Although banning education is a recent decision, persecution is nothing new for the Bahai in Iran. Ever since the founding of their faith in 1863 by the Prophet Bahaullah, the Ba'hai have been mistreated by the government of Iran, encompassed in the Persian Empire in the 19th century. For those who have studied religious history and societal change, this may not come as a surprise. Many times when a new religion emerges in a society, persecution soon follows.
This is certainly not the case with all political leaders or citizens in Iran, but sadly persecution has become the norm for the government's treatment of the Ba'hai community and its founder since the very beginning. In 1979, however, this persecution became magnified in the form of widespread execution and imprisonment followed by a ban on education for all Ba'hai, including those in primary and secondary school. Since then, students in primary and secondary school have been allowed back into the public school system, but university has remained closed to all Ba'hai until recently.
This is not to say that higher education has stopped completely for the Ba'hai since 1979. In fact, many professors in the United States volunteered to teach as part of an underground university founded in 1987 in Iran. The Ba'hai Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) strives to provide a quality education for some 900 students, employing 150 faculty members who teach mostly via correspondence. At present, the university continues to operate on a small scale after part of its elaborate system of classrooms and libraries was raided by the government in 1998 and again in 2002.
In 2004 Ba'hai were even able to apply to college by taking entrance examinations. In the past this was not the case, as those who identified themselves as Ba'hai in a pre-examination survey were not allowed to take the exam at all. This, of course, disqualified them from attending university because students must pass these examinations in order to qualify for admission. In 2004, the pre-examination survey was completely eliminated. However, as part of the exam, every student was asked to complete an informative essay on one of the four major religions recognized by the Iranian government: Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism.
Initially there was no other section on the exam form asking students for information about religion. So there seemed to be nothing standing in the way of these students enrolling in university as Ba'hai until they got the results of their exams. Whatever religion they had written about in their essay test had been assigned to them along with name, age and gender under personal information. Faced with the choice of enrolling under the religion assigned to them or not going to school at all, every Ba'hai who took the exams in 2004 declined to accept admission.
In 2006, largely due to international pressure on the Iranian government, it is a different story. In September the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Ba'hai faith, received a letter of explanation from the Iranian government. The letter assured them that the reference to religion on the examination result forms did not identify students by their religion and was merely referring to the essay each student wrote. The Universal House of Justice has decided to accept this clarification and, in September 2006, some 300 Ba'hai youth were able to enroll in university classes for the first time in 27 years.
Although the news is positive, whether or not promises will be kept remains to be seen. Action must still be taken by international governments and the UN to ensure that a college education is secured for all Ba'hai now and in the future. Hopefully for our fellow students, this will be the case.
Contributing writer Alicia Johnson is a sophomore from Apple Valley, Minn. She majors in nursing.