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