.But, maybe the content went down the river. When I read that “You might want to rethink what you are trying to say here.”, “Most people will read this as a “chickens coming home to roost” comment. And I have to say, it’s hard to read it in any other sort of way.”and “And right now you are something of an elephant in a porcelain shop.” and “Conservative Swede is right. If you want to rant about that issue, do it somewhere else.” I start thinking twice wether it wasn’t a better idea to be quiet.The phrase in question is: “Jews are not especial for being Jews, and I firmly believe that if Chinese people did what the Jews have done, they would met an Hitler and an Arafat as well.”And it may not have been a good cathing phrase. I want to state clear is that I meant that if any other people were to be found in that situations, they would have had the same treatment. Both in Nazi Germany and Palestine. And a


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