On August 4, Hassan Rouhani became the new President of Iran. Whether he will have the desire and wherewithal to open space for those excluded from the system in recent decades is something that I, like many others, will be watching closely.
In May of 1980, I was a fourth year medical student in a seven-year programme at Shiraz University in Iran. One day that month, some of my classmates disrupted classes protesting against the “Westoxicated” elements in the university. Soon, I realized that this was the beginning of what came to be known as the 'Cultural Revolution' in Iran. Within two days, the university was closed in order to be “cleansed” of its unwanted elements.
Our classes remained closed for a year and a half (other classes and universities remained closed even longer). During that time, except for some very satisfying but unofficial clinical experiences in university hospitals with a number of sympathetic professors, my medical education was on hold. When in mid-October 1981, the new issue of the bulletin Jihad-i Danishgahi (The Holy War of the University) was published, it contained an announcement of the categories of students who would not be permitted to return to the universities once they re-opened. One group on the list was “the misguided sects which Muslims agree in consensus to be outside of the pale of Islam.”
I knew enough about the terminology of the Shia clerics who dominated governmental decision-making in Iran to understand that they were targeting the Baha’i community – the largest non-Muslim minority religion in Iran, of which I was a member. Given that by mid-October 1981, the regime had executed at least seventy Baha’is, this announcement was not completely unexpected. It signalled that the regime was now targeting students on the basis of their beliefs. That this policy was endorsed at the highest level of government became indisputable with the disclosure years later of a 1991 memorandum, signed by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, ordering that Baha’is be denied admission to universities or expelled “once they are discovered to be Baha’is.”
Less than a month after I read this announcement, the registration for the 1981-1982 academic year was opened. On registration day, I went to school with another Baha’i in my class whose father, a doctor of pharmacy, had been executed just a few months earlier for being a Baha’i. He and I were asked our names and were then told, “Your names are not on the list. You are not allowed to re-enter the university. You are dismissed!”
When we inquired about the reason for our dismissal, “membership in the misguided sect” was the terse response.
After the start of classes in November, I went to the medical school to appeal my dismissal. As I was waiting, I saw some of my former classmates entering the yard. After a few minutes of chatting, one of them looked at her watch and said, “Sorry, Mina, I have to go. Our class is going to start in a few minutes!” As I watched her walk towards the medical school building, I could see in the background the skeleton of Siah Khan, for me a symbol of the Shiraz medical school, through my tears.
With my hopes of becoming a physician dashed, I eventually turned to the humanities, obtaining my PhD in Toronto, Canada. I now teach history at a US university. Although happy with my career, I will always have a yearning to know what it would have been like to pursue my dreams in medicine. And my heart is made heavy by the fact that the denial of higher education that I faced has been a reality not only for two generations of Baha’i youth, but also for many others who hold views with which the regime disagrees.
Whether space for religious pluralism will be allowed by Iran’s leaders will be a harbinger of things to come. When Baha’is are permitted to earn university degrees, when Sunnis are permitted to build mosques, when Sufis are allowed to carry out their ceremonies, when Christian house churches are no longer subject to raids, it will bode well for the protection of other freedoms in Iran. The challenge for Dr. Rouhani, if he is truly interested in leading a popular government, will be how to convince others in the leadership elite that such pluralism is not a seditious threat but rather a source of strength that can enrich the country as a whole.