A Discriminatory Educational Discourse

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The Islamist forces’ takeover of power and the advent of the Islamic Republic of Iran following the 1979 Revolution represent an important turning point for its formerly secular education system. The new Islamic Republic has attempted to implement the process of Islamisation (Islami kardan) of the Iranian School. What is currently referred to as the Islamisation of the education system was progressively imposed through diverse reforms over the last thirty years. In the discourse of political leaders, the Islamisation meant adapting the education system to religious and ideological framework of the Islamic State. The Cultural Revolution (1980-1982) played a determining role in the acceleration of Islamic reforms, which have radically transformed the Iranian education from elementary school to university.

What the meaning of an "Islamized" education in the service of a Shiite state? How does the curriculum of the "Islamized" system oppose the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or various International conventions (UNESCO, UNICEF, and UN) concerning education and children's rights?

A law for ideological education

The main law of the education system adopted in 1987 by the Iranian Parliament is an important source for understanding the critical features of the general philosophy of this "Islamized" school.

The most important point made by the 1987 law is the priority given to the moral and religious development in educational and school activities. According to Article 4, in Islamic education “purification takes precedence over education.” In the chapter related to the aims of the education system, the first article emphasizes “the promotion and reinforcement of religious and spiritual foundations through teaching the principles and laws of Shi’ite Islam.” The second article of the 1987 law states fourteen main objectives for the education system, of which nine focus directly on religious, ideological, moral, and political issues. Shia Islam is presented as the religion of the state and the representative of the sacred order. The most “sacred” mission of the school is to form the new Muslim man, a virtuous believer, conscientious, and engaged in the service of the Islamic (Shi’ite) society. The same article specifies the important role played by Islamic education in shaping students politically and ensuring their adherence to the Islamic Revolution. The law stresses the need to build a teaching corps that would be faithful to the values of the Islamic Revolution and permeated with moral Islamic virtues.

Successive reforms put in place since 1979 have built an atypical educational model at the international level and a curriculum centred on religious instructions and values. A significant number of international researches highlight the strong religious and ideological orientation of the education system in Iran. The Iranian school is founded on Shi’ite beliefs with its eternal truths, values and dogmas and on the philosophy of a religion identity.

This ideological orientation and the imposition of a Shi’ite vision as the only truth of our world in a clear opposition to articles 18 and 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to article 18 "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." Article 26 emphasizes that "Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups…"

There is a significant gap between this open and universalist approach of education and the Iranian educational vision focused on the political Shi’ism. Among these critical points of divergence, I can mention three kinds of discrimination observed in the Iranian curriculum.

Gender Discrimination

The first and most important discrimination identified in the Iranian curriculum refers to the place and status of women and men. Recent research on the content of Iranian textbooks published in 2008 highlights the large inequalities between women and men in the educational discourse.[1] Textbooks are trying to prove that men and women are not equal. Not only is this inequality clearly reflected in the lessons’ content, but it also seeks to justify it within religious vision. Men and women have assigned gender roles in their social and private lives. They are presented as two different social individuals who complement one another and have specific gender roles. Men are clearly the “superior and dominant sex” in both professional and social space, women are the “second” or “inferior” sex who take care of home, household chores and raising children. The woman in textbooks is often not an autonomous individual; she is first of all the mother or the grandmother, sister, the wife of a man. These gender roles are carefully present in the texts and images.

The statistical analysis of 3,115 images in textbooks (elementary and high school) reveals that women are present only in 37% of the images (21% in images of work). Women are depicted in photos with lower age groups and the number of images of women decreases considerably in photos with higher age groups. Censoring the women’s body and the physical separation of men and women continues even inside the family environment, to the extent that no photos exist of men and women together within the privacy of their home. These “symbolic walls” exist even in the relationships between husband and wife, father and daughter, and mother and son. The scarcity of images of women in the work environment is a good indication of the male-dominated nature of the textbooks and their view of women’s role in the economy, especially since they compensate for this absence by depicting them in family matters, maternal responsibilities and housekeeping. Women mainly appear in images showing family (77%).

The same trend is observed in the content of texts as well. In the 412 Persian language lessons comprising all grades, 386 cultural, scientific, political, social, and religious personalities are mentioned, and only 7% of those are women. Female authors comprise only 5% of these lessons.

