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Map of the Middle East from an up-to-date Iranian textbook for 5th grade students in primary school. The area where the state of Israel existing since 1948 should be located, is described on the map as »Occupied Palestine« in Farsi.
The Islamic Republic of Iran stopped recognizing Israel's right to exist since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Today, more than 200,000 Jews with Iranian roots are living in Israel, while the number of Jews in Iran is about 10,000. Until the Islamic Revolution about 100,000 Jews lived in Iran but after several Jews, including Habib Elghanian, a well-known businessman and head of the Jewish community of Iran, were executed by Islamist, the majority of Iranian Jews emigrated abroad.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has been trying to ideologically brainwash the population for over 40 years, however the rulers have achieved exactly the opposite: the majority of Iranians today reject the government's Islamist ideology and the images of the West as an enemy and are very open and friendly towards the West.
The following interview features an Iranian woman living in Iran who worked as a teacher and school principal before the Islamic Revolution and continued working as a teacher until her retirement. She remains anonymous for this interview to protect her from state repression.
Which pleasant and unpleasant memories do you associate with your school days in the fifties in Iran?
In my childhood, I attended a very good private school in Iran. There was a nice and reasonable atmosphere in the school and the staff consisted of the best qualified professionals of that time. We could play theater, had music lessons and all the subjects that a child dreamed of.
My fondest memory of my school days I associate with Shabanou Farah¹, who attended a theatrical performance at our school. I attended the graduating class at that time and acted in that performance, dressed as a man. At that time when visiting us at the school Farah was pregnant for the first time.
The saddest memory of my school days is associated with a painting and art contest in which I would have certainly done very well. But the night before this competition my father died and so I could not participate. I was 16 years old at the time and this memory still hurts today.
How was the relationship between girls and boys in your childhood?
When meeting other children - boys and girls - gender didn't matter. We played together in the gardens of the houses or in the street. Parents didn't have any problems with that and they didn't separate us.
Boys and girls attended classes together until the fourth grade, followed by separate classes afterwards. At school, girls and boys treated each other very respectfully and sensibly. Probably some of them also dreamed of love, but hardly showed it in reality. Every boy and girl dreamed of partnership, of starting a family and living together, but we talked about it only very carefully and with inhibitions.
It was not so fashionable at that time to frequently change friendships. Almost half of the friendships then ended in a committed relationship and marriage. If these friendships failed, people kept it to themselves and didn't talk about it.
What happened for you after leaving school?
After finishing school, I first wanted to support my mother with her work because my father was no longer alive.
I registered with the Ministry of Education and was able to start working in a small town school. There was an entrance exam for me at this school, which I passed, and so I was allowed to teach, as a high school graduate, at the elementary school level. After passing an examination for teacher training, I was able to study for three years. The Shah gave an award of 400m2 of land to all graduates who successfully passed their teacher training. I eventually rose through the ranks in the school managment; first I was secretary to the school principal and later I took over as the principal.
Schooling in those days depended more on a child's personality than on a strict set of requirements. If a child was particularly good at physics or drama, they received additional support there.
One of the most extraordinary women in the Iranian education system was Dr. Farrokhroo Parsa² (1922-1980), who became the first woman in Iran to hold a ministerial post in the Ministry of Education in 1963. A year after the Islamic Revolution, Ms. Parsa was executed by Chomeini's henchmen. Her last words were: »The court that tried me discriminates between men and women, and I hope the future will be better for women than my lot today.«
As an Iranian woman, a longtime teacher and a school principal, what do you associate with Ms. Parsa?
Dr. Farrokhroo Parsa was a role model for every Iranian woman. She was shining like a sun in her time. Her ability to make a difference and her knowledge strongly developed the Iranian Ministry of Education. If the whole period of Iran's education system is seen as a ring, then Ms. Parsa is the diamond on this ring.
In Ms. Parsa's time, learning (schooling, studying, training) was publicly subsidized for everyone (men and women) and regardless of what social class someone came from and tuition was free. Students were provided with free meals at school. Teachers at that time received benefits for vacation trips abroad, so that they could to be exposed to other impressions.
I am very sorry that Ms. Parsa, who accomplished so much, had such a sad end. It is hard to understand.
