A flickering light gives hope for education

 

Those of us who can assert that education is not a crime are the fortunate ones.

Those of us who can assert that education is not a crime are the fortunate ones.

“They can destroy books and computers, or they can imprison people.

They can confiscate property and shut down classes.

But they can’t confiscate education.

They can’t end the love of learning, love of teaching”

Supporter of the Bahai Institute of Higher Education, in exile

Is education a right or a privilege? What happens when individuals or groups of people are denied access to education? To what lengths will people go in order to obtain an education, or to ensure that others do not gain access to learning? These questions, and other similar points of debate were the focus of a discussion held yesterday evening at the University of Northampton.

The debate around these fundamental issues was provoked by the showing of a film “To Light a Candle” made by the Iranian journalist and film maker Maziar Bahari, whose other films include Of Shame and Coffins (2000) and Along Came a Spider (2003). He has also been involved in the production of television documentaries, including programmes for Channel 4 and the BBC in the UK. Bahari is not unfamiliar with controversy and oppression having spent time in an Iranian prison accused of anti-state activity after filming and publicising “illegal demonstrations” and “illegal gatherings” in Tehran. “To Light a Candle” is certainly unlikely to enhance his popularity amongst the current rulers of Iran as it continues Bahari’s theme of recording oppression and denial of human rights.

“To Light a Candle” tells the story of the Bahai community in Iran and their struggle to obtain education and fair employment. The Bahai’is are a significant minority religious group within Iran, where their faith was originally founded in the nineteenth century. Ever since their foundation, during the time of the Ottoman Empire they have faced persecution, but they have always resisted this oppression through determined non-violent resistance.

In modern day Iran Bahai’is are forbidden access to higher education and are not allowed to teach in universities. Some of those who have sought a university education elsewhere and have returned to Iran have been denied the right to practice their professions, and the degrees that they have obtained from well-established universities have not been recognised within the country. One of many examples of this level of persecution is the story of Faran Hesami who graduated in 2003 with a Master’s degree in Educational Counselling from the University of Ottawa, Canada. On her return to Iran, where she hoped to work for the benefit of her local community Faran Hesami was arrested and tried and informed that her degree was illegal, and therefore she had been practicing as a counsellor illegally. The court sentenced her to four years imprisonment.

“To Light a Candle” is in many respects a depressing film, and not surprisingly, those of us watching, representing many different nationalities, cultures and a range of secular and religious beliefs, were horrified at the level of oppression depicted. Everyone present at the showing of this film had benefitted from education from primary school days through to university, and there was a general consensus that our experiences left us better equipped to make a contribution to the countries from which we come. Whilst the sense of injustice around the room was palpable, there was however, one aspect of this film that gave everyone present hope that things will be better in the future. On several occasions individuals from the Bahai community shown in the film demonstrated their commitment to obtaining an education and their preparedness to go to great lengths to assert this right. The point was strongly made, that whilst it is possible to deny access to universities or libraries, to destroy learning materials and resources, and to attempt to stop people learning together, determined individuals will find ways of circumventing legislation and oppression and will continue to learn.

Within Iran students and academics, supported by many Iranians who are not of the Bahai faith have organised themselves to create the Bahai Institute of Higher Education (BIHE). Through this underground movement classes are organised and qualifications obtained. Though the Iranian authorities do not recognise this institute or its awards, the organisers of this movement persist and are continuing to assert the right to education. Academics from around the world have supported this movement by giving their time to teach courses at the BIHE at a distance through internet links and the production of teaching materials. The film showed professors from Canada and the United States of America engaging with students on a range of courses and enabling them to have access to high quality teaching.

The showing of this film to a small audience enabled those present to reassert their commitment to the concept of education for all. Many of the students present have been involved in researching and debating aspects of inclusive education over the past few years, and their tutors in some instances for far longer. Discussions about the exclusion of children from education because of disability, poverty, caste or conflict have been a regular feature of the work of those present. This film added a new dimension to our attempts to understand the impact of exclusion and the importance of  gaining a holistic view of the meaning of inclusion.

The courage of individuals, who are struggling in the face of danger to obtain an education, should encourage all of us who have opportunities to learn in freedom alongside our peers and colleagues, to value what we have. The overwhelming view within the room was that education is indeed a right, but that perhaps those of us who have had educational opportunities should recognised how privileged we are, by comparison to others who live under oppressive regimes. Whilst members of the Bahai community in Iran and others around the world continue to be denied their right to education, it will be essential that those of us who do have the freedom to learn continue to debate these issues, and bring them to the attention of others.

Education is Not A crime, is a movement campaigning to bring the denial of education to the Bahai community to wider attention. You can find details at:-

http://www.educationisnotacrime.me/

To see a trailer for the film “To Light a Candle” go to:-

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v7aE27GyMMo

 

 

4 thoughts on “A flickering light gives hope for education

  1. Hi Richard,
    I think your blog post eloquently summarises the discussion we had, and particularly the disbelief that education can be considered an actual crime in some parts of the world. I believe that there is a great disservice done unto generations of individuals, via a knock-over effect, when even one small group of society is hindered or inhibited from acquiring an education in any form. One of the quotes that struck me strongly from the documentary was about the Baha’is belief in prioritising education for girls and women, as they are the ones who then go on to further educate their children and the generations to come. I cannot verify the origin, but there is a oft-quoted African saying which states, “educating a girl is like educating a whole nation.” (possible source: James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey via http://www.afriprov.org/index.php/african-proverb-of-the-month/25-1999proverbs/146-sep1999.html)

    • Hi Saneeya,
      Thank you for your observations. I think we all know that the education of girls has been a major issue around the world. If you read the UNESCO Global Report of the EFA goals you will see that progress is being made, but in some countries this is far too slow.
      One of the disappointing facts at present is that when films such as “To Light A Candle” are shown the audiences consist of a few committed individuals and the majority still believe that this is not a concern for them. Unless each individual assumes some responsibility situations will be difficult to change.
      Let’s hope that more people begin to share their ideas.

  2. Thank you Richard for sharing this.
    The word Bahai… reminds of 2 Bahai senior high schoolmates of mine – Mehnaz and Mastooreh…wonder where they are and what they are doing??!!

    Also this brings to mind a huge argument I had recently with some board members of a CBR centre in Cochin where I am an advisor;….. regarding their need to send away girls above 15!!

    I had to threaten them with the Law… the discussion is still not over…where they still feel there should be an “exit policy for the girls”!! Am having another meeting this Monday and perhaps more before hopefully we can resolve things without using the Law!!

    All this is in Kerala … supposedly the most literate state in India!!

    I wonder what upsets them about girls learning and getting an education!!

    Hoping for a better tomorrow.
    Suchitra

    • Hi Suchitra, It is good to know that you are still fighting to good fight on behalf of oppressed groups and individuals in Kerala. Kerala is the most literate state in India only because of the work of colleagues like yourself who are determined to improve education there. Keep up the good work. Hope we can catch up in April.

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