Iranian Children Are Being Punished Based of Their Parents’ Religion and Beliefs
It was the last week of September 2020 when an Iranian-Christian-convert couple lost custody of their two-year-old adopted daughter, Lydia. The court statement mentioned that Lydia had a strong attachment to her parents since they received temporary custody in February 2019. They also agreed that Lydia was born with a poor health system and demanded medical treatment.
Despite these facts vital to Lydia’s best interest, the District Court and Court of Appeal of Bushehr, a southern port city, rejected the parents’ request to keep custody. The court revoked custody of Lydia because “[the parents] have converted to Christianity.”
Unfortunately, Lydia is not the only child whose best interests have been overlooked and rights violated due to discrimination and unjust laws in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In practice, Iran’s discriminatory law affects almost all aspects of minority children’s lives, such as safety and well-being and access to health and education.
In a separate case, Darya, an eight-year-old girl, may lose her parents of more than two years due to incarceration, since they’re of the Baha’i Faith. The Iranian constitution doesn’t recognize the Baha’i religion and Iranian authorities deny their most fundamental human rights. Most of the time, courts look at the Baha’i Faith as an opposition group, and the judge will likely punish Darya’s parents based on that. This is in direct contradiction of the Family Protection Act, which calls for “providing for the best interests of children and adolescents to be respected in all courts and executive officials’ decisions.” Ironically, this very act has been called an achievement in the 2016 report of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Systemic discrimination against all religions and beliefs
In January 2020, some Baha’i families were told that they must declare their religion to get a national identification card. However, the Iranian constitution only recognizes four religions: Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. In this way, Baha’i families, Yarsanies, Sabean-Mandaeans, and other religious minorities or atheists must either lie to receive a national identification card or be denied access to services, such as insurance, education, banking, and, most recently, public transportation.
In March 2020, the Iranian Supreme Court approved Baha’i’s rights to access the national identification card, which helped some receive their rights. However, a lack of transparency and the absence of a willingness to protect minority citizens’ rights still are a cause for concern in regard to their children’s rights to access essential resources. This is the fragility of the life of minorities in Iran.
It’s worth noting that the Islamic Republic apparatus, such as the Basij and Friday prayer imams, have played a role in promoting these rights violations. Hate speech and calling Baha’i families kafar (infidels) of Islam is commonplace in Iran. It can also lead to death, as it did in the southern port city of Bandar Abbas in 2013 after a hate speech made by a Friday imam. Ataollah Rezvani, a father of two children and an active member of the Baha’i Community in Bandar Abbas, was shot to death in August of that year. Not surprisingly, the judicial system dropped the investigation of his murder.
Similarly, in May 2020, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting interviewed a woman who claimed to be a “Baha’i survivor” and made false accusations about the Baha’i Faith in the program Mesl-e Mah (Like a Moon). She claimed that “Baha’i people look at themselves as a member of a cult, not a religion,” and that they have been guided by the United States, Britain, and Israel and “want Islam to be destroyed.”
However, this hate speech and discrimination isn’t unique to the Baha’i Faith and includes other religious minorities like the Sabean-Mandaeans. Even choosing and officially registering a Mandaean name increases “great fear” of being insulted and facing educational and financial obstacles, said one of the members of this community to Behnaz Hosseini, a research fellow at the University of Oxford. As Hosseini noted in her March report, Sabean-Mandaeans are often called “infidels and impure Muslims in the mosques, which negatively impacted [their] collective emotions.”
Children face discrimination in education
In Iran, children are expected to announce their religion at school and are treated differently based on their answers. Children of the Baha’i Faith get harsh discipline, such as being “insulted, degraded, threatened with expulsion, and, in some cases, summarily dismissed from school.”
Since the 1979 revolution, preventing Baha’i children from attending school was systematic and ordered from the top, including the Education Ministry and the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, whose members are appointed by the Supreme Leader. Designing and implementing policies and plan in culture and educational systems, such as schools and universities, is part of the Council’s primary mission.
Additionally, other children are encouraged by schoolteachers and principals to emotionally abuse minority children at school. For example, school-age children in western Kermanshah province were called to the front of the classroom and forced to listen to classmates insulting their religion. In another account, one elementary school student reported that their classmates avoid touching them because they were told that Baha’is are najes (impure).
This doesn’t mean that children who belong to other minorities—Christians, Sunnis, and other formally accepted minorities—don’t face any issues at school. They usually must attend separate segregated classrooms based on their faith. The ideological hatred and discrimination doesn’t stop here. It is also merged with most school subjects, such as history, sociology, and even the Persian language. Research by Saeed Paivandi, an academic at the University of Lorraine in France, shows that the “appearance of discriminatory attitudes is not accidental, or sporadic but continuous, consistent, and systematic.” Children from Shia families also learn the Islamic Republic’s version of Shi’ism, while children from secular and atheist families don’t get a chance to be taught their family’s ways of life.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Iran in June 1975, asks state parties to “have respect for the liberty of parents and legal guardians” and let parents educate and raise children under their religion, beliefs, and culture. However, Iran uses Islam as a tool to control its citizens regardless of their religion or beliefs.
It’s worth noting that children are also denied choosing their lifestyle due to their own and families’ religion or beliefs. For example, girls as young as seven years of age—regardless of their religion or beliefs—are expected to wear the hijab in public. Families who don’t think their daughters should wear a hijab at a certain age or not at all are expected to obey this discriminatory law, which violates children’s rights on different levels (i.e. mobility, health, and freedom of choice). This aligns with the November 2020 report of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which referred to the gross violation of fundamental freedoms, including the right to practice the religion of choice and the rights of minorities in Iran.
A law that has yet to be implemented
There has been some public pressure on the Iranian government to protect the rights of children. On June 13, 2020, then-President Hassan Rouhani signed a bill into law to protect children in Iran. This “holistic, but discriminatory” law applies to all individuals below eighteen, regardless of their parents’ religion or beliefs. The bill can protect all school-age children from all kinds of violence and assault and concentrates on the most fundamental rights—this includes rights to health and education for all children, regardless of their religion or beliefs. However, more than a year after ratifying and signing the new law, there is no sign of implementing the protection it claimed it would provide for all children in Iran.
Children cannot advocate for their rights and their rights to be heard have been denied in the Islamic Republic. It’s the duty of activists, researchers, and journalists to take a stand on their behalf and be their voice. Whenever advocating for human rights, it’s imperative that children’s rights also be included, especially children of minorities. Nevertheless, the violation of the rights of religious minorities is systematic in Iran. As such, advocating for the rights of minorities needs to address the roots of the issue—discriminatory laws and regulations in Iran.
Hamed Farmand is a children’s rights activist and founder of the non-profit organization, Children of Imprisoned Parents International (COIPI). He is also a research consultant at Abdorrahman Boroumand Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of human rights and democracy in Iran. Follow him on Twitter: @ha_fa54.