Society & Culture

Report Says Few Gains Made in Academic Freedom Under Rouhani

June 3, 2014
Melissa Etehad
8 min read
Report Says Few Gains Made in Academic Freedom Under Rouhani
Report Says Few Gains Made in Academic Freedom Under Rouhani

Report Says Few Gains Made in Academic Freedom Under Rouhani


A new report published Monday by Amnesty International, Silenced, Expelled, Imprisoned: Repression of students and academics in Iran, finds that despite the promises made by the newly elected administration of President Hassan Rouhani to reform higher education, multiple forms of repression of academic freedom still exist in Iran. The report highlights how authorities have increased the use of repressive tactics, such as decreasing the number of female students, “Islamicization” of curriculum, as well as discrimination, particularly against women and religious minorities such as Baha’is, in what they describe as an “all out assault on academic freedom.”

The report argues that  authorities’ repression against students and academics who have been detained and harassed for expressing views critical of government policies is against international law and urges that access to higher education be made equally accessible to all.

Universities in Iran have traditionally been known to act as spaces that nurture dissent, and for much of the past 30 years authorities have shown little tolerance in an attempt to curb views that are critical of the government. Despite Rouhani’s campaign promises and his administration’s initial steps of allowing a number of banned students and academics to return to universities, the report illustrates that with hundreds of students and academics imprisoned, the situation in Iran remains dire. IranWire parses the new report with Amnesty International USA’s Iran Country Specialist Elise Auerbach.

In what ways has academic freedom in Iran grown worse under President Hassan Rouhani? Has there been any progress in any areas?

Although it appears that some students, those who had been issued so-called “stars” and banned from pursuing or continuing their higher education because of their perceived or actual peaceful political activities or viewpoint, have had their bans rescinded since August 2013, many hundreds of others are still under ban and excluded . Baha'is are still systematically excluded from higher education and many students and academics remain in prison or face charges for their peaceful activities. New prison sentences for student activists have been handed down since August 2013—for instance, the seven-year prison term imposed on Maryam Shafipour in March 2014.

Overall the repression of academic freedom, which worsened during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has not substantively improved in the last 10 months. Although President Rouhani may wish to ease the restrictions on academic freedom, entrenched hard-liners have a strong interest in maintaining the status quo and would oppose significant reforms.

Please tell us about the various methods Iranian authorities use to punish students and academics for their perceived dissenting views and activities.

One method is the arrest, detention, torture and ill-treatment and imprisonment of students and scholars who have exercised their right to freedom of expression and to engage in peaceful political activism. Several have been sentenced to long prison terms on vague and spurious charges of "gathering and colluding," "spreading propaganda against the state" or "insulting" the Supreme Leader or the president. For instance, student leader Majid Tavakkoli is serving a nine-year prison sentence and has been suffering from numerous serious health problems for which he has not received adequate medical attention. He had been arrested several times, but the latest arrest occurred in December 2009 after he made a speech to commemorate students day. 

Several scholars who have participated in international conferences in the US or have interactions with U.S. or other foreign scholars and scholarly institutions have been accused of security-related offenses and of engaging in a supposed plot orchestrated by the CIA and British Intelligence to undermine the Iranian government. 

What are members of the Bahai’s faith doing to cope with their exclusion from higher education?

The Baha'i community created an alternative institution—the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE)—to provide an education for Baha'is but the BIHE itself has been targeted and its staff and faculty arrested and imprisoned. Many academics and university deans and administrators have been removed from their positions because of their views.

Your report highlights testimonies from many students who report being tortured and ill-treated in the custody of Iran’s security forces. Has the Rouhani administration intervened to investigate or deal with these cases?

Students as well as many other detainees have been subjected to torture and ill-treatment, including sexual abuse, while in detention in Iran. The authorities are fully aware of the very credible reports from a large number of people and have not taken measures to address these pervasive violations. Student activist Abdollah Momeni, who was recently released after serving a prison sentence for his peaceful advocacy, wrote a letter to the Supreme Leader in August 2010, detailing his brutal torture while in detention. His complaints of torture were not investigated and no one was held to account for them. In the aftermath of the contested 2009 presidential elections, student dormitories were attacked and large numbers of students were savagely assaulted and beaten.  Several people were killed.  Again, there has been no justice for those killed and injured during those assaults. There is clearly a lack of will on the part of the authorities to address this situation and Iran's security forces are invested in sowing fear and meting out harsh punishment to those who dare to exercise their human rights.

