Over the last 34 years, Baha’i students have repeatedly been turned away from universities, denied the basic right to education that, by Iranian law, they should enjoy.
This academic year, a total of 129 students were denied access to university courses. On September 18, 2016, dozens of Baha’i students applying to university were told they would not be able to pursue further education. As in other years, Baha’i applicants were prohibited from selecting a major and denied admittance to universities and other institutions of higher education. The reason for their failed applications? “Incomplete” academic files.
When applicants followed up on rejected applications for this academic year, Baha’i students discovered they were rejected because of their faith. The claim that their files were invalid or “incomplete” appears to have no basis, as the majority of Baha’i students affected had passed the Concours, Iran’s national university entrance exam.
Iranian authorities have established a frustrating bureaucracy for Baha’i students, wherein they are allowed to pay for and take national exams, and sometimes even register for courses, only to find they are blocked from pursuing studies once the semester is underway.
Officials use this elaborately complicated tactic because, on the surface, it appears that they are honoring Baha’i citizens’ right to education — and then take it away from them by claiming their academic files do not fit the requirements for entering university courses.
The Cultural Revolution and Changing Tactics
On December 5, 1982, universities and other institutions of higher education reopened after being shut down for a period of 30 months. This period, which followed the early days of the formation of the Islamic Republic, is also known as the “Cultural Revolution.” It marked the beginning of the wide scale education discrimination of the Bahai’s. Under the Cultural Revolution, universities across the country dismissed Baha’i instructors, professors and students; staff were appointed to oversee and implement the purge.
The first nationwide Concours following the Cultural Revolution was held in July 1983. Applicants were asked to fill out and submit the registration forms in 1982. In one section of the new application form, applicants were asked about their religious affiliation, and were given four choices: Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Zoroastrianism. Baha’i applicants wrote in “Baha’i” on their forms in order to supply the correct answer.
That year, hand-written letters were sent to Baha’i applicants, announcing that these students were not eligible to take the Concours exam. In subsequent years, however, such letters have not been sent to Baha’is; instead, when Baha’i students arrived to take the exam they were told that no exam registration cards had been issued for them.
In 2004, it was unexpectedly announced that students would be required to give details about what religious studies they planned to pursue before taking the Concours. This appeared to be a new approach to the application process. While claiming to follow another religion apart from the Baha’i faith would go against Baha'i beliefs, Bahai's welcome the opportunity to become educated about other religions.
So Baha’is registered for the exam in 2005, and chose Islam as their subject of study. In July 2004, after a 23-year ban, Baha’i applicants were able to take the Concours exam along with other the applicants.
After the results of the exam were announced, however, many Baha’i students who had passed the test were not allowed to select a major to study. Instead, they were invited to go to the office of the National Educational Test Center in Karaj on a particular day before the deadline — which was a holiday — to choose a major.
One Baha’i student gave his account of that day: “All the doors were closed but one. A few people were sitting behind their desks to help applicants. It was hard to tell if these people were center personnel or if they were from another organization, such as the Ministry of Information.
At first, they asked applicants their names and religious affiliation and then told them because their file was ‘insufficient,’ they were not be allowed to choose a major, and that the matter would be followed up at a later time. All Baha’i applicants filled in and signed ‘request for follow up’ forms. They issued receipts of the forms to all applicants from Tehran, but told applicants from other cities that they would receive their receipts in the mail. These receipts were never delivered.”
And so what had started out to be a promising shift in policy turned out to be the beginning of a new phase of denying Baha’is the right to pursue higher education.
A Labyrinthine Process
Seraj is one of the many young Baha’is who was denied a higher education. He lives in southern Iran and recently received his high school diploma. He took the university entrance exam and passed. But like so many others, he has been refused entry to university. “On September 18, 2016, all applicants who passed the test were supposed to select their university and major of their choice. But, when my fellow Baha’i applicants and I went online to select our courses, we were blocked from doing so and met with a notice stating that our files were incomplete.”
Seraj said when he filled out the form to take the Concours, he was required to answer all 49 questions on the form. Failure to answer even one question would result in him being automatically dismissed from applying. “For this very reason, the charge of having an incomplete file is just an excuse to prevent young Baha’is from continuing their education,” he said.
But how do authorities know which students are Baha’i? “There is no question about religious belief on the application," said Seraj. They only ask you to identify which religion you want to study. Baha’is choose Islam. However, Baha’is are identified when they enter primary or high schools, or whenever the census is taken. Therefore, I think all Baha’i applicants have already been identified from the minute they start filling out the application on the site, and their rejection has already been determined. It seems that all the processes such as taking the practice tests, the Concours itself, and the announcement of the results are just a formality — and a costly effort for Baha’is.”"
"Education has nothing to do with a person's beliefs"
Another Baha’i who has applied many times and has repeatedly been rejected on grounds of having an “insufficient file” told Iran Wire: “I went to the Meshkin Dasht Evaluation Center in Karaj along with two other rejected applicants; we were told that being Baha’i was the main obstacle to our admission.”
Officials then asked them to sign a letter, which stated: ”I, the undersigned, have taken the Concours of 2016 but was deemed unqualified by the Evaluation Center and was prevented from selecting a major. Since I have no criminal records and no security or moral issues and have never been summoned to a court of law, I respectfully ask you to reinstate and qualify me again.”
But the student IranWire talked to said he and his friends refused to sign the letter. “We stated that, just like all other Iranians, we as citizens of the country have the right to pursue an education. The only reason for declaring Baha’is have insufficient files is to prevent them from pursuing higher education on the grounds of their religious beliefs. But education has nothing to do with one’s personal belief. We composed handwritten letters of response, and delivered them to officials. But they rejected these letters and asked us to sign their printed form and submit it to them to reconsider our case. At that Evaluation Center in Karaj there was a list of 129 Baha’i people who were disqualified because they had ‘insufficient files’. They asked our names one by one and then checked them on the list.”
The Baha’i students pursued the issue further. “Mr. Naeemi, the vice president of the Student Selection division of the Evaluation Center, told us that our religion is the cause for the classification of ‘insufficient files’. We asked him to reconsider his decision because legally everyone has a right to study regardless of his or her beliefs, creed or race. He answered that he was acting in accordance with directives from the Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council, which has banned Baha’is from pursuing higher education. After more follow-up, we realized that the only person who had access to Baha’i files was Mr. Morteza Noorbakhsh, the head of the nationwide Educational Evaluation Centers. We paid him a visit, during which he told us that there was nothing he could do to improve the situation. In fact, he claimed that his efforts had resulted in Baha’i students being allowed to take the Concours.”
After such efforts to find out more about the ban, these students have been left frustrated about their own situation, and by how this situation is presented to the wider world. “What good is it for a Baha’i student to take the Concours when he knows he will be rejected? It is a waste of time and money. On the other hand, allowing Baha’is to take the exam serves as propaganda for the government, so they can demonstrate to the world that Baha’is can take the Concours like anyone else.”
After the wide scale ban of Bahai’s from education in September, other isolated cases followed. Initially, some of these students were admitted to universities, but then were subsequently dismissed after the semester began. On October 1, 2016, Hannan Horr, a mechanical engineering student at Noshirvani University in Babol, was not allowed to enter a classroom; university officials told him that the Evaluation Center had disqualified him.
And Afagh Afshari was banned from entering Yazd University after being admitted and paying the full tuition. Officials told the young Baha’i that she was dismissed for one of three the reasons: religious affiliation, having a criminal record or anti-government political activism. Authorities suggested she guess which reason applied to her case.