The Invisible Girl: Resisting an Extremist Education
12th November 2019
On my first day of school in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the process of indoctrination began with a simple piece of cloth.
In first grade, I came to realise for the first time that girls are not only different from boys, but that they occupy a lower place in the political and social hierarchy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The full extent of the country’s division along gender lines manifested itself later, as I became more aware. However, even at a young age, I felt the imbalance of power. At that time, I was more concerned with the freedoms that my brother Ali, only 18 months older than me, enjoyed. The freedom to run in our farmhouse’s yard wearing only a pair of shorts in the summer, whereas I had to be covered up at all times. The freedom to go swimming in the stream close to our tiny village or ride a bike. Youthful pleasures forbidden to me.
On my first day of school, the process of indoctrination began with a simple piece of cloth. I had to wear a headscarf at school, as a first step toward full Islamic hijab, whereas the boys had no such restrictions.
Along with that headscarf – and gender-segregated classrooms – came the ideology that reinforces, even to this day, gender stereotypes about the subservient nature of women that permeate the Islamic Republic.
Extremism in Iran is insidious and ideological. From middle school, special teachers, in charge of “parvaresh” or nurturing, ensure that the ideology of the Islamic Republic seeps into the fertile minds
of students. They are like political commissars, allaying the doubts of those whose faith in the system has weakened. From the very beginning of the school system, children are taught that being born a woman means having a different status than men and being subservient. They are taught that women are not equal to men, that gender discrimination is both legitimate and natural, and that women do not have a way of entering the top tier of society, a world order built on male authority.
I was not a rebellious teenager but I did like asking challenging questions about the lack of freedoms and the role of women. This led to my expulsion from school, only a year before graduation. I was eventually allowed to register at a different school to finish my final year. Here I joined a reading group which produced a pamphlet calling for greater freedoms and fairer distribution of wealth. Just weeks before graduation, I was arrested, along with my brother and other members of the reading group. After nearly a month in jail, with daily interrogation sessions while blindfolded, I wrote out my confession. Soon after, I was whisked off to see a judge, who told me I deserved the death penalty but that, given I was pregnant at the time, he would give me a three-year suspended jail sentence. I had to wait five years, until the end of my probation, to get my high school diploma.
From the very beginning of the school system, children are taught that being born a woman means having a different status than men and being subservient.
It is important to realise that extremism does not always have to involve car bombs, beheadings or a loaded Kalashnikov. In the Islamic Republic, extremism is both insidious and ingrained. Knowledge is censored. Iran backed out of the UN-devised global education agenda, known as Education 2030, because it called for equal rights for religious minorities and women. During my school years, we were discouraged from conducting independent research or finding materials other than the course books supplied by the authorities. This meant that I and millions of other children were unaware of our own history beyond what the Islamic authorities wanted us to learn.
Women have disappeared from textbooks.
The disappearance of women’s images is a form of censorship, which strengthens one of the foundational pillars of the Islamic Republic, namely the repression of women and division between the sexes.
In Iran, you are taught that challenging the political system means challenging God because the regime sees itself as a continuation of God’s will. In this light, any challenge to the Islamic government is in opposition to divine will, and its acceptance becomes a form of religious and sacred duty. The Islamic Government’s foundations–philosophical, political, religious and legal– cannot be questioned. Criticism is not tolerated.
So, an extremist ideology is normalised by being part of the political regime and is weaved into every aspect of the legal and political system. This reinforces the
belief in the supremacy of Islamic laws over secular laws. All textbooks demonstrate that Islam can offer effective and efficient solutions. Human agency is discouraged unless it is by men and for a religious cause.
Women and minorities are excluded. There is not much room in textbooks for members of other religions in Iran, and certainly nothing about the persecution of the Baha’i minority who are not allowed to study, lose their jobs and face jail or death just for their religious beliefs. The primacy of Shia Islam is continually reinforced throughout the education system.
Women have disappeared from textbooks. When they do appear, they are all wearing the ideological uniform of the regime: the compulsory hijab. Images of Western and Asian women are altered so that they too are
seen to be wearing Iran’s compulsory hijab dress code. The disappearance of women’s images is a form of censorship, which strengthens one of the foundational pillars of the Islamic Republic, namely the repression of women and division between the sexes. In textbook after textbook, women are shown to be inferior beings who must respect the role of men. In the discourse of the Islamic Republic, there are differences between men and women and the social role and position of each in public and private settings. Women occupy the private sphere, in the home, whereas men’s social role is to be in the public space.
Even though major figures like Helen Keller, Marie Curie and even Cleopatra get a mention, women are censored out of books. Women are helpless creatures who perform their roles as mother, sister or spouse, or who are symbols of female weakness who cannot do anything other than pray to God and beseech men.
Iranians are actively discouraged from reading anything about women fighting for equal rights. Language is also censored. For example, ‘love’ was a word rarely seen in our text books unless it was love for God. There were plenty of stories about sacrifice, war and suffering but nothing about love.
We were taught to think about jihad – both as a religious war and as a great sacrifice. Literature that glorified Iran’s pre-Islamic past disappeared from the curriculum.
There are no easy or quick answers on how to tackle such extremist ideologies in the Islamic Republic, which has weathered 40 years since Iran’s Revolution in 1979. And yet more international pressure must be brought on its rulers to adhere to universal standards and show greater respect for women and minorities.
The problem is not limited to Iran. In fact, wherever religious extremists take over, women are the first target. They are the first group to lose their voice and identity, to be forced into a secondary role. Being free means being able to say no. We should encourage that line of thinking. The West should not be afraid of challenging the ideology of religious extremism. Islam is a set of ideas and should not receive special treatment. We should challenge the philosophy of extremism for the sake of the next generations.