Society & Culture

Iranian Colleges' Unwritten Rule: Protest and You're Expelled

April 15, 2022
Roghayeh Rezaei
5 min read
Maryam Karimbeigi, whose brother was killed in Iran's 2009 pro-democracy protests, learned on April 10 that she had been expelled from Islamic Azad University
Maryam Karimbeigi, whose brother was killed in Iran's 2009 pro-democracy protests, learned on April 10 that she had been expelled from Islamic Azad University
Since 2000 Iranian colleges have employed a "star system" to mark out young people who might be inclined toward political activity
Since 2000 Iranian colleges have employed a "star system" to mark out young people who might be inclined toward political activity
Former student activist Mehdi Arabshahi says the policy aims to block those not in thrall to the Islamic Republic from getting top people-facing jobs in the future
Former student activist Mehdi Arabshahi says the policy aims to block those not in thrall to the Islamic Republic from getting top people-facing jobs in the future
Some students were expelled due to pressure on university bosses from the Intelligence Ministry, outside of the official disciplinary process
Some students were expelled due to pressure on university bosses from the Intelligence Ministry, outside of the official disciplinary process

Recently a student named Maryam Karimbeigi was expelled from university, amid reports the Intelligence Ministry had opened a case against her. Her brother, Mostafa Karimbeigi, was killed by security forces during the 2009 pro-democracy protests in Iran.

Maryam was informed of her expulsion from Islamic Azad University’s science branch on Sunday, April 10. Earlier, on February 21, intelligence agents had again raided the family home and confiscated personal items belonging to her and her mother, Shahnaz Akmali – including their pictures of Mostafa.

 

Pressure on University Bosses From Above

Maryam Karimbeigi is far from the first student to be blocked from continuing her studies for political reasons, with far-reaching consequences. In June 2021, Kasra Nouri, a journalist and a Sufi activist, was expelled from Tehran University, where he was studying for an MA in human rights. 

Reporting the news on Twitter, his brother Pouria wrote that the official reason given was Kasra had failed to register for the first semester of the 2018-19 academic year. But at that time he was in prison – he had been arrested in February 2018 with scores of other Gonabadi dervishes after violent clashes between Sufis and the police – and could not have attended. His sentence was 12 years in prison, 74 lashes, two years in exile in Kermanshah, a two-year travel ban and a two-year ban on political or media activity.

A few days after his expulsion from Tehran University became public knowledge, his lawyer said the family had explained to college bosses that Nouri was in prison. Even if they were somehow not aware of this, they held, he should have been given a chance to explain his absence in line with the disciplinary rules.

A group of students wrote to Tehran University president Mahmoud Nili, calling the expulsion illegal. In turn, Nili wrote to Chief Justice Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei asking for Nouri to be released. A day later, the Minister of Science removed Nili himself from post.

The ensuing outrage on social media, though, did force the authorities to make one minor concession. On July 5, Pouria Nouri reported that his brother’s expulsion had been revoked by Tehran University officials after an emergency meeting. Of course, he remains in Greater Tehran Penitentiary and could still be there at the end of the decade.

 

Wasting Students’ Time

Mehdi Arabshahi, a political activist and former president of the Office for Strengthening Unity, Iran’s best-known pro-democracy student union, said the practice of expelling politically suspect students is as old as the Islamic Republic, though it only came to people’s attention in the second half of the 1980s. Before then Baha’is, relatives of political prisoners and those linked to victims of Iran’s 1988 prison massacre were openly “starred”.

In 2006, a number of applicants for master’s degrees and PhDs reported that a new system had been put in place that pre-emptively stopped them from enrolling. Students whose names on the National Organization for Educational Testing’s list bore a “star” were required to go to the security department of their chosen university and sign a pledge that they would not take part in political or union activities. Those with two stars had to do the same with the National Organization; those with three were simply blocked from registering.

Arabshahi himself was a two-star student. He made the undertaking in order to start at Tehran’s Allameh Tabataba'i University, but did continue his activities despite threatening calls from the security agencies, and in the end he was never allowed to defend his dissertation. He then received an expulsion order in writing.

“The fact is,” he said, “for the Islamic Republic – a state founded on discrimination – education is a privilege, not a right. This privilege is afforded only to certain people, and not to those whose beliefs differ from the regime’s.”

This is also what happened to Sourena Hashemi, a student of psychology at the University of Zanjan, in 2007. When she and a group of others exposed the sexual exploitation of a female student by the university’s vice-president, Hassan Madani, they were arrested and suspended from their courses.

“I was in prison when I received the letter from the disciplinary committee,” says Hashemi, who now lives in the United States. “I was sentenced to two semesters of suspension, but they kept me off for 10, and then they called me and informed me I had been expelled.

“During those 10 semesters, I was physically prevented from entering the university. What was interesting that whenever I reached Zanjan and my phone connected to Zanjan’s telecoms center, the Intelligence Ministry called my family and threatened them.” All of this, she said, took place off the books and was against the university’s own rules.

 

Why Punish Top-Level Students?

 “The higher the level of education,” Arabshari notes, “the more stringent the Islamic Republic is about who can and cannot have the privilege. They might not be too strict about undergraduates but they are rigorous when it comes to postgraduate studies and PhDs. These must go to people who belong to the inner circles, especially in disciplines and colleges with limited capacity.

“The Islamic Republic knows that higher education can mean higher social standing. It knows education at higher levels, and especially at the PhD level, can provide people with better job opportunities. They don’t want people who oppose the regime to become university professors, to have jobs that allow them to communicate. So these opportunities are monopolized, and those who’re against the regime, or just don’t quite agree with it, are kept out.”

 

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Iranian Colleges' Unwritten Rule: Protest and You're Expelled