Shah Reza Pahlavi adopted in 1963 a 6-point program (»White Revolution«) to modernize Iran against the opposition of the clergy. At the same time, the Iranian Empress Farah Diba Pahlavi implemented a series of progressive projects in the field of children and youth.
As a teacher, how did you experience the implementation of these measures and projects, and which ones were particularly successful in your eyes?
Everything that the Shah and his wife Farah Diba Pahlavi set in motion in the six-point program of the White Revolution of 1963, i.e. the establishment of foundations for the education of children and young people, the Army of Knowledge, health and hygiene, the fight against illiteracy among the elderly, these were the best measures that could be implemented at that time.
Two points were particularly important for me personally, namely the foundations for children and youth and the fight against illiteracy among the elderly. The foundations for children and young people set up educational programs, for example with writing and painting courses, children published their own newspaper and there were individual support programs for children.
The Army of Knowledge was composed of young girls and boys who had just finished school and experienced this work as a social year. Participants of the Army of Knowledge, qualified for school teaching or a job in the health sector.
How did the Islamic Revolution in 1979 change your work as a teacher and school principal?
In short, the Islamic Revolution meant that no one kept their old jobs and people with no qualifications were given high-level positions at work.
At that time, I had joined up with experienced colleagues to lodge an objection, but to no avail. We all got only jobs that were less demanding than our original ones. I was employed in a boys' school in a poor district in Tehran and a year later I was allowed to take over the third grade of an elementary school there. The students at this school have always been very respectful and polite towards me.
What happened after 1979 to teachers from the Shah period who did not conform to the Islamists' ideas?
Many of these colleagues faced numerous difficulties and changes in their lives.
Those, who could, left the country. Some ‘locked themselves up’ at home, left school and continued to live with fear and uncertainty.
One of my best colleagues had a son who attended the elite university in Shiraz. Once he was carrying a banned magazine while there, he was arrested and executed three days later. This colleague developed massive psychological problems and she always carried a photo of her son with her until the end of her life.
Has the Islamic revolution achieved anything positive in the field of education?
Actually, the Shah already planned that more women should be educated and study, but strictly religious families did not want their daughters to study in an open, secular atmosphere.
After the Islamic Revolution, these religious families had no longer any reason to prevent their daughters to study. However, the Islamic Republic of Iran did not plan for more women from religious families to attend the universities after the revolution.
And ultimately, this led to an opposite result in the sense that these women from religious families often ended up being more critical of the system because of their studies. If Iranian specialists and intelligent academics went abroad after the revolution to attend elite universities, it was because they were intelligent themselves and they wanted to circumvent the ideological controls of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Some Iranians, who did not understand the ideological controls after the revolution, also emigrated abroad.
So, the Islamic Revolution did not achieve anypositive improvements. If the revolution had not happened, many intelligent Iranians would have stayed in the country and the society would have benefited.
What controls and guidelines did you have to follow while teaching after the Islamic revolution?
As a woman, I had to wear the hijab and the personal opinion and the belief were controlled and if someone did not pass these controls, then they were dismissed.
After the revolution, in every Iranian school there is a person from the state who officially acts as an »educator« but in reality is just an informer for the government to check the loyalty of the staff and students. And these »educators« have caused many difficulties for our colleagues.
I have seen a staff member who lost her job as a teacher for two years and not get paid. She only managed to resume teaching after giving favors to a mullah.
Are there any possibilities or leeway for teachers within the strict ideological guidelines of the Islamic regime to organize school lessons more freely?
No, our working atmosphere was never so free that we could shape our lessons according to our own ideas.
There were even some students who controlled whether the teachers behaved in conformity with the Islamic Republic of Iran. And we as teachers had to be careful what questions we asked in class.
My principal was always uncertain about me because I brought a book for the art class that did not conform to the ideological guidelines. She checked this book regularly to see if there might be any secretly hidden information for the students within. She knew that I had worked in the school service before the revolution and because of that she constantly made difficulties, for example, she even faulted the the bright color of my sneakers. This principal was not Iranian, but came from Iraq, hence she was so well connected to the system, she got the post as principal without the appropriate qualifications.
Did you know other teachers who first backed Islamic ideology in 1979 and whose attitudes changed over the years?
Some collaborators from different faiths (Hezbollah, Mujahideen, leftist political scene) initially tried to support the ideas of the Islamic Revolution. There were even some who thought the new Islamic Republic of Iran was something like the United States or Germany.
