Iran and Afghanistan are neighboring countries in the Middle East. Not so long ago I, a 22-year-old Icelandic student at the University of Iceland, was able to find them on the world map without too much effort, but I knew nothing about them. Since the countries share a boarder I assumed that the education system was similar in these two countries, but that is not the case. That I have learned from my friends, Homa and Maryam.
A year ago, the life of Homa, a 24-year-old woman from Iran, took a sharp turn into the unknown. At the time she was halfway done with her master’s degree at the University of Tehran, one of Iran’s most prestigious schools. Homa and her family, had become Christian, to the government’s disgrace, and when a Christian friend of theirs was killed, they knew it was time to go. They fled to Turkey, from where they went to Greece. There they had to spend a whole month in jail, just like criminals. No one told them why. After a total of six months they reached safety in Iceland. Thankfully, the immigration office accepted their request for refuge in Iceland and now they lead a simple life, working and studying Icelandic.
Common to Go On to University
Compulsory education in Iran is twelve years. The are divided into three levels: elementary school, from 1st to 6th grade, middle school, from 7th to 9th grade, and senior high school from 10th to 12th grade. The school day in public schools is six hours, but it can be longer in private schools. Iranian students learn a variety of subjects, including math, science, geography, history, and physical education. As well as studying Persian, they also study Arabic from 6th grade and English from 7th grade. When students reach 10th grade, they have to choose their field of study.
Homa went to a public school and chose math because of her interest in becoming an engineer. After graduating from 12th grade she went on to University. According to Homa, that is the common thing to do. “Everybody that I see around me continues on to University,” she says. All of her friends sought higher education. Her parents did that too, when they were her age, but her grandparents did not. When they were young it was not as usual for people to go to the University.
Studied 17 Hours a Day
Homa is a hard working girl with ambitious dreams. Getting into University in Iran is not as easy as it is in Iceland. “If you want to go to one of the good Universities it’s not hard. It’s terrible, because you must study at least 17 hours a day! I have experienced that. It’s terrible. I couldn’t do anything other than study. I just slept around 2 to 3 hours a night, and only used minimal time to do other basic things.” Homa has gone through this craziness twice in her life. First when she wanted to get into undergraduate school and again to get into graduate school.
To get ready for the big entrance exam, she took extra classes four days a week and took big practice exams every other Friday. “The questions are always very difficult and every year they are about problems you never have to solve in real life. It is just from studying hard that you can understand them and learn to solve them.” Once students get into the University the studies keep on challenging the students. “There are two types of Universities. One is easy to get into [private, very expensive schools] and the other is hard to get into [public, less expensive schools], but it is hard to graduate from both. You must try hard to finish. Both of them are so hard,” Homa says. Despite this, Homa enjoyed her studies.
After finishing her undergraduate studies in engineering at Payame Noor University, Homa went to the University of Tehran where she studied business management. She was halfway done with her degree when she suddenly had to leave the country. “I am so sad because even though I tried, and I tried so hard to get there, I couldn’t finish it, but I hope that I can continue it here,” Home says. “I didn’t have a dream job yet. It was important to me to first get my degree and after that to get a PhD I would like to get a Phd so much. After that I wanted to start working.”
Dancing is Forbidden
Life on campus in Iran is different from Iceland. At the University of Iceland there are many social groups and the student unions, but in Iran they have none of those. In a country where law prohibits dancing and watching music videos, it should not be so surprising. “In our country, we never have any clubs. Our hobby is supposed to be going home and studying some more, because you can’t go dancing. You can’t go to the bar and have a drink, but you can study.” Despite this, making friends is not hard. “It’s easy because we speak the same language,” Homa says and referred to her changed circumstances now that she is in Iceland. In Iran Homa and her friends “would go to a café, someone’s house, or the gym together. But in Iran also the gym is separated so the boys and girls can’t be together.” Yes, in Iran gender is treated differently than in Iceland. “In the compulsory school, girls and boys are separated. Different schools for girls and different for boys, but at the University, thank God, they are together,” Homa says.
Dismissed for Talking to Boys
Many of the rules that the government sets are hard for Iranian people to understand. “Everything that is forbidden, the girls like to do even more. In the 7th to 12th grade, the boys and girls are separated so they like to be together even more. The boys come in front of the school gate everyday. But that is also forbidden. If the teacher sees them it’s really bad for them and also for the girls they are waiting for. They can kick you out of school because you spoke to a boy. “It’s exciting years for the boys and girls because they can’t be together, but they want to be together,” Homa says. Boys and girls do, nervertheless; find ways to get into contact with each other. When Homa was younger, the boys would sneak a slip of paper with their phone number to the girls. Now it has gotten more common for them to talk together through social media. One thing guys in Iran have to do that girls do not, is join the military. Guys can study as much as they want, but after that they have to join the military. This is the reality for Homa’s fiancé. “Now he has to go to the military. After that we don’t know what will happen. The military is 2 years. It’s terrible,” Homa says.
