Bahá'ís in Iran are redefining educational advancement

In light of Iran’s participation at the UN General Assembly, Sophie Gregory reflects on the hardships of Bahá’í youth expelled from the country’s universities

October 6, 2018
Iran street scene

We identify progress in our lives by reaching certain milestones: birthdays, levels of education, career promotions. We place value on these landmarks as signs that we are moving forward and use them as standards by which we evaluate our own progress.

In education, the movement from school to university not only signifies a change in our intellectual capacities, but a change in our levels of dependence and autonomy. By leaving our family homes, armed with a student cookbook, we begin to enter, however tentatively, the realm of adult responsibility.

Yet there are those around the world who are denied such important markers of progress – denied the right to education, which plays such a fundamental role in evaluating our lives. 

As I begin my own master’s degree, and in light of conversations on Iran’s human rights record at the UN General Assembly, I am reminded of the ongoing struggle of the Bahá'í youth in Iran. I have a lot in common with these people: we hold the same religious beliefs, we have begun to worry about our futures, and we are in a crucial stage of development.

However, unlike me, they are unable to use milestone markers as anchors of progress.

In the past year at least 60 Bahá'í students have been barred from entering Iranian universities.

Such a systematic exclusion of the largest religious minority in Iran is facilitated by the 1991 policy memorandum, drafted by a high organ of the Iranian state, which blocks the development of the Bahá'í community in Iran.

In quashing the right that these students have to an education, the government also denies them the right to measure the progress of their lives, leaving them bereft of pivotal moorings. 

It would be easy, in being denied progressive milestones, to lose hope and remain static. However, rather than paralysing Bahá'í students, this persistent maltreatment has only led to a redefinition and reassessment of what advancement truly is.

For the Bahá'í community worldwide, progress is marked not merely by reaching important milestones but by empowering others – individuals and communities – to strive towards their goals. They do so by consistently contributing to wider society and enabling others to take charge of their own advancement. This is most evident in the establishment of the Bahá'í Institute for Higher Education in Iran.

This informal organisation meets the educational needs of young Bahá'ís across Iran by seeking to provide a university education for Bahá'í youth who are otherwise excluded from higher education. Nevertheless, the BIHE, which has seen its students enter further education in many countries, is not exempt from persecution. In 2011, the organisation suffered the arrest of a dozen educators and administrators who supported the operation of the institute on the ground in Iran. In spite of this, the BIHE continues to give Bahá'í students across Iran access, however unconventional, to meet life’s milestones.

But this form of education goes far beyond just reaching transitional points. It also engages with the desire to contribute to the advancement of civilisation in a holistic sense. Students are empowered not only to immerse themselves in their respective disciplines but also to become active agents of social change within their communities.

They do this by investing their energy into applying their knowledge and skills towards making concrete contributions to their fields. They engage in conversations with their peers about the period of youth and the opportunities that exist to make positive changes to their social and vocational spheres. All this is done with an understanding that their own situation is the result of injustice permeating the lives of all their countrymen.

In light of the intense hardship that Bahá'í youth have suffered in their pursuit of higher education, I am beginning to find my own markers of growth wanting. It becomes clear, when looking to the creative resilience of the Iranian Bahá'í community, that it is not enough to define advancement by reaching the next marker. We must also accept the direct relationship between personal advancement and the advancement of society.

The crises we are facing require the empowerment of all those who have a desire to contribute to societal transformation. As such, our own personal advancement is surely superficial if we are leaving our friends and colleagues behind.

Sophie Gregory is studying an MSc in political theory at LSE.

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