Few would deny that education is one of the most important cornerstones of all human societies. Society's stake in raising the next generation is reflected first and foremost in its educational system. Picture an educational system whose main purpose is to propagate a system of religious beliefs, those beliefs including the imposition of the veil on little girls and adolescents, and the implementation of sexual apartheid. You have a snapshot of the Islamic education system in Iran.

With the anti-secularist backlash, the rise of political Islam and the efforts to impose religion, the past two decades have been some of the darkest, especially for women and children. Medieval beliefs and customs have been used legally to suppress people. Words cannot do justice to the repression and backwardness of Islamic movements and Islamic governments. For a long time Islam was kept largely at arm's length from political power, but it is now the prevailing ideology in some countries, including Iran, which has suffered serious setbacks in civil rights — especially women's and children's rights. One of the most devastating setbacks has been in religious education. This system is reflected in school curricula and social developments, in the way girls are treated and in Islamic teachings regarding women.

School curricula

In some societies children are indoctrinated in religious beliefs and values. There is an attempt to inculcate unshakable truths such as the existence of god. In various Middle Eastern countries religion has an enormous impact on education and the school system. As a Middle Eastern country, Iran is an extreme case. In Iran the impact of religion on education is far from trivial: Islam rules. Belief in Islam and living according to Islamic values and norms and thoughts are pre- conditions for survival. Teaching and learning the Koran is compulsory from the first year in primary schools. Teachers must pass a religious exam to be permitted to teach. This exam includes Islamic rules, prayers and knowledge of the Koran and Hadith. Islamic propaganda is systematic. Free thoughts are forbidden and punishable. Superstition has influenced school curricula. This has created a dark and stagnant milieu for children. School pupils are taught that if they do not obey the rules, they will be burned in hell (jahannam).

This has deprived and continues to deprive children from learning and experiencing anything about science. It kills their creativity and replaces curiosity and desire for learning with the dark rules and values of 1400 years ago, at the time of Mohammad. Religious teachings regarding women are one of the most devastating aspects of the Islamic educational system in Iran. They teach children that woman are inferior to and equal to only half of a man, that women belong to men, that men have the right to punish their wives if they do not obey them, that women are the potential source of corruption in society so the hijab should be imposed on them. They are taught that the veil is a woman's legitimate physical boundary to protect men and the community from any possible moral and social danger. They learn that the main duty of women is considered to be taking care of the home and children. Teaching about the effective suppression of women and male dominance as something natural, necessary and desirable is an essential theme in school education. Women are considered only as mothers and housekeepers. In school, children learn the traditional male-female gender roles. The segregation of women and sexual apartheid are seen as a desirable state for women in society.

Sexual apartheid

Another important aspect of religious education in Iran is the rule of sexual apartheid This rules in every area of people's lives, including the workplace, libraries, transport, the health system, and education. Girls and boys are separated right from the beginning in schools. According to Islamic values, which are the basis of laws in Iran, women are accused of being the source of corruption in the community and the cause of men being led astray. For this "crime" they are controlled and punished from early childhood to the moment of death.

Girls are under enormous pressure in school as well as in the society. The veil (hijab) is imposed on them by force. This deprives them of free movement, play, happiness and enjoyment of social activities. School authorities spy on girls to see if they wear make up, if they talk about boys or if they have "revealing" artistic pictures. Even pupils are intimidated so that they spy on their parents and report to the school authorities about their parents' lifestyle or whether their female relatives offend against Islamic rules at home. This has produced a system of inquisition in schools. The environment is full of repression and the control of children's minds and behaviour.

Friendship among girls and boys is forbidden, considered as a punishable sin. Girls are under strict scrutiny. Their talking, walking, laughing, dress and movements is controlled and monitored carefully. Teachers and principals punish girls physically and psychologically if their veil is not worn properly even while they play.

