Society & Culture

Amid Spiralling Suicide Rates, Iran's Government Backs Cemetery Tours for Schoolchildren

February 23, 2022
Amir Hossein Miresmaeili
7 min read
The Islamic Republic's education system leaves little room for self-expression or fun. A recent video of schoolgirls dancing prompted calls for the Education Minister to be sacked
The Islamic Republic's education system leaves little room for self-expression or fun. A recent video of schoolgirls dancing prompted calls for the Education Minister to be sacked
Tehran mayor Alireza Zakani's suggestion that children be taken on graveyard tours has been backed by the Ministry of Education
Tehran mayor Alireza Zakani's suggestion that children be taken on graveyard tours has been backed by the Ministry of Education
Themes of martyrdom and mourning are baked into the Iranian curriculum and, some experts believe, wreaking havoc on students' mental wellbeing
Themes of martyrdom and mourning are baked into the Iranian curriculum and, some experts believe, wreaking havoc on students' mental wellbeing

On the morning of May 12, 1990, female students filing through the gates of Martyr Bahonar High School in Salehiye, Tehran province, discovered that everything was in turmoil. The classmates of Melody Jamali were in fits, shouting and screaming. They had just received news of her suicide.

Melody was one of 1,400 students, but had incurred the special wrath of the headmistress, who’d found a few pictures of popular singers inside her school binder. As punishment, the headmistress had seized Melody's uniform trousers and forced her to go back home in sweatpants.

The 16-year-old never got home. On her way , she took a diversion to the top floor of the Jahan Hotel on Tehran’s Valiasr Street. There she filled her lungs with air, screamed out loud, and then jumped down. She would not face any further punishment.

While an extreme example, Melody’s story is that of generations of children who have been deprived of a happy, free and curiosity-nurturing school environment under the Islamic Republic. Dancing, laughing and other such expressions of childish joy are discouraged; their tentative expressions of identity, from a girl’s haircut to carrying pictures of one’s favourite singers among one’s personal belongings, carry penalties. Only recently, more than 30 years after Melody leapt to her death, conservatives called for the Minister of Education to be sacked – because a video had been posted online showing Iranian schoolgirls rejoicing and dancing with their teachers.

Decades of the imposition of religion-infused, “revolutionary” ideology on young minds gives rise to a great many questions. Many of these relate, and studies have tended to focus, on their academic attainment and future prospects as global citizens. But what about their inner growth and wellbeing? Or put another way, what psychological damage does growing up in such an environment wreak on the next generation?

 

Switzerland for the Mayor’s Children, Cemeteries for the Rest

A recent article in the Tehran daily Hamshahri told us 60 percent of Iranians are “unaware” of their own mental health – and that one in seven young people aged 10 to 19 are suffering from a mental disorder. Half of these affected youngsters, the report went on, began to experience mental ill-health at the age of 14.

Experts of all strips, all over the world, believe that a happy and creative environment is crucial for children being able to thrive, psychologically and academically. But Alireza Zakani, Tehran’s contrarian new mayor, has a different idea. Zakani proposed that students go on tours of cemeteries for their amusement and recreation.

“People should regard mosques and cemeteries as places that induce tranquility,” Zakani said. “We’re going to work to make it easier for people to go to cemeteries, and we shall be promoting Paradise tours for the students.” By “Paradise”, Zakani was referring to Tehran’s main cemetery, Behesht-e Zahra (literally “Zahra’s Paradise”).

At the same time as Zakani was touting these macabre outings for children,  independent psychological studies reported that more than one-third of Iranians were suffering from chronic depression and other serious, debilitating mental health problems. This did not stop Deputy Education Minister Esmail Bahrizadeh from praising the mayor’s idea; walking among the graves, Bahrizadeh said, would be “an educational moment” and should be planned with care to fit the needs of different age groups.

But Mohammad Mohajeri, a principalist journalist, was less than kind to Zakani. “People’s children should visit Behesht-e Zahra while the mayor’s children travel to Switzerland?” he quite reasonably said.

