This article was originally written in Farsi by Khosro Shemiranie of HafteH Weekly Magazine in Montreal, and translated to English by Ms Farah Moshirian and Ms Mitra Rahimpour.
I never met her, however, the picture her sister draws of her makes me feel I have known her for ages. In all the photos I have seen of her, she wears an innocent smile. A smile now captive in a prison cell in Evin. Nooshin was teaching a group of young students who according to “The law” are not permitted to seek higher education in Iran and because of this crime she is in prison today.
Nooshin was once one of those youth, herself, who were denied education in that country. In order to overcome this obstacle and to get what is the right of every human, she connected with the University of Indiana in the United States and studied by correspondence. She later sought a specialty in her field of education in a Canadian Institution and earned a graduate degree.
Nasrin Khadem, Nooshin’s older sister who had followed a similar path in obtaining her higher education, speaks of Nooshin:
“She is sincere and friendly; as soon as you meet her she puts you at ease and you feel you have been her friend for years. She befriends and earns people’s trust easily. She is selfless to the point that despite being presently incarcerated in a prison cell, she is concerned about me and our father and asks us not to worry about her.”
Nasrin, who currently lives in Vancouver, and according to her own words “loves to study”, was officially “cleansed”, in other words expelled, from the university during the cultural revolution of Iran in (1979). Nasrin says that in order to be allowed registration in a university, one has to belong to one of its four major religions: Islam, Christianity, Judaism or Zoroastrianism; rendering it impossible for a Bahai to enroll in a university.
Nooshin and Nasrin are both Baha’is, and due to this “crime” they were both denied higher education in Iran. Hence, they chose to continue their studies through correspondence courses offered at Indiana University in the United States.
Due to the inherent complexity associated with studying by correspondence it took a longer period of time and was much harder to complete, but they did not give up. Upon obtaining their degrees, they were both accepted for post graduate studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. After completing her post-graduate degree in 2003, Nooshin returned to Iran. Nasrin said she did this because she wanted to serve her country.
She recalls the days at Carleton University, saying: ” they used to mistake me for my sister”
I asked her, why doesn’t Iran allow Bahais to seek higher education? Nasrin responds:” I don’t know; one should put the question to the government of Iran. However, the reason could be that they don’t want Bahais to be armed with higher education which may allow them to advance in leadership positions within the country and possibly influence the society
In response to the question of why higher education is important to her, she says:” I believe education is essential for one’s existence and growth. It serves as a ladder that leads to higher levels. By attaining higher education, one becomes equipped to serve oneself as well as others.
Not only was Nooshin eager to acquire higher levels of knowledge, but she also encouraged me to obtain my PhD. It was our Mother’s wish as well for us to continue on to graduate studies.”
The Bahai community faces this enormous obstacle, created by the government of Iran, with a positive attitude. It responded by creating an organization called the Bahai Institute for Higher Education (BIHE).
Dr. Behrooz Sabet, a founding member and professor at this institute lives in the USA. In reference to this matter he says:” The policy makers in Iran, mistakenly assumed that by exerting such pressure and by imposing such limitations, the Bahai youth would ultimately suffer from inner conflict and loss of identity. In other words they presented the Bahai youth with two options: “either be denied access to university or turn your back on your faith and community”. The Bahai community could not remain neutral in the face of such harsh threats. The future of an entire generation was at stake. It was in an attempt to fill the void created by these harsh measures that they resorted to the creation of the BIHE.
I asked Nasrin, why she and Nooshin decided to collaborate with this institute?
She said: “The youth who study in this university are denied education in our country only and only because of being Bahai. Despite the difficult conditions and limited means, these students strive to continue their education and it is our honor to assist them.”
I enquired about the latest news from Nooshin; the young woman who after obtaining her graduate degree from the university of Ottawa, decided to leave the comfort of her life in Canada and set off to serve the youth of her country. Nasrin said: “My sister is presently in section 209 of Evin Prison. As far as I know, she has made friends with the inmates as well as some of the guards. In the telephone conversations with us, Nooshin consoles and invites us to have patience. She repeatedly asks us not to worry about her. She has a court hearing on the 26th of September, 2011.” Reminiscing on their time together, Nasrin says: “we used to take the same courses and enroll in the same exams. I once recall Nooshin fell ill just before an exam; she cancelled it and so did I. We were and still are, very close to one another. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her… I miss her very much.
Bahais are a group who have been and continue to be subject to boundless discrimination. One such aggression against the believers of this faith is to deny their youth access to academic knowledge. To which the Bahais have reacted by creating a miracle. From the midst of the rubble resulting of this human rights abuse, a university has peered its head out which has produced thousands of students and hundreds of highly capable specialists. This success is that much more significant because the students who attend the university are not located in a specific place, rather they are dispersed, studying underground and surmounting numerous difficulties. Dr. Sabet, who teaches at this university by correspondence said: “History has shown that efforts to extinguish a belief contrary to the belief of the aggressor results in the expansion of that belief and any effort exerted towards a cultural advancement can never be destroyed. ” In an interview with HafteH he added: ” The Bahai community of Iran believes that education is a fundamental human right as stipulated in the charter of human rights, to which Iran is a signatory. Thus all efforts towards the cultural advancement of a group cannot be halted. ”
Our interview with Dr. Sabet ended with the following: “This institute is uniquely scientific and academic and completely apolitical. In addition it has no religious connotations and the courses are purely established on scientific facts. Its main goal is to educate a generation and arm them with knowledge to serve their country of Iran. Despite the current conditions, I remain quit optimistic about the future of this Institute.”
Below is the full interview of HafteH with Dr. Behrooz Sabet.
