Why These Women Are Graduating In Secret

Photo: Joao Silas
On 22nd October, members of the Baha’i faith celebrated the bicentennial of Baha’u’llah, the religion’s Iranian founder, whose core teachings have, over the years, appealed to and attracted many followers from around the globe. The Baha'i religion, which more than seven million people now follow, rests on the principles of equality of all religions, the equality of the sexes, and the oneness of humankind. While every Baha'i has a personal relationship with God and follows an individual spiritual path through life, the religion also requires individuals to contribute towards the betterment of society, community and civilisation in different ways, which include promoting education for all.
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In Iran, though, that tenet holds no value: Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Baha’i – Iran’s largest religious minority, but one that isn’t recognised as such – have been banned from accessing higher education by the government of the Islamic Republic. Considered a political sect, and therefore a potential threat to the Republic, Baha’is in Iran have been systematically discriminated against and persecuted in different ways, and their only recourse to university studies is the Baha’i Institute of Higher Education (BIHE), a unique institution founded in 1987 to give young Baha’i the opportunity to study.
“We call BIHE the least known but longest running institution for peaceful resistance,” says Saleem Vaillancourt, one of the executive producers of a new documentary entitled Changing the World, One Wall at a Time, which features actor Mark Ruffalo. The film chronicles Education Is Not A Crime – the world’s largest street art and human rights campaign, which raises awareness about the education apartheid against the Baha’i by the Iranian government.
From correspondence courses to in-home classrooms and online instruction in a range of subjects – most of them taught by former professors who lost their jobs after 1979 – the BIHE has helped many young Baha’is get their undergraduate degrees and go overseas for their graduate studies. More importantly, though, it is an example of the great resilience of a community that faces persistent persecution on many different fronts in Iran, even as the Baha’i religion continues to gain new followers across the globe.
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“BIHE is a university that doesn’t have any actual building – it runs solely through the commitment and dedication of the Baha’i community in Iran,” says Sepideh, a BIHE graduate who now lives in London (her name has been changed for this article because she still travels back to Iran, where her family lives). “It has an excellent standard and I would compare it to any UK university.”
Sepideh, who majored in biology, had some of her classes in the home of a former university professor in Tehran. The professor, who was fired from his job like other Baha’i academics after the 1979 revolution, would serve the students tea and cakes, she says, and he loved having them in his home, even as it saddened him that they were forced to study behind closed doors, in constant fear of being caught doing what they were forbidden to do: learn.
Over the years, BIHE has benefited from increasing international support, and today, hundreds of accredited professors from universities outside Iran provide it with research, teaching and consulting services. BIHE graduates are accepted at close to 100 universities across the globe, and are pursuing graduate studies in the US and Canada, in Europe, Australia and India.
“BIHE is exemplary and truly demonstrates the Iranian Baha’i community’s dedication to knowledge and education,” says Vaillancourt.
But that commitment comes at a high cost – to BIHE, its students and the Iranian Baha’i, not least because since its inception, the Iranian government has systematically sought to dismantle the BIHE.
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“I entered BIHE the year the government invaded the university for the first time,” Sepideh recalls. “They invaded 500 Baha’i homes, smashing computers, breaking down lab equipment and so on. I was particularly disappointed to lose the lab facilities, which I really enjoyed.”
Of course, the resilience of the Baha’i community in Tehran is such that the lab was rebuilt, and BIHE has continued to operate. But there’s no telling when the Iranian government can carry out a raid, says Zarine (not her real name), a BIHE graduate currently studying for her master’s degree at a university in the US. There’s no telling who will be arrested – students, teachers, regular citizens – and when.
“As Baha’i in Iran, we’ve always been discriminated against,” says Zarine. “I remember being called an ‘infidel’ in elementary school, being told I was dirty, not clean.”
The continued marginalisation of the community has also taken a major economic toll: It is nearly impossible for Baha’i to get jobs and launching a business is also extremely tough, Zarine says. Baha’i from smaller cities and towns in Iran often have no choice but to come to Tehran and try to make ends meet by selling fruits and vegetables. “In their towns, no one will buy from them, because people know they are Baha’i,” Zarine says. “We Baha’is in Tehran try to help them.”
In the bicentennial year, Vaillancourt hopes that Changing the World, One Wall at a Time can help to bring about greater awareness of the discrimination against the Baha’i in Iran, an issue that he says has only been sporadically addressed as a global human rights problem.
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That the film – which has now been screened in over 100 colleges in the US and premiered at the Harlem International Film Festival in May – showcases street art in order to raise awareness of education apartheid is powerful, he says, since “street art hits the right kind of imagery to create hashtags and it becomes a talking point for communities.”
In September, the Iranian government released celebrated Baha’i poet Mahvash Sabet, who was jailed in 2008 and who was jointly awarded this year's PEN Pinter Prize with Northern Irish poet Michael Longley. But while the move grabbed the attention of media worldwide, it is not likely to herald any significant change for Iranian Baha’i.
“While it would seem that society in Iran is changing, the government, sadly, has not changed at all,” says Vaillancourt. “President Hassan Rouhani, who was re-elected to a second term in May, came into office promising new protections for civic rights and women’s rights, but while some still believe we’ll see change, so far there has been little progress on those fronts.”
Nevertheless, despite the harshness they face in Iran and the constant fear they live with, many BIHE graduates prefer to return to Iran after getting their master’s degrees overseas, rather than making new lives in other countries. A large number end up joining BIHE, says Zarine, to teach the next generation of Baha’i. She herself plans to return to Tehran after finishing her studies, to advocate for her community and raise awareness of their plight.
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