The right to education, one of the rights noted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has been violated by the Iranian government for years. Shortly after the 1997 revolution, the group that had taken over the government decided to filter the dissident professors and students out of universities. This effort continues to today, thirty years later. The intensity of this effort has risen and fallen during different periods. Presently, the students banned from education are known as the “starred students,” many of whom are serving heavy sentences in prisons for protesting their ban on education.
The first step, the Cultural Revolution
Before the revolution, universities were a place for energetic, idealist youth whose goal was to build a free and advanced society. These students had an effective role in the success of the revolution. After the revolution, different viewpoints had their own assemblies at universities. The idea, that universities must be run by academics and not someone designated by the government, was pursued. Dr. Mohammad Maleki, the first dean of Tehran University after the revolution, founded a council consisting of the professors, students and staff at the university, to make sure all the positions at the university were elected by the students. (1) The new leaders had lost their grip on the universities. They made a new plan to control higher education: the Cultural Revolution.
The Cultural Revolution started with the stated goals of “Islamization” of the universities and cleansing the universities from “westernized” students and professors. Concerning this issue, Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Republic at the time, said: “Our universities are dependent. Our universities are colonial. Our universities train westernized people. Too many of the professors are westernized and they give our youth a westernized upbringing.” (2) Many students, along with nearly 8,000 professors, almost half the professors in Iran, were expelled from the universities. A system for the political-ideological selection of the students and professors was developed. In addition to the scientific criteria, the compatibility between the ideology of the people and the government was considered necessary for being accepted into a university. (3)
Stars on the shoulders of the students
When the universities were shut down under the banner of the Cultural Revolution, there was no longer a different voice than the government’s one. Since the 1980s many people have lost the right to education. There was no news coverage on this issue. Baha’is were not allowed to enter universities at all. If a Baha’i citizen was not identified at the beginning, he would receive a finalized order and would be expelled during his education, when eventually discovered. Many of those, whose relatives and friends had been imprisoned or executed for support or membership in anti-regime groups, were among those who did not have the right to education. For the masters’ and doctorate levels also, there was a very strict ideological-religious selection procedure. Sometimes people had to respond to questions about the speech given on the most recent Friday Prayer service; sometimes you had to respond to questions from the “Resaleh” (guides of Shari’a law) and finally even if you responded to all these questions, sometimes you needed referrals from your local IRGC office or local cleric; and then maybe you would be accepted into a masters’ or doctorate program. However, in the 1990s and after the election of Mohammad Khatami in May of 1997, the conditions relaxed. Even though, the laws and regulations about general qualifications remained and were not revised, the authorities and university deans acted in a more reconciliatory fashion and were not as strict as before. There were still those whose right to education was violated, but the number was smaller.
This period was temporary and short. After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took power, control over the universities tightened once again. They claimed that they had come to “really Islamize” the universities, and they wanted to renew the plan that had failed at the beginning of the revolutionary government. The first time the annual university entrance exam was held under Ahmadinejad’s administration, a new phenomenon occurred. When the MS/MA results were announced in 2006, a star had been printed in front of a number of names. Some applicants had one, some had two and some had three stars in front of their names. Finally, it was figured out that these were not lucky stars for students. They were demonic stars that banned people from education. Those with three stars were immediately banned from education. Those with two stars had to go to the security office of the “Evaluation and High Education Office” and sign pledges that they would no longer engage in any political activity or they would not be admitted. Those with one star were luckier and it was enough for them to sign a pledge with the security office of the university; but this was just the beginning.
Disciplinary Committees, the second arm
The stars were not the whole story. Disciplinary Committees had started to ban students from continuing their education. The Disciplinary Committee is an organization at Iranian universities to deal with violations of the students. During this period, any kind of opposition political activity ended in immediately being summoned to the Disciplinary Committees and the punishment would be a suspension of one term, two terms or even longer from education. Many were banned from education, just for publishing student journals, participating in student associations or gatherings and expressing their opinions. In many cases, they were even physically banned from entering the university. Seyed Sadroddin Shari’ati, the dean of Allameh Tabatabaei University and Alireza Raha’i the dean of Amir Kabir Industrial University, were at the forefront of these actions and in some cases even asked the officials to arrest and detain students. This is how the right to education in Iran turned into a privilege. The privilege of education was only for those who were close and supported the officials. In order to study at universities, especially in the higher levels, you had to prove your allegiance to the ruling regime or at least never express any criticism.
