Young Woman’s Quest for Higher Education Exposes Iran’s Discrimination Against Baha’is
Rouhieh Safajoo, a student banned from Iranian universities because of her Baha’i faith and arrested for her online activism, was released on March 27, 2016 on 500 million rials (about $16,500 USD) bail, nearly three weeks after her arrest.
“We are very happy Rouhieh is free,” her sister, Maryam Safajoo, told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “But the real story is that for the past 37 years [since Iran’s 1979 revolution], Baha’i students have been denied the right to attend university.”
“And it keeps getting worse. Even when [Baha’i] seek justice by peaceful means, they get threats and it ends up in their arrest,” she said. “Rouhieh is one of thousands of young Baha’is who have been banned from getting an education in this country.”
Arrested for Speaking Out
Rouhieh Safajoo, who lives in Karaj (12 miles west of Tehran), was arrested on the morning of March 8, 2016 for allegedly “acting against national security on cyberspace.”
In 2014 and 2015 she had taken Iran’s grueling annual university entrance exam, along with millions of other students, but both times her results were withheld because of her faith, making it impossible for her to access higher education. Since receiving her first rejection she has been actively writing about the daily persecution she and other Bahai’s are forced to endure on her Facebook page.
The Baha’i community is one of the most severely persecuted religious minorities in Iran. The faith is not recognized in the Islamic Republic’s Constitution and its members face harsh discrimination in all walks of life as well as prosecution for the public display of their faith.
The last public Facebook post she wrote, on March 5, 2016, was a widely circulated poem dedicated to the five-year-old son of a Baha’i woman imprisoned for teaching at a banned online Baha’i university that Rouhieh Safajoo had also attended:
“…This university has a construction, every brick of which is made with your and others’ childhood moments…
This university was erected on lives and hearts…
My little boy, forgive me for taking your childhood, so I would not remain deprived of education…”
Rouhieh Safajoo was arrested three days after publishing her poem. Her sister described the circumstances of the arrest in an interview with the Campaign.
“Two female agents and six male agents came to our house. Only one of the agents was visible on the video intercom and he told my mother that he was from the gas company. My mother buzzed him in and suddenly the other agents followed,” said Maryam Safajoo.
“The women searched Rouhieh’s room and the others searched the other rooms. They took my parents’ and Rouhieh’s mobile phones, laptops, books and even framed photos. They took close to 120 books as one agent filmed everything. They didn’t allow my mother to call my father to come home and they didn’t allow her to pick up the phone when it rang,” she added.
“One of the agents told my mother to open the garage door so that they could load the confiscated material more discretely and preserve my sister’s ‘reputation,’” said Maryam Safajoo. “My mother answered back that our reputation would be just fine.”
Denied Crucial Test Results
Baha’i students have long been denied higher education in the Islamic Republic. Previously, they were prevented from obtaining their exam results, which are required to attend any institution of higher learning in Iran, by an online message citing “incomplete cases.” But in a August 2014 Facebook post Rouhieh Safajoo described a new form of rejection due to her faith.
After logging in to view her exam results, an online message told her to write a letter or go to the National Education Evaluation Organization’s Queries Office in Karaj for her results. She soon discovered that her non-Baha’i friends were able to retrieve their results online, but that all Baha’is were being told to contact an evaluation organization, and that they would only be rejected upon contacting the address in the online message.
“If they had told me I had an ‘incomplete case,’ I wouldn’t have been upset because I was prepared for it. But it bothers me that they found a new way to reject us,” she wrote.
Complaints Illegally Ignored
Maryam Safajoo told the Campaign that when Rouhieh Safajoo took the national university entrance exam in 2014, she was summoned to the evaluation organization in Karaj where she was told Baha’is are prohibited from taking the exam instead of receiving her grades.
“Rouhieh told them that the ban was against the Constitution and every person has the right to education regardless of ethnicity or religion,” added Maryam Safajoo.
“I ask you and other officials to treat me just as you would other ‘human beings’ and ‘Iranians,’ in accordance with human rights and the Iranian Constitution,” wrote Rouhieh Safajoo, in a Facebook post addressed to Mohammad Javad Larijani, the head of the Iranian Judiciary’s Human Rights Council, on August 7, 2014 after receiving no response to the letter she had sent him on April 10.
“…[I]f my letter hasn’t reached you and you haven’t heard my voice, then you definitely haven’t heard the voices of any Baha’is—because you told international forums that Baha’is are not mistreated,” she wrote. “This time, I will try to make sure you get my letter and that your ears hear my voice, although I know it will be difficult to raise my voice that high.”
Rouhieh Safajoo also sent formal complaints to the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology, the Administrative Justice Court, the Office of President Hassan Rouhani, and the Parliament’s Article 90 Commission, which is supposed to investigate public complaints against the three branches of state based on Iran’s Constitution.
According to Article 90: “Whoever has a complaint concerning the work of the Assembly or the executive power, or the judicial power can forward his complaint in writing to the Assembly. The Assembly must investigate his complaint and give a satisfactory reply. In cases where the complaint relates to the executive or the judiciary, the Assembly must demand proper investigation into the matter and an adequate explanation from them, and announce the results within a reasonable time. In cases where the subject of the complaint is of public interest, the reply must be made public.”
“Rouhieh did not get a reply from any of the authorities,” Maryam Safajoo told the Campaign.
In his annual reports, Ahmad Shaheed, the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Iran, has repeatedly detailed the widespread abuse and discrimination against Baha’is in Iran, and called on the Iranian government to end its religious intolerance.
“Since childhood I have learned that it’s good and valuable to tolerate every kind of disaster in the path of truth. I still believe so,” wrote Rouhieh Safajoo on Facebook in 2014. “But why does it have to be that way, I ask? Didn’t Mr. Rouhani promise that all those who were turned away from university should be let in? So what happened?”
“Dear Mr. Rouhani, I don’t want you to let my expelled brother, father, mother, uncles, aunts and cousins back into universities,” she wrote. “From this big family, I only want you to let me into university. That would be enough to make us trust you and believe you keep your promises.”
The Iranian Judiciary has also not responded to a formal letter of complaint describing harrowing instances of torture suffered by Baha’is while they were in prison custody, the Campaign recently revealed.