While we as Americans believe that education is the vehicle for unlocking the potential of a society and key to economic growth, every year, the Islamic Republic of Iran shuts the doors of its colleges to thousands of its own citizens solely on the basis of their religious beliefs.
The academic year is now in full swing. College students around the world have settled into their routine, writing papers and preparing for exams. Yet Baha'i students in Iran face a different challenge: discrimination-based rejection and even expulsion from Iran's universities, denying them a future.
Iran has historically championed freedom and human rights. It has been the birthplace of Zoroastrian, Baha'i and Sufi religions and the land where thanks to the human rights doctrine of Cyrus the Great and the general cultural tolerance, Judaism and Christianity alongside Islam have seen periods of coexistence and prosperity. But today, the Islamic Republic's constitution which is inspired by the Sharia laws, prescribes second-class status to Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians (and women) with 50 percent rights given to their counterparts, and categorically deprives the followers of the Baha'i faith of any recognition or rights whatsoever.
It's been estimated that for the past three decades tens of thousands of qualified Baha'i students who revealed their faith have been systematically denied university admission or expelled unceremoniously. Volumes of testimonies, transcripts, correspondence and documentations have been assembled and presented in advocacy efforts on their behalf to no avail. But nothing spells out this this intentional discrimination better than a 1991 declaration or "mosavabeh" issued by the Islamic Republic's Supreme Council of Culture and Revolution -- a gatekeeping body with the paramount responsibility to preserve and promote the indispensable values of the Islamic Revolution. This declaration specifically calls for the immediate removal of Baha'i students at any point upon the revelation of their religious identity, including post registration or during the academic year. Although this declaration conflicts directly with the country's constitutional recommendation for universal access to education (Article 3, Sec. 3), the Council of Culture and Revolution's positions seem to govern admission practices in institutes of higher education.
In response to this systematic exclusion, Baha'i community members established Baha'i Institute of Higher Education (BIHE), an alternative educational institution tapping into the expertise of expunged academics and collaborative faculty from accredited universities abroad. But the determination to keep Baha'i individuals from accessing education is so vehement that even these make-shift schools held in community members' living rooms are frequently raided, participants arrested and books confiscated. Despite the anticipated rejections and risk of arrest, determined Baha'i students continue to apply to universities while continuing to use the services of BIHE.
In the past decade, government officials have upped the ante and surprised the persistent Baha'i applicants with a yet another rejection tactic that circumvents the objectionable religious identification question. According to numerous reports, unlike the early years of the revolution when students were to answer a question declaring their religious affiliation, applicant are working against an online filtering system that automatically recognizes them by name and refers them to a government office known as the "evaluation center" where they must appear in person. The applications are at this point aborted by the system or left permanently incomplete; candidates seldom receive a documented rejection letter. Some have reported that when appearing at the "evaluation center" they were presented with the National University Entrance Examination booklet, which allegedly states: "only Muslims and officially recognized minorities are permitted to participate."
Among those who took the exam but faced an aborted application process is Shadan Shirazi, an aspiring math major who ranked 113 in the entrance exam among over one million applicants. Shadan whose parents have served time in Iran's prisons for their beliefs, represents the second generation of Baha'is who has been deprived of educational access for the past 36 years. Shadan, like many other students believes that she was automatically recognized by the online application system and directed to the "evaluation center" where even the employees seemed to know her by name. Shadan reports of an inconclusive visit where the officials could not facilitate the completion of her application nor offer an explanation for their decision. Rather, they asked her to put her complaints in writing, which she did. Shadan's mother believes that these pseudo-appeal processes are just "calming" strategies to assuage the frustrated applicants and their families.
Interestingly, Iran was recently named the world's number one country in its brain drain, reportedly losing up to 150,000 of its intellectual elite annually at an estimated cost of $150 billion. Given such intellectual and financial challenges, wouldn't Iran be better served if it openly welcomed all of its qualified students regardless of religious belief? Young students such as Shadan and her peers representing the non-recognized religious minorities are at the prime of their educational achievement and like other Iranian students could boost the country's brainpower and contribute to the growth of their society.
In the US, we have learned that students and academic institutions alike benefit from diverse populations. We recognize that although overcoming the history of discrimination and segregation is a daunting and ongoing challenge, diversity of our American nation is an indisputable asset that boosts the prospects for our collective future.
The current negotiations between the US and Iran present an opportunity to discuss a kind of enrichment that goes beyond nuclear capacity and centrifuges. Iranians and Americans can engage in much needed discussions about enriching their societies and reap the benefits of treating their citizens as equals.