Takleaf ritual

In Iran the legal age for girls to be married is nine according to Islam. It is a law to celebrate all girls' ninth birthday as the day on which they are considered to be mature women. School authorities celebrate this day and hold a ceremony. It is called the Takleaf celebration. At the Takleaf celebration girls have to wear a white hijab which covers their bodies completely. A clergyman talks about girls' role in society and warns them of evil, Fitna (which means chaos) and Western culture. He reminds girls that their duty is to prevent corruption by wearing the proper hijab. From this day onward, girls are banned from playing with boys other than their brothers who are mahrams. It is forbidden for girls to laugh loudly. They have to pray to God five times a day. They are told that if they do not wear the proper veil or if their hair appears out of the veil, they will be punished in hell and snakes will grow on their head.

Talking about sexual matters is treated as a huge crime and sex education is unacceptable. Any relationship between boys and girls is banned. In such a milieu it is a great sin to talk about male/female bodily organs and sex education. Everything related to male/female relation is considered to be secretive, sinful and full of humiliation.

Children are normally keen to learn and experience, to know about the world, to learn about their body and their bodily functions. They want to know where babies come from and about the opposite sex. This natural curiosity is answered by frightening tales about evil and hell. This system brings about nothing but backwardness and hypocrisy. Putting the veil on the heads and bodies of little girls and adolescents has a devastating impact on their minds and lives and should be prohibited by law, because it is the imposition of certain clothing on the child by the followers of a certain religious sect. This imposition on the civil rights of the child should be legally prevented. The child has no religion, tradition and prejudices. She has not joined any religious sect. She is a new human being who by accident and irrespective of her will has been born into a family with a specific religion, tradition, and prejudices. It is indeed the task of society to neutralize the negative effects of this blind lottery. Society is duty-bound to provide fair and equal living conditions for the growth and development of all children and their active participation in social life. Anybody who tries to block the normal social life of a child, just as anyone who physically violates a child, according to their own culture, religion or personal or social conditions should be confronted with the law and the condemnation of society. No nine-year-old girl chooses to be married, sexually mutilated, serve as housemaid and cook for the male members of the family, and be deprived of exercise, education, and play. The child grows up in the family and society according to established customs, traditions and regulations, and automatically learns to accept these ideas and customs as the norms of life. It is not their choice and indeed speaking of the choice of the Islamic veil by the child herself is a ridiculous joke.

Secular education

Children should be protected from the infringement of religion and religious sects on their rights. It is an offence to prevent children from enjoying their social and civil rights, such as a secular education, amusement and participation in children's social activities. Islamic education in Iran, as well as in other countries under Islamic rule, is systematic child abuse.

Society is duty-bound to defend the rights of children. We should demand that the standards which have become norms since the Enlightenment and the just struggles of many human beings in the West, become rules and norms in education in countries under Islamic rule.

Society has the duty to protect children and persons under 16 from all forms of material and spiritual manipulation by religion and religious institutions. Society should guarantee both freedom of religion and atheism, and this is vital where children are taught that Jews, Bahais and followers of other religions are somehow criminals and should not enjoy the rights of Muslims. A complete separation of religion from the state guarantees this freedom and protects children from manipulation by religions.

In my view, any struggle against Islamic child abuse in the educational system will have to confront state Islam and bring about the separation of religion from the state. This is a pre-requisite for a humane society that fulfils the needs and potential of children. Only a strong modernist, secularist and egalitarian social movement will be able to get rid of this religious child abuse. The Islamic educational system in Iran is indeed systematic child abuse.

The complete separation of religion from education and the prohibition of teaching religious subjects and dogmas in schools and educational establishments should be ensured. The abolition of any law, regulation or ritual that breaches the principle of secular non-religious education is an essential measure to ensure children's rights, the health of the next generation, and the development of the whole of society.

(Adapted from a speech given at the fifth symposium of the Arab Cultural Centre in London on 29 July 2000 and also at a seminar held by Save the Children in Stockholm on 5 October 2001.)