Banned from making their mark

September 6, 2012
Three Iranian Baha'is who are denied the opportunity to make a distinctive contribution to their country. Pictured, from left: pianist Pegah Yazdani; judo champion Khashayar Zarei; and chess player Pedram Atoufi.

NEW YORK, United States — In practically any other country of the world, a teenage chess champion, a national judo standout and a talented pianist would be valued as contributors to their society.

In the example of three young Iranians, however, being members of the Baha'i Faith has meant a ban on competing and performing at the highest levels.

Judoist Khashayar Zarei, chess player Pedram Atoufi, and pianist Pegah Yazdani are all victims of Iran's systematic policy – spelled out in a government-backed 1991 memorandum – to "block" the progress and development of Baha'is and "deny them any position of influence."

Khashayar's story

As Iran brought home a record haul of medals from the 2012 Olympic Games in London, 19-year-old Khashayar Zarei could only dream of what might have been.

In his age and weight class, Khashayar is one of the country's finest judoists. But he has been barred from competition because he is a Baha'i.

"Despite the fact that on three occasions I came first in my weight group on the national team, as a result of my belief in the Baha'i Faith, I have been banned from participating in the Asian World competitions," Khashayar wrote in a letter published by the Human Rights Activists News Agency.

To add to Khashayar's disappointment, he was recently stopped from pursuing his architectural studies at Shiraz University because of his religious beliefs. Officials told him they had received instructions to expel him in a confidential letter from the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology. This is also part of official government policy: that once it becomes known a student is Baha'i, he or she must be expelled.

Khashayar is not alone among Iranian youth in having his hopes thwarted.

Application forms for admission to special programs for gifted students require the applicant to specify his or her religion, allowing administrators to disqualify Baha'i candidates; there is no option to leave the section blank. One Baha'i – a distinguished year two high school student in the city of Sari – was recently expelled from her gifted school. Two others were denied the opportunity to take part in a Science and Mathematics Olympiad for prodigies. In Tehran, an outstanding Baha'i student who reached a high level in the "Robocup" technology initiative was barred from registering in a school to prepare herself for competing at the national and international levels. And in 2008, the Baha'i International Community learned how the parents of one student were told by a sympathetic school administrator that all school principals in Marvdasht had received verbal instructions to give students of "the Bahaist sect" and other minorities only a passing grade in their school examinations – regardless of their actual level of performance – so as to prevent them from being eligible to enter universities.

Chess champion

This type of exclusion is not new. After winning a national chess championship in 1991 at the age of 16, Pedram Atoufi was told he could not represent Iran at the Asian Chess Championships because he was a Baha'i.

Following the 1979 Islamic revolution, chess was banned in Iran for a whole decade. So when Pedram won the country's first national tournament for youth in 12 years, he was thrilled at the opportunity to represent his country in international competition.

But when he went to obtain his passport, he was handed a form and told to mark his religion.

"I wrote Baha'i," he said. "The person who was processing my form said 'If you put Baha'i, it's not easy to get a passport.'"

Pedram was informed that the only possibility was to visit the president of the Iran Chess Federation, who could send him on a team visa. The president, however, became enraged upon hearing that Pedram was a Baha'i and sent a letter to the Federation's members in every state saying that Pedram was barred from competing in any official chess tournaments. That year, no one was sent to compete for Iran in the Asian Chess Championship.

Pedram's ban was gradually relaxed over four years, leaving only a prohibition on international competition. When his team won the national championship in 1997, he was replaced and his teammates represented Iran in the international stages.

Today, Pedram lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he runs a club which aims to cultivate a sense of unity through chess. He cannot return to his homeland; a good friend who went to the youth chess championship with him was only recently released from jail.

Pianist in exile

The denial of higher education to Baha'is also applies to other forms of artistic and professional education.

Barred from pursuing her musical ambitions in Iran, Pegah Yazdani traveled alone to Moscow in 1998 to study piano. She cried for the whole flight.

"Emotionally it was a really tough time; I had to leave everyone behind," she said. "At the same time I was very excited because I was going to pursue my dream."

Completing her instruction after five years, she obtained her degree and returned to Iran to her family, hoping to perform and open a piano school.

She was offered a part-time job at Tehran's conservatory. But when employees were asked to fill out a form asking them to mark their religion, Pegah was fired and banned from giving music lessons or playing recitals.

"If they see 'Baha'i' there, they don't even look at you, they just deny the form," she says.

"I knew I wasn't able to do anything in Iran. I wouldn't be able to study there. I wouldn't be able to work. I wouldn't be able to live there normally."

Accepted in 2007 into the London College of Music and Media, Pegah took a masters degree in Piano Performance and now lives in Canada where she is truly engaged in music – performing, teaching piano, and also working as a ballet accompanist.

Despite her ordeal, Pegah – now 36 – says she still loves her country very much and wishes she could return. She hopes that one day soon the Baha'is that remain in Iran will be allowed to make their full contribution.

Bani Dugal, the Baha'i International Community's principal representative to the United Nations, says the Iranian government's strategy towards Baha'is is denying the country the benefit of a host of talents and capacities.

"The lengths to which Iran will go to prevent young Baha'is from obtaining higher education has grown more and more convoluted and extreme," she said. "These stories are pitiful examples of a state-sponsored campaign which, in the end, only deprives Iran of the valuable and exciting contributions that could be made by some of the country's best and brightest young people."