After the Islamic Revolution ousted the Shah's system the situation was supposed to normalize but the situation in the country did not calm down. Almost everyone I knew from the Ministry of Education before the revolution realized what a wrong path the Islamic Revolution had taken when there were mass executions and arbitrary arrests. Some colleagues quit their jobs for a small severance pay or took an early retirement.
Only when it was already too late did our people realize what had gone wrong.
After 1979, attempts were made in Iranian schools to use children to obtain information about their parents' private lives and to punish the latter for violations of the Islamic ideology. As a teacher, what is your experience of instrumentalizing children as »spies« and how does such a measure change children when they have learned from an early age that it is better not to tell the truth?
This spying on parents by children took place and still takes place especially in middle school (6 to 8 grade). These children are exploited by being asked, for example, if the parents pray at home, what music they listen to, what drinks they consume, or if they receive foreign news channels. And the innocent children's answers have caused a lot of trouble for numerous parents. These parents received summons and warnings, and in case of repetition, the vice squad conducted house searches.
Parents taught their children after the revolution not to divulge family secrets or, if asked questions about their private lives, not to tell the truth. Lying became an integral part of these children's lives.
These children grew up with two different characters and they ultimately became insecure and unstable people.
Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-1967) is considered to be the first Iranian poet who spoke openly and honestly about a woman's feelings and desires and did not submit to any morals or religious dogma. How was her work treated in school lessons? Were any questions about sexuality answered at all in the classroom after the Islamic Revolution?
Before the Islamic Revolution, most students knew Forugh and her work and liked her very much because Forugh always wrote her poems very openly and bluntly. But after the revolution, speaking and reading Forugh's work took place in secret only.
As an example of sexual education after the Revolution, a personal experience: the school secretary at my school had invited a female doctor, who was to respond to the students' questions on this subject. During this school lesson, by order of the »educators«, no teacher was to be present in the class. The secretary got enormous problems after this school lesson from state authorities because they did not understand the sense of her project and thought it was not necessary. This dispute between the secretary and the state »educators« could only be settled with the help of older colleagues of mine from the ministry.
What answer does an Iranian child receive at school after 1979 to the question: Where do I come from, how did I come to earth?
There is no clear answer in school.
Parents and families have taken over this task from the school, but differently in each family. Some used books and movies for elucidation, others used animals or flowers as examples. But in religious families, these questions were ignored or the mother told the child, God put you in my belly. For religious families, such questions are not a matter for children.
In the Iran-Iraq War, which was in Chomeini's words »a godsend«, tens of thousands of Iranian child soldiers lost their lives because they were used to defuse mines. How did the Islamist brainwashing go on to cause so many children to die? What influence did schools have in mobilizing child soldiers?
The entire Islamist ideology - in its propaganda - aimed first and foremost at spreading the cult of martyrdom. And so society was prepared in order that young people would sacrifice themselves for Islam and the revolution.
»Educators« from the state, who were strictly religious and who had previously exploited children as spies, then manipulated the children in the same way for martyrdom and promised them the paradise. Both, boys and girls, and even parents were mobilized for the war. There were many students who ‘sacrificed’ themselves and to this day there are families in Iran who cannot forget the loss of their children.
Iran is a multi-ethnic and multicultural country; is this also reflected in the school system and teaching?
Since there is no freedom of thought and expression in the school system of the Islamic Republic of Iran, anyone who thinks and speaks differently is not welcome. And this does not do justice to a multi-ethnic country like Iran and has caused many problems.
People from ethnic groups with a different language are not allowed to speak in their native language in government offices, and the individual provinces cannot make independent decisions in the school system. This causes many problems in communication, for example with Kurds, Turks or Baluchis.
During the recent years many teachers in Iran have been sentenced to several years in prison after peacefully demonstrating for freedom of expression and an independent trade union. Have the teachers' protests achieved any improvements in the Iranian school system?
The opportunity for free and peaceful expression of opinion has not existed since the beginning of the Islamic Republic of Iran until today.
A demonstration or expression of opinion could be more successful if it is supported by broader parts of society. And one should not forget that, on the one hand, there are a large number of teachers in Iran, but on the other hand, there is only a relatively small budget for them in the state budget. All teachers, who have openly fought for their rights and expressed their demands, have been arrested.
