Baha’i World News Service, GENEVA: Like many young people the world over, Shohreh Rowhani grew up with high hopes of a good university education. But now she has run up against a system which – while promising opportunity on the surface – is cruelly designed to block her and other young Iranians from ever getting a degree.
Ms. Rowhani is a Baha’i, and her experience is made all the more unjust by the fact that she is among Iran’s most gifted students; she ranked 151 in the country after passing the national university exam in her chosen field of languages. In other words, her result put her among the top 1% of candidates who took the exam.
Buoyed by her impressive grades, Ms. Rowhani – who comes from the northern Iranian city of Nowshahr – began the online process of selecting her courses. But when the results of those applications were listed, she discovered that her submission had been rejected as an “incomplete file.”
It is a phrase well known to young Baha’is. For several years now, the term has appeared frequently as one among several ruses crafted to prevent them from actually matriculating even if they pass the national university exams.
Undeterred, Ms. Rowhani courageously went to the regional office that oversees the examination process and asked officials to explain what was wrong.
“They told me that this has happened because you are a Baha’i,” she reported in a letter recently sent to several human rights organizations.
“Since you are a Baha’i you do not have the right to enter university,” she was told.
She decided to take her case to the next level, managing to get a meeting with the head of the admissions department.
When confronted, this official simply “expressed his regret for this matter and told me that there is nothing he can do,” said Ms. Rowhani. “He said there is no way out of this and even if you enter university you would be expelled after three or four terms.”
She asked him if the results would have been different if she had said she was a Muslim.
“He said it makes no difference, as they know you,” she wrote. “‘The ministry of intelligence has identified your family and all of the Baha’is already.'”
“They told me that I will not get any result, no matter who I might refer to,” she said.
The experience of Shohreh Rowhani is also a familiar story for thousands of Baha’is in Iran who are barred from higher education on religious grounds.
Even for the fortunate ones who might be offered a place, expulsion often follows during the course of their studies. In recent months, two students at the Isfahan University of Technology were prevented from registering for the next term, also for having “incomplete documents;” a Baha’i studying English literature was thrown out of the University of Kerman; a biomedical engineering student at the University of Sahand was dismissed; and a physics student at the University of Mazandaran was expelled after completing eight semesters on the honor roll and gaining admission to a Master’s program.
Three decades of exclusion
All kinds of methods have been used by Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution to prevent Baha’is from attending university – firstly, by expelling them all, and then, imposing an outright ban on their accessing higher education.
In response to international condemnation, the Iranian government changed the rules in 2003, declaring that Baha’is could now take the examination. But when nearly a thousand Baha’is moved ahead in good faith, they encountered new barriers.
At first, exams were returned with “Islam” written in the religious affiliation slot – something unacceptable to Baha’is, who are taught by their faith to tell the truth at all times, especially about their religious beliefs.
So the government indicated that the word “Islam” referred only to the particular sub-test on religion that each applicant is required to take, allowing Baha’is in good conscience to apply for higher schooling. Then, in the mid-2000s, a number of Baha’is successfully entered various universities around the country – only to find that they were then often expelled soon after matriculation.
In March 2007, for example, the Reuters news agency reported that some 70 Baha’i students had been expelled that academic year from universities in Iran. In that report, an anonymous spokesperson for the Iranian Mission to the United Nations was quoted as saying in reply: “No one in Iran because of their religion has been expelled from studying.”
After another international outcry, Iran changed tactics again. Baha’is who took the exam began to find their results were simply being withheld. When they went to the national website to find out their scores, many received the message that they had “incomplete files” – leaving them in a bureaucratic limbo.
“Unjust and oppressive practices”
In an open letter sent last month to Iran’s minister for higher education, the Baha’i International Community called for an end to the “unjust and oppressive practices” that bar Baha’is and other young Iranians from university.
The letter also addressed the government’s crackdown on the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), an informal community initiative run by Baha’is to educate their youth who are barred from university. In May, government agents raided the homes of more than 30 individuals associated with the BIHE and arrested 14 of them. Seven educators have this week appeared in court. Dozens more, including students, have been called in for interrogation – all in an effort to close the project down.
“Such actions, as you know, have been conducted as a matter of official government policy and as part of a systematic campaign to eliminate the Baha’i community as a viable entity in your country,” said the open letter, addressed to Kamran Daneshjoo, the Minister of Science, Research, and Technology.
For Shohreh Rowhani and her co-religionists, the fight for their right to education continues.
In her letter to human rights organizations she has expressed her desire that everyone should “know how senselessly my rights have been violated.”