A lifelong struggle against religious discrimination now sees pharmacist Soheila Fereshtian raise awareness of the inequality people of her faith experience.
The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran saw the beginning of an intolerance of the Baha’i faith that persists to this day, she says.
“One of the laws enacted after the revolution was that Baha’is were barred from governmental jobs,” Fereshtian told the AJP.
That affected me very suddenly when my father, who worked for a governmental organisation, was expelled from his position solely because of his religion.
“Having a family of six children, my parents found it very difficult to provide for us during the two years my father was out of work. We were told our faith was not welcome. In fact, we were treated like aliens in our homeland.
“However, that experience of inequality did not affect my childhood dream of becoming a doctor.”
Fereshtian valued education highly and was a top student but tertiary education was denied to Baha’is.
“Time and time again my teachers advised me to change my religion to ensure entry into university,” she says.
“But although my dream of becoming a doctor was so very important to me, my faith is an essential part of who I am so I vowed never to give it up.
“My faith embraces what I so strongly believe in: unity and the equality of all people. I believe that the introduction of open and non-prejudiced ideas has the potential to bring a profound change in society, particularly in Iran.
“I resisted the attack on the basic human right of being able to choose one’s religious belief.
“As a result of my loyalty to my faith, my hope of studying to become a doctor was unattainable because university entrance was denied me. Frustration, anger, sadness, alienation and confusion enveloped me after realizing the limited opportunities offered to me and others like me in my homeland.”
Her stress was eased somewhat after discovering a small, informal initiative named the “Baha’i Institute for Higher Education” (BIHE).
“BIHE was founded in 1987 in response to the Iranian government’s continuing campaign to deny Iranian Baha’is access to higher education,” she says. “It was founded by volunteers who dedicated themselves to building a mechanism to offer Iranian Baha’is tertiary education.
“As explained on the BIHE website, the purpose was to train students “to seek knowledge, to search for truth, beauty and justice, to pursue excellence in a spirit of loving fellowship, to become independent learners, creative thinkers and problem solvers”.
“Because BIHE was so small, course choices were limited so I had to let go my dream of becoming a doctor. I enrolled to study pharmacy instead.
“At BIHE it was definitely a more difficult form of education than is available in a university. Limited resources proved to be a big challenge, and as a result programs took much longer to complete. Courses were run by correspondence as well as with sessions in lecturers’ homes.
“However difficult the challenges were, our small and dedicated institution succeeded in providing an excellent education, and after seven years of study I completed my pharmacy program.
“Even though the government raided BIHE and made a series of arrests, it still gives hope to Baha’i youth in Iran.
“Luckily for me, I found work as a pharmacist in New Zealand and then here in Melbourne. I am so grateful to New Zealand and Australia for offering me these opportunities.
“However, my husband and I remain separated from our families in Iran because Baha’is do not have equality there, and that leaves us with a certain sadness.
“I hope that through perseverance and faith, things will change and one day Iran will accept all people, and respect their human rights.”
BIHE. 2006. http://www.bihe.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=14&Itemid=199