HafteH interview with the Prof. Behrooz Sabet, One of the founders of BIHE,
A university whose success is a miracle
The Bahai community in Iran has developed an educational system which is active and from which many students have graduated. Why is this insue necessary?
Since establishing power in Iran, the Islamic government has been systematically fighting the Bahai community and its beliefs. It has set out to create fear, insecurity and helplessness for the Bahais by expelling its followers from universities and all professional positions. The goal of such policy was to prevent the Bahai youth from obtaining higher education thereby denying them the chance of progress, diminishing their chances of finding work, and eventually demoralizing them into loosing hope in a better future. They had hoped that these tactics would create inner conflict in the youth and drive them away from their community and their parents. In other words, they gave two choices to the Bahai youth: give up your education and progress, or abandon the Bahai Faith and the Baha’i community. The Baha’i community could not stay idle in the face of these threats; the future of its youth was at stake. The community responded by creating BIHE, an apolitical education facility. The creation of this institution as a response is in itself also noteworthy. The usual reaction of a persecuted community is anger, demonstrations, retreating into one’s own shell, internal chaos, and other forms of combat such as not cooperating with the political and economic establishments.
Are you aware of a similar movement in other countries or societies?
In my personal and limited research, I have not found anything similar to these circumstances. The only exception that comes to mind is that of Poland during the Second World War where the Jewish population was persecuted and not allowed access to education. The Jewish professors resorted to teaching students in their homes and apartments.*
How has the government of Iran reacted to BIHE?
In the brief history since its inception, BIHE has been subjected to attacks by government security forces several times. In these attacks, professors and students have been arrested and some jailed. The security forces would invade the homes where classes were held and confiscate books, computers and whatever pertained to education. But the most recent attack took place on the 22 May 2011, which resulted in the arrest of some professors and persons responsible for running this institution. This act was carefully premeditated by the government, aiming to break the spirit of the active members of the Bahai community.
What is the history of the development of this institution?
In 1987 a group of Bahai professors and others who had been fired from their jobs, got together and in a non-official and voluntary way, started classes in their homes. With time these activities expanded and more courses were introduced. More Bahai as well as non-Bahai instructors from within and outside of Iran also provided their assistance. Thanks to the progress in communication technology and the availability of the Internet, on-line courses were introduced. From the outset, all professors and instructors involved, tried their utmost to preserve the academic standards for both accepting the students and as well as respecting rules and regulations that pertain to other universities in Iran. As the institution developed, efforts were made not only to add new courses but also to continually improve the quality of the teaching. Certain guiding principles are adhered to within this institution. These can be listed as follows:
a) Education that would help students get into the work force;
b) Education that is beneficial to the Iranian society and it basic needs;
c) Education that has a good balance between theory and practice;
d) Education that promotes service to humanity;
e) Education that teaches critical thinking to facilitate the solving of problems in society;
f) Education that enables the students to specialize but also to be aware of the dangers of over-specialization.
Thus obligatory courses were made part of the core curriculum. The purpose of this was to instill general knowledge and insight before leading to specialization. These courses address classical philosophy and literature and the history of Eastern and Western civilization. It is mandatory for all students to study world history, the history of science, the appreciation of art, the philosophy of moral , sociology and psychology.
What are the programs offered by the university?
The programs offered are: accounting, chemistry, biology, construction engineering, business, civil engineering, computer engineering, English literature, Persian literature, law, mathematics, psychology, pharmacy and sociology. At graduate levels, the university offers business management, education (curriculum development), public health, engineering and sociology.
What is your role in the institution?
I am a professor and advisor.
Is this university recognized internationally?
Although this institution has not been able to get official recognition as of yet, thanks to the hard work of its students, it has secured the trust and recognition of many universities in Europe, North America, India and Australia.
How many students have graduated thus far?
Nearly two thousand have graduated.
Is it possible to continue to the graduate level and if so, how?
Thus far, close to 200 individuals have succeeded in continuing their education at the Masters and Ph.D. levels in high ranking universities. And a noticeable number of these individuals have honored their commitment to return to Iran after completing their studies in order to educate the youth who are deprived of obtaining a university education.
What is the demographic profile of students in respect to age and gender?
I do not have the exact statistics, however, the majority of students are between the ages of 18 and 22, and the number of female students exceeds that of their male counterpart.
Is there a tuition fee for the BIHE student?
The students pay a nominal tuition fee.
What has been the reaction of the government and the security officials of Iran to your university, and how has this reaction changed over the past 20 years?
As previously stated, the reaction of the security officials to this institution has been confrontational with the goal of eliminating the institution and creating depression and hopelessness amongst its students. It has to be said, that during the reforms and presidency of Mr. Khatami, the level of pressure and aggression fluctuated. At times there was relative calm, and then they resumed their offensive and confiscation of materials. Notably in the years 1998, 2001 and 2002 a number of individuals were arrested and imprisoned. Computers and educational materials were confiscated and classes were sealed shut.
How do you view the future of his Institute?
In my opinion this institution has a bright future, not because it is a Bahai institution but because it was established as a response to cruelty and oppression, and because its aim is to educate Iranian youth.
Thank you Dr. Behrooz Sabet.
* [Note: during German occupation in Poland no one was allowed to study. High schools had been closed and many teachers were organizing underground classes. The best example which could be inspirational for BIHE students is the story of Marie Slodowska-Curie, who started her study at the clandestine “Floating University” in Warsaw then continued her graduate studies at the University of Paris, France. She became known for her scientific accomplishments, including two Nobel prizes. [ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Curie]
This conversation took place by e-mail on the 23 September, 2011 between Dr. Behrooz Sabet and Khosro Shamiranie for the purpose of publishing an article in Montreal weekly, HafteH.