The government of Iran is teaching the country’s children to discriminate against women and minorities, to view non-Muslims with suspicion if not contempt, and to perpetuate the regime’s theocratic ideology. Discrimination and intolerance are deeply ingrained in the textbooks that make up the core of Iran’s school curriculum. The country’s textbooks systematically denigrate the importance of women as individuals, largely neglect minority groups or fail to acknowledge them entirely, propagate Shi’ite egocentrism, and encourage hostility toward non-Muslim countries. The textbooks present a particular interpretation of Shi’a Islam as the basis of Iran’s political order and adopt this interpretation as their ideological foundation. They often describe this political order as “sacred” and warn that criticism of the regime constitutes opposition to divine “will.”
Discrimination and intolerance appear consistently throughout Iran’s textbooks, across the range of subjects in the core curriculum. They are neither accidental nor sporadic. They are values the regime deliberately seeks to instill in the country’s school children.
The values propagated in the textbooks are shaping the way the next generation of Iranian citizens will view the outside world and the majority of the country’s population who are not Shi’a Muslim males. The textbooks stress the dichotomy between Iran and its declared enemies and promote antagonism toward the non-Muslim world, extending beyond the United States and Israel to include Europe and Russia. They also disparage the diversity of Iranian society, in which almost half the citizens come from an ethnic or religious minority and women have made significant strides forward (women have, for example, begun to attend university in greater numbers than men).
This report is based on a detailed assessment of 95 compulsory school textbooks (published in 2006 and 2007) covering the sciences, humanities, and religious subjects from Grades 1 to 11, totaling some 11,000 pages. It was conducted by a team of native Farsi speakers led by a well-known expert on Iran’s education system. This assessment included a statistical analysis of 3,115 textbook images, a content analysis of 412 lessons in the Farsi textbooks in all grades, and a qualitative analysis of the 95 textbooks to evaluate all forms of discrimination.
Gender discrimination permeates Iran’s textbooks. Women are accorded little importance as individuals, and their contributions to society outside the home are largely ignored. This attitude toward women is justified in the textbooks through numerous references to the Koran and the lives of prophets and Imams.
• Females are consistently shown wearing hejab (headscarves), even when they are free—by Islam’s standards—to appear without. Girls younger than nine years old are shown with hejab, as are women in the privacy of their own homes. The textbooks even go so far as to depict doves wearing headscarves.
• Women are not presented as independent individuals. Rather, they are a man’s wife, mother, sister, or daughter. A reference to Ayatollah Khomeini’s childhood, for example, mentions his father by name but omits the name of his mother and aunt. (Grade 8 Farsi textbook, p. 6)
• While women are allowed to work outside the home, such work is considered secondary to their primary roles as mothers and spouses. For example, “A mother whose husband earns sufficient income cannot say, ‘My job demands that I leave my child at the day care center every day,’ and, in this way deprive her child from her constant love and attention.” (Grade 10 Religion and Life textbook, p. 177)
• Despite the prominence of Iranian women in literature, filmmaking, painting, and other visual arts, very few female writers and artists are featured in the textbooks and their creativity is not recognized. In the Farsi textbooks reviewed by Freedom House, male authors appear 10 times more than female authors do.
• The statistical analysis of 3,115 images from all textbooks illustrates that women are only present in 21 percent of the images related to professional environments. In contrast, women are depicted in 77 percent of the images related to family, maternal responsibilities, and housekeeping.
Religious and Ethnic Minorities
The textbooks devote little attention to minority cultures, traditions, languages, or issues. While there is no direct hostility toward officially recognized religious and ethnic minorities, the textbooks constantly refer to Iranian society as a Persian-Islamic identity comprised of Muslim (Shi’a) people and thus fail to acknowledge Iranians of other religions or ethnic groups. The textbooks also express suspicion of ethnic minorities and denigrate certain religious beliefs.
• Religious Minorities: Sunnis, Zoroastrians, Christians (Armenians and Assyrians), and Jews are officially recognized minorities. The textbooks refer to these religions and their prophets with respect but elsewhere tend to overlook Iran’s religious diversity: “In certain parts of the country, some families may face difficulties due to floods or earthquakes. In such cases, our country’s Muslim people rush to assist those afflicted.” (Grade 6 Social Studies textbook, p. 50)
• “Hidden” Minorities: The textbooks refer to the Baha’i religion as a “false sect” and accuse Baha’is of being tools of foreign powers. Followers of Sufism, a form of mysticism related to specific branches of Islam (Shi’a or Sunni), are not even mentioned at all. The textbooks call persons who do not follow a specific religion or sect “kafar” or “a person who denies the existence of God or creates rivals or partners for God or does not accept the mission of the prophets.” (Grade 7 Religious Studies textbook, p. 83) In other instances, a person who blasphemes can be “nadjes” (impure) and an example of “nedjasat” or things considered intrinsically impure, such as human excrement, animal corpses, pigs, alcohol, etc.