The report makes clear that authorities systematically punish students for holding dissident views. What does this mean for the future of student groups and such movements?

Education is highly valued in Iran and is also necessary in order to acquire credentials to enter many professions. So punishing students by forbidding them to attend universities is particularly cruel. Many student activists, starred students, Baha'is and persecuted academics have had to leave Iran and live in exile as a result of government policies and practices. Even Iranian government officials have recently publicly recognized the severe "brain drain" and the negative effect this has on Iranian society. Despite the persecution and repression, students continue to attempt to speak out and exercise their rights. It is a testament to their courage and persistence that they do so, in spite of the very real risks they face. Despite government efforts to squelch activism, student activism continues. For instance, there was a harsh crackdown on student activists in July 1999, yet student activism persisted after that.

In what ways has Iran experienced an increase in surveillance and repression on campuses, the atmosphere described inside as ‘securitized’?

Before 2005, universities had a degree of autonomy in appointing their own deans and academic staff but the first Minister of Science, Research and Technology appointed by President Ahmadinejad withdrew these powers from state universities and took them under the direct control of his Ministry. The Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution also has exercised its influence over curriculum and the personnel of universities. Many university officials whose views have not accorded with the Supreme Leader or hardline circles have been dismissed and replaced. In recent years the Iranian authorities have also sought to impose very conservative notions of gender norms by instituting "quotas" on the numbers of female students who are permitted to pursue degrees in certain fields related to science and technology. Women have also been excluded from pursuing degrees in a number of fields considered by conservatives to be "inappropriate" for women.

What has the “Islamicization” of universities and the education system meant in practice?

The Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution has mandated many curriculum changes as part of its efforts to bring education and teaching into conformity with what it considers to be authentic Islamic principles, content and belief. The Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology has instituted a program of “adapting” certain fields of study to Islamic ideology as defined by the government, including law, women’s studies, human rights, management, arts and cultural management, sociology, social sciences, philosophy, psychology, and political science. On 4 March 2010 Minister of Science, Research, and Technology Kamran Daneshjoo announced that faculty members who do not “share the regime’s direction” should be dismissed and that “we do not need some faculty members whose tendencies and actions are not in coordination with the Islamic Republic regime.” 

Why are humanities courses in universities targeted?

In August 2009 the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said at a gathering of university students and professors that the study of social sciences “promotes doubts and uncertainty.” He urged “ardent defenders of Islam” to review the human sciences that are taught in Iran’s universities and that he said “promote secularism." Ayatollah Khamenei portrayed professors as "commanders" on the front lines of "soft warfare"—the term that hardliners in Iran use to describe Western efforts to encourage Iranians to undermine the government without the use of violence. Professors, he suggested, have a responsibility to teach their students to avoid Western influences, and limit their "specialized discussions" in the social sciences to "qualified persons within safe environments." To do otherwise, Khamenei said, risked "damaging the social environment."  

What are some immediate steps Rouhani’s administration can take in order to address the repression of academic freedom in Iran. What obstacles stand in his way?

Amnesty International has issued a number of recommendations to address the repression of students and scholars in Iran including: Ensure that higher education is made equally accessible to all; Ensure that students and academics who exercise their rights to freedom of expression, association or peaceful assembly do not face reprisals, and restore the victims of disciplinary measures their former positions as students or university staff; Stop arbitrary interference in the right to privacy of students and academics and ensure that no one is denied access to higher education on account of their opinions or by reason of their gender, their religion, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation; Rescind policies aimed at limiting the participation of girls and women in higher education. Although it appears likely that President Rouhani does favor easing restrictions, the Supreme Leader is the ultimate authority in Iran.

President Rouhani faces formidable opposition from hardliners in the Iranian government and it is unclear whether he has the will or ability to expend political capital to exercise the authority he does have. The international community and human rights advocates must step up their efforts to convince the Iranian authorities that persecution of academics and students and repression of academic freedom will not be tolerated.



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