Mina Baradaran Sadati, a child and youth psychologist in Iran, tells IranWire that such ideological projects can only incite more depression and anger in children and damage their future.

 

“Follow the Example of the Martyrs”

The cemetery tour proposal is far from the first bizarre initiative to batter the educational system under the Islamic Republic. In the past 40 years many such ideas have been pushed by politicians and stakeholders, with many becoming permanent features of the Iranian school experience: memorials for martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war, for example, or annual camping expeditions to former warzones, praise of martyrdom in textbooks, and the near-constant presence of the clergy in schools, preaching to children about the afterlife.

Most of these initiatives were conceived and ordered by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who forever seeks to nurture a new “revolutionary generation” for the next supposed “phase” of the Islamic Revolution.

“Devout and revolutionary students must follow the example of the martyrs and continue on their path,” he has repeatedly said in recent years, emphasizing that managers of the Education Ministry must be picked from among “the revolutionary and religious forces”. No small wonder that the latest pick for Education Minister, Yousef Nouri, described his own mission as training “value-oriented students” who would emulate the late, deified commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, Ghasem Soleimani.

 

The Worst Timing Imaginable

How does being told to emulate a so-called “martyr” affect the psychological balance of a young person? “The mind boggles,” says Mina Baradaran Sadati of Iranian NGO the Society of Students Against Poverty, “as to on what basis Tehran Municipality and the Education Ministry have decided to run a scheme for students’ graveyard tours, especially when the rate of depression is so high.

“Instead of promoting laughter, joy and dance among children, they want to force them into an environment inundated with sorrow. As well as the coronavirus pandemic and all the death it has caused, the worsening of the economic situation in recent years has increased family strife and psychological pressures on children.

“Visits to places such as cemeteries can worsen chronic depression, anxiety, stress and anger in children. We always advise families that if a family member passes away, they should keep the children away from sadder environments as far as possible. Now they want to take children to graveyards and talk to them about afterlife?

“This is why the suicide rate among children and teens has increased in the last few years. They tell them that if they die they’ll have a secure, comfortable existence in the next life. If they wanted to celebrate the achievements of their predecessors they could take the children to libraries and exhibitions, films and galleries, and show them the cultural and scientific achievements of those who were here before them – instead of making them look at headstones and mourning ceremonies.”

 

The Vicious Circle

On March 13, 2021, Simia Room, a Tehran-based independent center for psychological counselling, reported that based on its own surveys 67 percent of Iranians were suffering from depression. And according to the president of the National Organization of Social Affairs, the recorded suicide rate in Iran has increased by four to five percent annually in the past seven years.

“These days,” says Sadati, “we’re seeing self-harm becoming acceptable among teenagers. Because of low self-confidence and poor education, these children see suicide attempts as something that makes them mature. In the present conditions, even grownups should stay away, as far as possible, from situations and environments that harm them – let alone young people, whose emotions are very tender.

“Scientific data has shown that smiles and joy improve the functioning of the mind and increase concentration and self-confidence. And Albert Bandura’s theories of social learning show how seeing violent, aggressive behavior teaches children to be violent, and makes them anti-social in future.”

Albert Bandura was a Canadian-American psychologist who is known, among other things, for which proposing that new behaviors could be acquired by observing and imitating others. In an experiment in the early 1960s he used a Bobo doll to demonstrate that even violence against a lifeless doll can have destructive influence on child psychology.

“Unfortunately, in many cases, government doctrines can harm the minds of children,” says Sadati. “For instance, they tell the girls that they mustn’t dance or laugh out loud. They tell the boys that they must be zealous in protecting the ‘honor’ of their female relatives. When these children grow up, they neither know how to truly laugh and rejoice, nor how to mourn in the right way. As a result, they harm both themselves and those around them.

“This vicious circle will keep on repeating itself. What Iranian children now need most is to experience joyous, energetic environments. Projects like cemetery tours for children can only cause further destruction to society.”

 

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