• Ethnic Minorities: The textbooks recognize the languages and regions where certain nationally recognized ethnic minorities reside (Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, and Baluchistan). In several instances, however, they mention the dangers of separatist tendencies of ethnic minority groups and portray the efforts of these groups to gain autonomy as threats to the Iranian state.
Regional and Global Outlook
The textbooks portray the Islamic Republic of Iran as the protector of the region’s Islamic movements and the rights of Palestinians and as the model of government for other Islamic nations. They ask the region’s Muslims to unite and be a part of the community of Muslims (ommat). The textbooks also stress the need to prevent the expansion of Western influence on Muslims in the political, cultural, and economic arenas.
• Iran and the West: The textbooks criticize the West (Europe, North America, and Russia) from four main angles: (1) Europe and the United States are portrayed as enemies of Iran’s political independence; (2) the West conspires against the current Islamic regime and against Islamist movements generally; (3) colonial rule by Europeans was unjust to the Islamic countries of the Middle East, and the interests of Islamic countries conflict with those of Western countries; and (4) the Islamist discourse of the textbooks expresses opposition to the West as the birthplace of modern society and sees a clash of civilizations between the West and the Islamic world.
• The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The textbooks view Israel as an “enemy” of Islamic countries and Muslims and an “agent” of the U.S. and other Western countries. In the textbooks, Israel is “The Regime Occupying the Holy Land,” its land is “Occupied Palestine,” and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most important concern of Islamic countries. For example, “God willing, the day will come when Muslims will all be united and free Palestine and rescue the Holy Land from the clutches of the enemies of Islam.” (Grade 3 Social Studies textbook, p. 57)
• Iran and the Region: All countries in the region share a common Islamic identity and civilization and are encouraged to create linkages to strengthen themselves against the West (or “foreigners”). The textbooks criticize countries in the region that act as Western allies and are not in harmony with the Islamic Republic’s anti-Western stance. In their view, the region’s most important problem is the clash between Muslims and the Western countries that support Israel.
• Attitudes towards Neighboring Countries: Iran has an amicable attitude toward its neighbors, with the exception of Russia and Iraq. Russia is said to have repeatedly interfered in Iran’s affairs throughout history, especially with respect to Iran’s communist party, Toudeh. Concerning Iraq, the textbooks highlight Saddam Hussein’s dependence on the West or the “superpowers,” which perpetuated its eight-year war with Iran.
Intolerance and Shi’ite Egocentrism
The textbooks present Iran’s Islamic Republic as a sacred regime that has come into existence as a result of God’s will and is built upon the traditions of the Prophet of Islam and the Shi’ite imams. Because it is sacred, this regime cannot be criticized. The textbooks perpetuate a dichotomy between the “self” and the “other,” for instance between Iran and its enemies, between the godly and the infidel, or between the truly pious and the monafegh (the hypocrite), and this dichotomy fuels antagonism toward groups or individuals who are different.
• Islam is presented as the exclusive religion of social justice and the defender of the poor and oppressed (mahroum) both in Iran and abroad. The textbooks praise poverty as a social virtue and repeatedly discuss the simple lifestyles of important religious, political, cultural, and scientific figures. “Einstein led a simple life and did not pay much attention to the clothes he wore.” (Grade 6 Farsi textbook, p. 171)
• The citizen portrayed in the textbooks abandons his/her personal autonomy to be part of a larger group that comprises the religious society, family, village or city, nation, and Islamic community.
• According to the textbooks, jihad (holy war) is a Muslim’s duty but is not a sign of violence in Islamic culture and thought. Rather, jihad is more a reaction against violence. “… Perhaps you will ask, then why does jihad exist? What purpose do battles and armed warfare serve? The answer is, Islam is the religion of peace and calm and, until armed action becomes necessary, it will not issue an order for jihad. However, when it is called for, not only does Islam brook no fear of war and jihad, but it also issues orders for it to be waged and considers it a religious duty and among the best ways to worship God.” (Grade 8 Islamic Culture and Religious Studies textbook, p. 67)
• Martyrdom holds an important place in the textbooks. Martyrs are praised dating from the beginning of Islam until the present day and their sacrifice is commemorated in the textbooks as a sacred and religious act. “Heaven has eight doors through which those who are destined for heaven enter. One gate is … for martyrs and pious people…” (Grade 2 ‘Heavenly Gifts’ religion studies textbook, p. 44)
Iran’s textbooks aim to instill the Islamist Republic’s ideology, based on religious doctrine, in Iranian youth. This ideology leads to discrimination and exclusion, giving precedence to Shi’ite men over women and minorities, belittling the individual contributions of women to society, and propagating Shi’a egocentrism. Discrimination and intolerance are neither accidental nor sporadic. They are consistent and systematic throughout the textbooks at the core of the curriculum in Iranian schools.