“Girls Just Want to Have Fun”
In the girl-schools Homa and her sister went to the teachers were all female. The girls were supposed to cover their hair at all times at school, just like they had to anywhere else out in society. Homa’s younger sister explained it this way: “You have to have the hijab in school. You can’t take if off because some parents could come or men could come. But when the weather is very hot we are crazy, and take it off because we just can’t bear it. Also when the teacher is not looking, we don’t have it on. We don’t like it. We just put in on because the teacher says so.” When discussing the gender separated school system, Homa’s sister says: “I don’t know why they are separated. Both of them like to be together and just in the University they are allowed to be. Everyone just wants to go to the University.” Who knows, maybe the chance to meet the other sex is one of the driving forces for young Iranians to seek higher education.
When Maryam, a 19-year old woman from Afghanistan, was a teenager, her father and brother went to a festival, which the government didn’t approve of, and never came back. Life as women in Afghanistan is insecure without male-protection. When a 55-year old warlord wanted to marry 14-year old Maryam, she and her mother decided to flee to Europe. After a long trip they finally reached Sweden. There they waited 3 years, but their request for refuge was not accepted. Maryam and her mother have been in Iceland for one and a half year, and it is just now that they got a positive answer. They found it hard to wait.
Acid in Their Faces
Before the Taliban and Daesh came to Afghanistan, boys and girls went to school together and women had jobs out in society. Today, it is a different story. Education is not compulsory so if the fathers are uneducated, they do not send their children to school. However in the big cities where the influence of the Taliban and Daesh is less than in the small towns, some modern educated parents do so. Even in Kabul, the capital that is safe compared to other places, students are endangered. At least once a month there are cases where relatives or neighbors, who are unhappy with the fact that girls go to school, throw acid in their faces when they walk in the street. In other cases, teachers misuse their power and rape their students. Last year, the Taliban put poison in a school’s water tank, which had terrible consequences. Because of this situation, parents are always afraid that something might happen to their children if they allow them to go to school.
Dangerous to be Beautiful
In places where the Taliban and Daesh are in power, schools are closed. There they only have madrasa for those who want to become a Taliban, and masjed for those who want to study the Koran. The religious lessons are based on fundamentalism, and the ideas about gender roles are really different from those in western countries. Females shouldn’t leave the house unless it’s necessary. If they do so, they have to cover up by wearing burka, but at other times they cover their hair with a hijab. Woman can’t walk alone. The father or the brother should always be with them, because otherwise someone might like her, and kidnap her. According to the Taliban, females don’t need to learn more than how to read and write, at the most, since they are just going to get married and do housework anyways.
Maryam never went to school in Afghanistan. She did not learn how to read and write in her mother language, Dari, until she went to school in Sweden. Unlike Maryam, her mother went to school when she was a girl, but only for about 5 years. Her parents, who were uneducated, punished her when she said she wanted to study further like her friends from educated families. Maryam’s father and his father were, however, educated, but they were fundamentalists and did not think much of women going to school. Traditionally in Afghanistan, girls should get married around 10-years old, but Maryam’s mother was 16 when she married. People worried that she would never get married because of how old she was.
A Whiteboard in the Staircase
Maryam lived in Iran with her family for four years when she was young. Because they were illegal immigrants, she could not go to the public school there. Instead, her parents paid for her to go to a small Afghan school. It was, however, not a good school. The classroom was a hall in which four classes were taught at the same time. The stairs that led to the basement were also used as a classroom. The children being taught there sat on pillows in the steps and looked up on a whiteboard that had been placed there. It was always noisy and sometimes the kids would fight. If the students had books one day, then they would not have had notebooks; if they had notebooks, there was no teacher. Maryam didn’t like the atmosphere at the school and didn’t feel like she learned anything at all.
After getting caught, Maryam and her family were deported back to Afghanistan. They went back to Helmand, the province that, unfortunately, was the main Taliban area. There they were farmers, on a big land they had inherited, and had people working for them to take care of the animals, and growing fruits and vegetables. Maryam never went outside of their property at that time, unlike her brother who would occasionally run errands with their father.
School in Sweden
It was not until Maryam came to Sweden that she attended a public school. The teachers were great, and encouraged her to push herself and study hard. She was a fast learner and learned how to read and write Dari, her mother tongue, as well as studying some Swedish and other subjects. Her mother would sometime be bored being home alone in a foreign country and therefore went with her to school. As they got their first negative response on getting refuge and then the second one, Maryam’s mother’s health declined and Maryam had to skip school more often in order to take care of her mother. Some days when she didn’t show up to class, her teacher would come and pick her up and take her to school.
She was very thankful for the kindness her teachers showed her. They were more than just teachers. At lunch they always sat with their students and, because Maryam was new in Sweden, they also taught her how to shop for groceries and adapt to Swedish society. After receiving the third negative response Maryam and her mother came to Iceland. Except for going to occasional Icelandic or English classes, there has not been much for them to do in Iceland, other than wait. But now as the sun is rising, they got a permission to stay in Iceland. And that brings hope, just like the sun does in spring.
We, who grew up in Iceland have probably all, at some point or another, wished that we were sick so we could take the day off from school in order to hang around and do nothing. After hearing my friends’ stories I have come to understand better how much of a privilege it is to be allowed to attend school. The education system in Iceland is exemplary in many ways and I am thankful that I get to wake up in the morning and go to school.
Journalist: Karítas Hrundar Pálsdóttir