The students protest
However, student activists did not remain silent about this. Since 2006, the biggest coalition of dissident students, the “Office for Strengthening Unity,” has protested repeatedly on this issue. Statements, gatherings and interviews of the student activists show that they are not planning to retreat from their demand to a right to education. In 2008, a group of students who were banned from education founded the “Council to Defend the Right to Study.” Within a year, this council had won a lot of credibility among the students. The right to education turned into a basic slogan of the student movement and the “starred students” became the symbol of academic oppression. When the presidential campaigns of 2009 began, Mehdi Karrubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the two reformist candidates, announced that a solution to the students’ problems was on their agenda. (4) This occurred even though Ahmadinejad denied the existence of “starred students.” In response, the “starred students” gathered in front of the oldest and largest university in Iran, the Tehran University, holding signs and chanting “Ahmadinejad is lying.” The morning after the infamous election of 2009, many of the students who were banned from studying, were arrested and imprisoned. They were sent to prison instead of to university, so that no one would hear their voices.
A look at the legal base of the issue
According to the second article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Race, color, gender, language, religion, political or any other viewpoint” cannot and should not be the basis for any kind of discrimination. Article 26 also reads that “high education must be equally available to everybody, so that each individual can use that based on his talents.” However, for many years, in addition to the scientific criteria, ideological and political criteria have been effective on the process of the students’ acceptance to the universities. According to a statement from the “Evaluation Organization” which is responsible for holding the annual university entrance exams, “the belief in Islam or another religion stated in the constitution of the Islamic Republic, commitment to the practical orders of Islam (performing the duties and refraining from the taboos), refraining from animosity (not criticism) against the Islamic Republic regime” are some of the general conditions for entering a university. (5)
In Iran, members of the Baha’i minority are prohibited from attending any university in the country, solely as a result of their religious belief. Many others are stopped from continuing their education in masters’ and doctorate levels based on their political ideology or opposition to the regime. In addition to these regulations, in recent years, a policy of limiting the number of female students at university has been implemented. This gender-based policy is aimed at decreasing the female student population and effectively reduces the chances of women to be accepted to universities.
There is no exact count of the number of people who have been banned from studying at universities. Many of these people do not have the ability to take their problem to the media for numerous reasons. Despite all this, last year the Human Rights Commission of the Office for Strengthening Unity sent a report to Ahmad Shahid, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran. In that report, more than 2,000 instances of violations on the rights of students between March 2009 and August 2011 were mentioned. Based on that report, more than 400 people had been banned from continuing their education those two and a half years. The report partly reads: “All this is for a peaceful and legal follow up on the demands… the demands are based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its extensions are considered the basic rights of each individual. The Islamic Republic, as a signatory member, is responsible to carry them out.” (6) A second report revealed 35 new cases of students being banned from education or being expelled from universities between September 2011 and May 2012. (7)
Some students are still imprisoned for their promoting their basic human right. Zia Nabavi and Majid Dorri, members of the Council to Defend the Right to Education are spending their 10 year and six year sentences in prison in exile. Zia Nabavi is being held under very difficult conditions in Karoon prison in Ahvaz, and Majid Dorri is in Behbahan prison. They have served nearly four years of their prison terms. Navid Khanjani, a young Baha’I, is in prison as well and serving a heavy sentence of 12 years of imprisonment. All these people have one single demand, which is, for them to be allowed to return to their classes at universities. Prisons are not a place for students.
1. The Farsi Wikipedia page of Mohammad Maleki: http://fa.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D9%85%D8%AD%D9%85%D8%AF_%D9%85%D9%84%DA%A9%DB%8C
4. Mehdi Karrubi’s campaign ad about the “starred students”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8M-Q_gyPkw0