Interview: Niknaz Aftahi on Education Under Fire in Iran

In 2010, I interviewed TV journalist Nava Ghalili about the discrimination in Iran against members of the Baha’i faith. One of the human rights issues discussed in that interview was that members of the Baha’i faith are not even allowed to receive a higher education in Iran.

So Bahais have their own university, out of sight of the Iranian government. Niknaz Aftahi was one of the students who had to study for her degree in secret because of the threats against Bahais.

In this interview Niknaz discusses the struggle of the Bahais in Iran to receive what many of us take for granted, an opportunity for education and advancement.

As a member of the Baha’i Faith living in Iran how were you able to receive a college education?

It’s odd for a child to even have to think about it…but when I was little, while dreaming of becoming an artist, I kept worrying about my higher education, that when the time comes for my college, whether Iran’s universities would allow me to follow my dreams or not.

The time came and like the other Bahais, I was not allowed to enter any national university. This was despite the fact that I had graduated with the highest grades in high school. But I still made it happen; I fulfilled my higher ambitions for an architecture education at BIHE, the Bahai Institute for Higher Education.

I still carry with me this constant deep anxiety for my fellow peers and professors in Iran, who are facing more ban and restrictions, threats and imprisonment because of their affiliation to the BIHE.

What were the risks for those involved with the University?

I did not study in a normal classroom like everybody else in America. Our classes were held at homes and the university was underground. Every day of studying at the BIHE involves risk factors and restrictions. Every day, I did not know if tomorrow my university will be there or not. Every day the fear existed that our professors would be arrested and our equipments confiscated.

There was no permanent place for our classes and workshops.

Many Bahai homes and their basements, big or small, and the professors’ offices and workplaces, were ready to instantly turn into classrooms and studios and labs.

We as students were happy under any circumstance, whether there were enough chairs or we had to sit on the floor; whether the room was spacious or cramped, whether, there was an overhead projector or a whiteboard, would not matter and our minds were ready to learn. Sometimes for attending two classes in one day, I had to go from one class in the north of Tehran to another class in the south.

We were always very careful to avoid traffic while going and coming out of the house, not to attract any attention.

During long classes we could not step out in our breaks to buy tools and things we needed so as to not to draw any attention.

Several times I was stopped from entering libraries because I did not have an official student ID. We were invisible; we did not exist as students in Iran.

Attending online classes and accessing information was another challenge due to Iran’s slow internet connections and existing filtering.

Human resources and educational resources were very limited. I even knew that I would not receive a validated degree, which I needed to officially work in my own country.

Are you continuing your education in the US now?

As the first graduate of BIHE architecture program, I came to the US to pursue my masters’ degree immediately after my graduation.

My bachelor in architecture was recognized in the US by five prestigious schools namely UCBerkeley, Virginia Tech, UPenn, University of Oregon and Calpoly.

They offered me admission to the Master of Architecture for fall 2012.

The people who helped me get my education in Iran are now sitting behind bars. Now that I live in the US and have decided to augment my architecture knowledge at UC Berkeley, I am determined to share my story with the world and be the voice of my suppressed people in Iran.

What can be done to protect the rights of the Baha’i in Iran and allow them to receive education?

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I believe media in the US should focus more on human rights violations in Iran, rather than on controversial statements of Iran’s conservatives. They should raise awareness on this injustice and the denial of the right to education for the Baha’i students and other groups such starred students in Iran.

The priority I think at the present time should be to raise BIHE’s public profile, as greater awareness will facilitate any specific initiative or action taken in support of its students such as enabling its graduates to pursue graduate degrees and expanding student’s online access to academic journals and research libraries.

A recent campaign called “Education under fire” is rapidly growing. Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley and Stanford are already on board. It is a 30-minute documentary that profiles the growth, struggle, and inspiring spirit of the Bahai Institute for Higher Education and you can check it out at : http://www.educationunderfire.com/

I also believe that the academic world should publicly condemn Iran’s discriminatory actions against Baha’i students and put the Iranian universities under pressure to put an end to their discriminatory admission process.

Let me be share the story that few know of and for my many friends who are suffering the discrimination and persecution in Iran:

Earlier this year, Kamran Rahimian, and his wife, Faran Hesami, who together have a two-year-old son, were convicted of similar charges of “being a member of Bahai community” (Article 499) and “gathering and colluding to disturb national security” (Article 610) and were each sentenced by Judge Salavati of the 15th Branch of the Revolutionary Court to four years in prison. Both Kamran and Faran had been serving as professors at the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education at the time of their arrest on September 12, 2012. They had been summoned to the 5th Court inside Evin Prison in Tehran, along with two other BIHE professors, following the incarceration of another seven BIHE professors and administrators on May 22, 2012. These seven were sentenced to a combined 25 years and six months in prison under similar charges and are now serving their sentences in Evin and Rajayi-Shahr prisons. It should be noted that Kamran Rahimian was transferred without a temporary release to the notorious Rajayi-Shahr prison following the approval of his verdict by the Appeals Court. The decision of the Appeals Court in the case of Faran Hesami has not yet been released.

On June 20, 2012, Keyvan Rahimian, brother of Kamran Rahimian and also a professor at the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, was sentenced by Judge Moghise of the 28th Branch of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court to five years in prison and ordered to pay a fine of 97 million rials (approximately $7000) His trial was held on June 11, 2012, outside the presence of his lawyer. Unfortunately, the attack on this Baha’i family also extends across generational lines as Kamran and Keyvan Rahimian’s father was executed at the beginning of the Islamic Revolution in 1984, along with more than 200 other Baha’is, for believing in the Baha’i Faith.

Following are a few lines that Keyvan wrote in an open letter soon after receiving his five-year prison sentence. His wife had recently passed away of cancer leaving him alone to raise their four-year old daughter.

“Yesterday, June 20th, I was summoned to court and the verdict was given to me. My charges are so strange that I cannot believe them. Kamran’s, Faran’s and my case have similar charges and as they say I am the most important person at BIHE and a psychology major. Apparently I was supposed to come out of prison (the first time in 2004) and accompany Fereshteh (my wife) on her eternal journey and share her pains before returning again to prison. Maybe on my return I am supposed to learn that I should not be attached to anything in this world, and probably my last attachment is my daughter Jina.

I have yet to learn the wisdom of what God and Baha’u’llah has planned for us, however I am sure that it is the best that can happen. The lesson I have been trying to learn from my imprisonment in 2004, and probably have not fully learned yet, is a sentence in the Obligatory prayer we say everyday: “Whatsoever is revealed by Thee is the desire of my heart and the beloved of my soul.” Apparently I am not that talented since I have not fully learned it yet.

I have been sentenced to five years in prison, and despite being acquitted of the charge of illicit money, I have been ordered to pay 97 million rials (approximately $7000) to the government for the recent months that I worked. The sentence can be appealed and I have 20 days to ask for the appeal. Naturally I hope to see more justice in the Court of Appeals and my charges to be overturned.”

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