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The filmmakers shooting a scene for the documentary Education Under Fire.
The filmmakers shooting a scene for the documentary Education Under Fire.

Math Professor Aids Call for Freedom of Education in Iran

Education, perhaps one of the most basic human rights, has for decades been denied to thousands of people in Iran because of their religion. Those who do not practice Islam and will not hide their faith are denied access to Iranian universities—among them are the hundreds of thousands of Bahá’ís who make up Iran’s largest non-Muslim minority.  In 1987, The Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education (BIHE) was founded for students who cannot attend other universities because of their religion. Though it began with about 20 students in a small, cramped apartment in the city of Tehran, it is now a facility that reaches out to students all over the country and has majors and even graduate programs that range from the sciences to architecture. The school is not, however, exclusively for and by Bahá’ís; the BIHE has faculty and students from all ethnic groups who support its mission.

Professor of Mathematics Lynne Butler, a member of the American Bahá’í Community, has been inspired by the work of the BIHE for some time. In 2011, however, after reading “An Open Letter to the International Academic Community” by Nobel Peace Prize laureates Desmond Tutu and José Ramos-Horta, she decided to take action. “I am motivated by a desire to aid those who are denied education by a repressive regime, and to inspire others with an example of the courage and resourcefulness of individuals persecuted by that regime,” she says. “I have deep admiration and respect for the faculty and students of BIHE, and for the Haverford faculty and students, as well as local residents, who are in sympathy with them and are inspired by them.” Butler has even volunteered to teach an online course to BIHE students next spring.

To help educate members of the Haverford community about the plight of the Iranian Bahá’ís, Butler was an organizer of a recent event that screened a documentary on the subject, Education Under Fire. Iranian human rights journalist and activist Omid Memarian, the film’s executive producer David Hoffman and Lehigh University Assistant Professor Shamim Pakzad, himself a graduate of the BIHE, were all on hand for a panel discussion following the screening. Ed Martin, from the Center for Interfaith Engagement at Eastern Mennonite University and former Quaker International Affairs Representative for Iran at the American Friends Service Committee, was the discussion moderator. Professors, students and members of the Haverford community joined the discussion and ultimately emphasized the urgency of enabling the Bahá’í community to gain access to education without restraint in Iran. (Butler has also been involved in circulating a petition, and keeping track of those that sign it with Bi-Co email addresses, to call for freedom of education in Iran.)

The event was presented by the Gest Center for Cross-Cultural Study of Religion, the Distinguished Visitors Program, the Quaker Affairs Office, the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, Students’ Council and Bryn Mawr’s Pensby Center. Many faculty and students worked together to bring the panel discussion together, and to establish a “call to action” against the Iranian government’s prosecution of its indigenous groups that do not follow Islamic law. In the documentary, one of the interviewees says, “What makes [this] movement so different from others is that we are not in conflict with the government. We are at peace with the Iranian government. We only ask to have the choice to have our own religious beliefs.”

For more information about the film and the BIHE:

-Ananya Mukkavilli ’14

Students cross in front of Founders Hall.

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