“Keep a strong desire in your head. Make your wings strong for the day you get to fly.”
Niknaz Riazati ‘17 recalls circling the outside of the library at the University of Tehran, looking for a door that didn’t have a security guard on duty, or a group of students she could follow in without being noticed.
“I knew that if a guard asked for my paperwork, I would be kicked out,” she says.
Riazati, who is graduating this month with a master’s of science degree in biology from Saint Joseph’s University, is a native of Iran and a member of the Baha’i faith. Iran refuses to recognize Baha’i as an official religion because, among other teachings, Baha’is believe in equality between men and women and in the independent investigation of truth — there are no religious leaders or clergy — which is contrary to Islam’s authoritarian structure.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian government has spread rumors that Baha’is are spies, tortured and killed them and instituted policies to systematically persecute those who follow the faith. The discriminatory policies include denials of employment, government benefits and access to higher education. The last is a particularly harmful suppression, because universal and compulsory education is crucial to Baha’i teaching.
“Even attending high school was difficult,” Riazati remembers. “At the first high school I applied to, they asked about my religion and denied me when they found out I was Baha’i. I had to go to a school far from home just to study.”
The principal at her second high school also eventually found out about her background. She berated Riazati, telling her that Baha’i was not a real religion and instructing her not to talk about her beliefs with others. The issue never came up again, but Riazati was ready to disobey the order and risk further punishments if it did. In many schools, Baha’i students are forced to sit at separate benches and are forbidden to talk with their classmates. In others, they are physically punished.
“We are denied basic human dignity,” Riazati says. “Banning us from education excludes us from society.”
Seeking a way to counteract the feeling of isolation, Riazati joined non-governmental organizations that allowed her to teach younger students.
“Teaching brought me happiness for two reasons,” she says. “I was serving people and I found myself as a member of the society that I was planned to be kept from.”
To continue her own education beyond high school, Riazati enrolled in the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), a college formed in 1987 by and for Baha’is. The founding teachers were volunteer Baha’i professionals — doctors, lawyers, engineers and others — and professors who had held positions at government-run universities in Iran but had lost their jobs because of their affiliation with the faith. In the years since its founding, graduates have returned to volunteer their time to teach new students. The school is underground, sometimes literally: classes are held in basements and other out-of-the-way locations to avoid detection by authorities. The strategy doesn’t always work.
“During my first year studying biology at BIHE, the location I was studying at was raided,” Riazati recalls. “They took computers, microscopes and other equipment. Our labs were left bare. And this can happen several times a year. Sometimes, teachers are detained for five or more years just for providing education to Baha’is.”
Despite the oppression that they face, teachers and students at BIHE press onward. They conduct classes via online correspondence, rebuild their labs after every raid and many teachers return to the college after their detainments. They do this, according to Riazati, out of a sense of purpose.
“BIHE exists to keep hope alive,” she says. “Rather than act out of anger at the persecution, we act out affirmatively.”
After graduating from BIHE and knowing she had no options for graduate school in Iran, Riazati looked internationally. Nearly 100 schools in the United States, Canada, Europe, India, Australia and New Zealand recognize credentials from BIHE. Riazati chose Saint Joseph’s and immediately found a friendly environment.
“People in the United States, and especially at SJU, were so quick to welcome me,” she says. “They asked about my background and religion not to persecute me, but to actually engage in a conversation where we could learn from one another.”
At Saint Joseph’s, Riazati studied under Matthew Nelson, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, researching the neuroscience of sleep. She worked with other students to study the sleep mechanics of the roundworm species Caenorhabditis elegans.
The experience has been a welcome relief for the woman who had spent so much of her life going to extra lengths just to feel like she was part of a student population.
After graduation, Riazati will continue her education in the Molecular, Cellular and Integrative Physiology Group at the University of California – Davis College of Biological Sciences. She will study for four to six years to earn her Ph.D. When she completes her doctoral degree, she wants to research and return to teaching.
“I was lucky to get educated,” she says. “Not a day passed for me without thinking of my Baha’i friends in Iran who are unjustly banned from their basic rights to education and from the educational resources and facilities that I am able to take advantage of.”
Riazati sees education as a beacon of hope for those who are persecuted. She says that learning can help people to rise above the difficulties.
“I want to tell students how important it is to imagine their success,” she shares. “Keep a strong desire in your head. Make your wings strong for the day you get to fly.”
For more information on the fight for education for Baha’is, you can read about the “Education is #NotACrime” street art project or watch “To Light A Candle,” a documentary about the BIHE by filmmaker Maziar Bahari. Bahari’s reporting on the 2009 Iran election was the subject of Jon Stewart’s film “Rosewater.”