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Baha’is of Iran

"You Will Not Be Admitted to University ... You are Baha'is!"

March 31, 2023
Kian Sabeti
5 min read
"You Will Not Be Admitted to University ... You are Baha'is!"

On May 22, 2011, in a coordinated and simultaneous operation, agents of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence raided the homes of 39 Baha’i citizens connected with the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) in Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, Zahedan, Sari and Karaj. The agents confiscated and took away documents, educational handouts, textbooks and computers belonging to these citizens.

Tolou Golkar was one of the 39 Baha’i citizens whose residence was raided in May 2011.

The Baha’i Institute for Higher Education was established in 1987 by the Baha’is of Iran, as an informal educational initiative which held classes in people’s homes, after seven years of young Baha’is being deprived from higher education because of their beliefs. The ban came with the 1979 Islamic Revolution and Iran’s subsequent cultural revolution. BIHE lecturers were all Baha’is, at first, but after a few years and as the BIHE established itself, and as its graduates went on to pursue postgraduate and doctoral work around the world, the BIHE attracted the attention of academic circles and universities abroad and a number of non-Iranian professors joined its academic faculty to offer remote classes.

During the May 2011 raids, 15 Baha’i instructors and students were arrested, and four sites where classes were held at private homes were sealed. The purpose of the raids was to shut down the BIHE and to prevent young Baha’is from pursuing their studies.

Tolou Golkar was sentenced to five years in prison for studying and teaching at the BIHE. By 2018, however, she was a doctoral candidate in biochemistry at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where she also taught there as an associate professor.

Remembering the raid, Golkar told IranWire: “At around 8:30 in the morning on May 22, security agents entered our house, presenting a warrant for Tolou Golkar. I was at work. The agents asked my parents to contact me to return home, which they refused to do. They then started searching the rooms and confiscating handouts, textbooks, computers and my personal effects, and even my parents’ personal belongings.”

Two days later, Golkar was summoned: “I was summoned by telephone to appear for interrogation at the office of the Ministry of Intelligence on Vali Asr Road. There, I realized that I had been charged with teaching at the BIHE. The interrogation was brief, and besides me, a large number of Baha’i instructors and students were also interrogated in different rooms on the same day.”

Golkar’s second interrogation took place two months later at the same location: “This interrogation took five hours, and from the start, the interrogators threatened me, saying that if I didn’t stop teaching at the BIHE, there would be consequences, such as imprisonment. The entire discussion at this interrogation centred on the fact that the interrogator considered the BIHE and teaching there to be illegal. I responded by saying that, because Baha’i youth were not admitted to universities, this institute was a place for Baha’is to pursue higher education. But the interrogator insisted that no Baha’i had been banned from attending university unless they had done something wrong. At the end of the interrogation, one individual, who I believe was their supervisor, suddenly entered the room and, after collecting all the paperwork from the interrogation, faced me and said: ‘Of course you will not be admitted to university, because you are Baha’is.’ He added: ‘Baha’is are not even entitled to live in Iran, period!’”

On February 19, 2013, Golkar and nine other BIHE instructor were summoned to the Shahid Moghaddas court in Tehran's Evin Prison. The interrogator there asked Golkar to sign a pledge to no longer teach with the BIHE – which she refused to do. The interrogator then issued Golkar's arrest warrant, but after two or three hours she was freed on a bail of 500 million rials, or about $12,500 at the time.

In September 2013, Branch 28 of Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Court, presided over by Judge Moghisseh, tried Golkar for illegal activities, i.e. teaching at the BIHE; based on Article 499 of the Iranian Islamic Penal Code, she was then sentenced to five years in prison. The original sentence was upheld in the appellate court and communicated to Tolou Golkar’s attorney in February 2014.

Golkar told IranWire: “After I was denied admission to university because of my religious beliefs, I studied biology at BIHE and received a bachelor’s degree equivalent. In 2008, I went to England, and after one year, returned to Iran with a master’s degree. In Tehran, while teaching at the BIHE, I also worked in a medical diagnostics laboratory, until I heard that on April 28, Nasim Bagheri, one of the BIHE’s instructors, whose prison sentence had been issued at the same time as mine, had been arrested without a summons and sent to Evin Prison to serve her sentence. After hearing this news, I went to Turkey, and after a few months there, I was able to obtain admission to McGill University, and came to Montreal to pursue my education.”

“I am now a doctoral candidate in biochemistry at McGill University,” Golkar told IranWire, in 2018, “and I hope to receive my doctoral degree in a few months.”

Tolou Golkar believed the sudden raids and arrests in May 2011 was a great shock to BIHE – and yet those attacks did not succeed in interrupting even briefly the BIHE’s academic activities.

Golkar added that, after the arrest of administrators and some instructors, young Baha’is who had (mostly) already graduated took the place of those arrested, and continued to teach. “Even though these individuals were all new at this and inexperienced, they did not allow any of the lectures to stop. The BIHE was strengthened and its online side thrived. But due to the risk of arrest and raids on the homes where classes were held, online courses took the place of face-to-face lectures.”

Golkar said that, after two years, the BIHE again reached its pre-May 2011 capacity. “The BIHE was damaged on May 22, 2011, but it was never destroyed, and it continued on its path, which was to teach university courses to youth deprived of higher education.”

Editor's note: The original Persian edition of this article was first published in May 2018.

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