hey can take away the books, they can take away all the equipment, the computers, everything... but the knowledge is in the brain. The government can crush our bodies, but they cannot crush the mind and soul," says a pale-looking, 30-something woman as the credits open. The demure looks and gentle voice of this woman, Shahrzad Missaghi, belie her nerves of steel, which cradle an infinite resilience she and thousand other Baha'is show every day in the face of mindless persecution by the government of Iran.
The film, titled Education under Fire, is a powerful human documentary about the systematic denial of the right to higher education to the Baha'is in their homeland. "While the persecution of Baha'is in Iran is an open secret, not many know about the government's efforts to scuttle the community's development by denying our youth higher education. Young Baha'is are prohibited from attending college and are also blocked from many professions, simply because they refuse to recant their beliefs," says Farida Vahedi, Trustee, National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of India, who introduced the film during a recent screening at the India International Centre in the Capital.
Directed by Jeff Kaufman and backed by Amnesty International, the 30-minute documentary profiles the inspiring tale of the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education, which was set up in 1987, to give young Baha'is their only chance for a university-level education. This independent university system helped thousands of Baha'i students across Iran to continue their studies after matriculation.
"Being a Baha'i in Iran, we had our own challenges. We grew up with the fear that one day we would be kicked out of school. So, we knew our options were very limited," says Mania Mohammad Hassan, a graduate from BIHE is currently working as a clinical and community nutritionist. Missaghi, who we meet in the very first frame, studied at this decentralised university, before going on to acquire a doctoral degree in Pharmaceutics in the US.
||This is part of a systematic persecution and has been called by some experts as cultural genocide... I think the Baha’is peaceful resolve shows a fundamental weakness in this (Iranian) regime.
—Jeff Kaufman, director
Though the BIHE syllabus was based on the mainstream pattern, its infrastructural arrangements needed a lot of tweaking. Fearful of a backlash from the government, the institute was run discreetly from an apartment building and its basement. Recalls Pedram Roushan, a former BIHE student who is presently a physics researcher in the US, "We used to have marathon classes, from 8am to 7pm for three days. Sometimes, we didn't have enough chairs to seat everybody because the apartments were too small."
Such was the fear of surfacing on the government's radar that assignments by students of far-off provinces were carried personally by trusted couriers, sometimes taking as long as two months to reach the instructors based in Tehran. Says Nikan Milani, a composer and concert pianist, who taught at BIHE, "It was very dangerous because all the phones were tapped, all the mails were checked and so we had to do everything face to face, hand to hand."
In May, 2011, the Iranian government organised raids and assault on the people associated with BIHE and arrested over a dozen of its professors and administrators, who are still serving a sentence for doing nothing more than trying to teach. As it moves on, the film brings to life personal stories and struggles of these students and teachers through a series of interviews. "The film connects a diverse audience to a grave human rights issue, a powerful story of resilience against oppression and the need to respect human rights everywhere," says Kaufman.
The director and his team began filming immediately after the BIHE raid in May 2011, consulting human rights specialists, UN officials, Baha'i scholars and family members of BIHE teachers and students. "It was a great collaboration. All interviewees participated willingly in the film, but some asked their faces to be blurred for fear of repression against their families," says Kaufman. The film also uses footage and photos spanning two decades of BIHE classes and a rare video from inside Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, where some of the inmates have been housed.
The film also notes that persecution of Baha'is does not represent the views of average Iranians and includes stories about Iranian Muslims coming to the defence of their Baha'i neighbours. "This is part of a systematic persecution and has been called by some experts as cultural genocide," says Kaufman adding, "I think the Baha'is peaceful resolve shows a fundamental weakness in this (Iranian) regime."