It’s an annual occasion, a clear reminder of the cruel, targeted discrimination embedded in Iran’s education system.
Each year, as Iranian students receive the results of their higher education entrance exams, Baha'i students are met with the same response: they will not be able to pursue a university career or attend one of the country’s institutes of higher education.
After a 22-year “official” ban, Baha’is have been allowed to take the entrance exam for more than 15 years now, and yet, the ban on university education for Iranian Baha'is continues, expedited in a somewhat different way than it was in the early days.
Following Iran’s Cultural Revolution in 1981, when hundreds of Baha'i professors and students were expelled from the country's universities solely for their religious beliefs, the Islamic Republic held its first national university entrance exam in 1982. One of the basic conditions for registration was belief in Islam or one of the official religions (Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian) recognized in the constitution. But many Baha’is refused to conceal who they were, and filled out their true facts of their faith on their registration forms, which in most cases excluded them from taking the exams outright.
On February 15, 1991, the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution called for the expulsion of all Baha'is citizens in a secret memorandum signed by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and later exposed by a United Nations special rapporteur. The memorandum said that from then on, Baha’is would not be allowed to take part university life as either students or teachers. "The regime should deal with them in such a way as to block their progress and development,” the resolution stated.
All of this despite the fact that Iran is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights state that all people have a right to access higher education, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Education, also approved by the Iranian parliament, prohibits any discrimination in this regard.
According to Article 1 of the convention, the term "discrimination" includes any distinction, deprivation, restriction or preference made on the basis of race, skin color, gender, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or social affiliation, national origin, economic status, disability, or on any opinion with the purpose or consequence of destroying or undermining people's equal rights to education. In particular, the convention forbids an individual or group of individuals to be denied any level of education or to force the individual or group of individuals to be given education of a lower standard or quality.
Changing Tactics to Keep the Ban in Place
In 2004, the body responsible for monitoring the assessment of Iran’s education system announced a specific requirement for entrance exams. Paragraph 26 of the new registration form stated: "Candidates from religious minorities studying education, that does not come under Islamic education, should specify their religion when answering relevant questions." The form gave the options as Jewish, Christian, and Zoroastrian.
Since then, Baha'i candidates have successfully obtained exam entrance cards by choosing Islamic education courses. After they sit the exams, however, they get stung by another cruel ban: on actually being able to enrol. They can prove their suitability for education, but are then banned from pursuing it.
Then, from 2004 to 2020, the Iranian government used another tactic to keep Baha’is out of education. When exam results came, Baha'i students were told a “defect” has been detected on their records held on the assessment organization education website. When they had tried to pursue the matter, they were told that Baha'is had no right to education, or were subjected to insults and threats of arrest. Sometimes, they simply received no response to their enquiries.
It is worth noting that the resolution the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution passed in 1991 contravenes even the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. According to the third principle of the constitution, the government is obliged to provide facilities for free education for all citizens at all levels and to facilitate and standardize higher education. Article 30 of the Constitution states that the government is required to provide free education for the entire nation up to the end of high school, and to expand free higher education facilities until the point when these facilities are self-sufficient.
The conflict between the constitution and the Supreme Council resolution becomes more apparent when scrutinizing Articles 14, 19 and 20 of the constitution. According to these articles, all Iranians are entitled to equal rights and the human, political, economic, social and cultural rights of all Iranians (Muslims and non-Muslims) must be respected.
Article 14 explicitly states: "The Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Muslims have an obligation to treat non-Muslims with good morals and Islamic justice and to respect their human rights."
When the results of the 2021 national entrance exams were announced in late September, Baha'i students consulted the education assessment site only to be presented with new terminology to explain why they were unable to pursue their studies: "General Disqualification." Because of his or her faith, a Baha'i student does not meet one of the general conditions set out for the 2021 entrance exam. The first paragraph of these general conditions states that the student is required to follow Islam or one of the religions recognized in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic.
The term "disqualification" has replaced the term “defect," but it is clear that the policy of Iranian ruling regime has not changed in the last 40 years. The policy that has always sought to deprive Baha'i citizens of their fundamental right to education continues, despite slight changes in the wording or description from time to time over the years, perhaps to address pressure the international community places on Iran to uphold the right to education.
In the last few days, IranWire has been sent the the names of 16 Baha'i students who have been denied the right to university education under the pretext of being disqualified. The names are below, but they are probably not the only ones who have been denied education for this academic year, and the ones to follow.
Elena Qolizadeh Roshankoohi