Therefore, there are no improvements in the school system for teachers.
Is Iran's long and rich cultural history perhaps more of a burden than a gift for today's young generation, since the perspective is too often turned to the past and modernizations are not carried out?
A look at Iran's ancient history and Iranian high culture can be useful for the future. But one should not be proud simply because of history and get stuck in the past.
Of course, many young Iranians are interested in the history of their country, but this past cannot be easily transferred to today's life. It would be good if we could build a modern country from the old, cultural values and knowledge together with today's finding. Many smart, young Iranians have tried to revive older values. But especially these very young people had to pay for it with bans on access to universities, imprisonment or ideological surveillance by the government. These old values have survived until today, but they cannot be implemented in public. For this reason, there are also many drug and medicine addicts and a social depression in Iran. Only those, who have emigrated abroad, have been able to save themselves.
Persian poets such as Rumi, Hafez or Saadi are still revered by Iranians as national heroes and their work is characterized by humanity, joie de vivre and wisdom. The rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran trample these values of Iranian poetry with their lies, corruption and terror against critics. How much has Iranian culture been damaged after more than 40 years of Islamic Republic of Iran?
The values and works of Persian poets like Saadi, Ferdowsi, Hafez and others are documented and in the hearts and minds of the people of Iran and this cannot be changed.
Even in today's population of Iran, these values are still rooted. Even though there are attempts and works of newer poets in Iran, they could not surpass the quality of the old poets. There are gatherings and meetings even today in Iran where people talk and sing about these works and in some families the books of these poets are considered like holy books.
So the people of Iran have not forgotten the works of these poets and the attempts of the Islamic Republic of Iran to instrumentalize and interpret these works only in their sense have not been successful.
Education is considered as a key to a modern society; what do you consider to be the most important qualifications a person should acquire at school?
Fortunately, in today's world there are various role models for educational systems, so a young society can benefit from them.
The most important thing that children learn is not in the classical school curriculum, but at home in the family: and that is a humanistic, non-material attitude combined with a love of one's country.
In my eyes, today's schools place more emphasis on teaching the basics, for example, in mathematics or basic knowledge, but there is far too little reference to practice. In this respect, we are still far from a modern and progressive education system.
We have a large number of young people in Iran with enormous learning abilities, but it is precisely these intelligent, young people who have to learn many things in our school system that are useless for their everyday lives, e.g. religious education or checking their loyalty to the Islamic Republic of Iran. For this reason, a modern education based on knowledge is difficult to implement in Iran today.
Many young Iranians do not want or are not able to follow the ideological guidelines and that is why they do not get admission to study or further education. Those of these people, who have the financial means, go abroad to study and the others try to survive here in a depressive atmosphere. Drug addiction, suicides and lack of perspective are the consequences of our education system.
Iranian Nobel laureate in mathematics Maryam Mirzakhani emigrated to the United States, where she taught at Stanford University until her death. One in four well-educated Iranians leaves the country when they have the chance. What future do you see for young people in Iran?
It's an open secret that young and well-educated people are leaving the country. And those who don't have that opportunity often sink into depression and fear of the future.
The problem is not that well-educated Iranians go abroad to study and gain valuable and new impressions, but that these people do not come back to Iran. And as long as the situation in Iran is not such that such educated people are welcomed, Iran will not benefit. And we will not be able to keep academics like Ms. Mirzakhani, of whom our country will always be proud, in our country or our universities in the future.
This will not get us anywhere and so we will end up with nothing.
05 / 2021
¹ Shabanou Farah is the last Iranian Empress Farah Diba Pahlavi, who has been living in exile since 1979.
² Dr. Farrokhroo Parsa (1922 - 1980) was an Iranian minister, educator and physician. She did pioneering work in the education sector, championed women's rights and was the first woman in Iran to hold a ministerial post.
On May 08. 1980, Ms. Parsa was executed by Islamists in Tehran. A letter to her children, written before her execution in prison, states:
»I am a doctor so I have no fear of death. Death is only a moment and no more. I am prepared to receive death with open arms rather than live in shame by being forced to be veiled. I am not going to bow to those who expect me to express regret for fifty years of my efforts for equality between men and women. I am not prepared to wear the chador and step back in history.«