This significant gap proves that discriminatory attitudes towards women are a general pattern and one can even talk about a "gender ideology" of the Iranian curriculum.

Discrimination against minorities

The second type of discrimination in textbooks refers to religious and ethnic minorities. Iran is a nation with multiple ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and religious minorities. Under the rule of a government that officially defines itself within the Shi’ite perspective; the division of people based on religious beliefs becomes inescapable. The members of the “official” minorities (Sunnis, Zoroastrians, Christians, Jews are recognized by law) receive an especially designed religious education. But the problem is that religious themes are not confined to religious studies classes, a variable part of non-religious books such as the Persian language, history or social sciences require a Shi’ite vision of the world, and matters directly related to values, identities and traditions of this religion. Worse yet, there is a category of minorities not formally recognized (Baha’is, atheist, etc.) by the government and with whom even hostile encounters have taken place, namely, the followers of the Baha’i religion. During their education, it is not possible for Baha’i students to express their views as they may be expelled from school or lose their chance to go to university. Those who do not fit into these official religious classifications are thought to be suffering from a form of deviance. The term “kafar” (heathen), applied to these minorities, means a person who is the enemy of religion.


The third category of discrimination is based on how the world is perceived and presented. In the discourse of textbooks the world is divided mainly into the two camps of “Islamic countries” and “non-Islamic countries.” From the political standpoint and the perspective of Middle Eastern and Iranian history, the discourse of the textbooks can be considered “anti-Western.” The “foreigners” referred to in the textbooks are limited to none other than the Western countries which are continuously conspiring against the interests, national resources, wealth, and cultural values of the Muslim countries and which are considered potential and actual enemies. In a way, the worldview is a clash of civilizations between the West and the Islamic world.

The data gathered for this analysis demonstrates that Iranian textbooks view the world with a religious and ideological approach. Perceiving the world, history, and human beings from the perspective of a religious doctrine will lead to reductionism, bias, and exclusion. This discourse accepts certain people as insiders, “tolerates” other groups, and rejects others. Thus, in its essence, this reductionist outlook produces behavioural and interpretive mechanism based on discrimination. In the discourse of the Iranian curriculum’s religious ideology, the “self” and the “other” have a structural presence: they overshadow all subjects.

Another characteristic of the curriculum is that its discriminating viewpoint is recognized religiously and politically. The textbooks legitimize and justify this discriminatory viewpoint of gender, identity, and religion, and thus can signify a form of institutionalized discrimination. In the textbooks, an ideal individual is a devout and pious Shi’ite who believes in Islamic government and obeys Islamic laws.

A discourse of discrimination also brings about a discriminatory culture. This culture has its own signs, codes, language, and values, and, by repeating them, the textbooks make discrimination and differentiation among people appear “natural” and legitimate. Thus, terms such as nadjes (impure), kafar (heathen), Baha’i, Western, monafeq(hypocrite), deviant, deceived, or enemy draw the boundaries of identity, and victims of such a discriminatory system who are on the other side of the barbed wires of the prison of ideology become second-class citizens.

The textbooks’ discourse is a rhetoric based on violence. The content analysis of the textbooks reveals the existence of other forms of violence in the religious and ideological discourse. For the most part, these forms of violence are due to a discriminatory viewpoint and culture: Institutionalized violence occurs when someone is deprived of having rights equal to those of others because she is a woman, a Baha’i, a kafar (heathen), or Sunni, and as such, is criticized, judged, and reproved directly. Symbolic violence takes place when certain individuals are denigrated or ignored and are victimized by what is left unsaid in the textbooks.

It is in this way that a discourse that considers itself as moral, spiritual, and at the service of all humanity, is turned, paradoxically, into a discriminatory rhetoric that separates and divides human beings from one another. The “original sin” of the textbooks—in production and reproduction of a discriminatory viewpoint and the explicit negation of equality of human beings—is related to the ideological-political discourse. This identity-based attitude towards the subject of religion leads to classifications and reduces the possibility of peaceful and humane coexistence.

[1] Paivandi s. (2008).  Discrimination and Intolerance in Iran’s Textbooks. Washington: Freedom House.

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