Prominent activists for teachers’ rights in Iran concede that since President Rouhani took office, teachers have found more freedom to voice their grievances and take steps to improve their situation.
This does not mean, of course, that their situation has actually improved over the last three years — only that there has been greater opportunity to speak out.
A Darker Time…
The roots of the current situation go back almost a decade. On March 6, 2007, a large group of teachers gathered outside Iran’s parliament building, calling for better working conditions and fair pay. The peaceful protest for demonstration lasted just over a week. But then, on March 14, the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded, arresting and physically assaulting protesters. Authorities arrested around 1,000 teachers, and attacked others. Many were taken to Ward 209 at Evin Prison, which operates under the supervision of the Intelligence Ministry. About 300 people were charged with security crimes and many lost their jobs. As a result, for the remainder of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, the teachers’ rights movement remained mostly dormant.
Esmail Abdi is the chairman of the Iranian Teachers' Union. He believes that education was the “Achilles’ heel” of Ahmadinejad’s administration. “During the eight years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency Iranian teachers suffered from the sorry state of education,” he wrote in February 2015. “Even when the price of oil hit $140 it did not make any difference in the livelihood of teachers.” He said, too, that the election of Hassan Rouhani, and in particular the appointment of Ali Asghar Fani as Education Minister, had brought hope that teachers’ demands might be heard.
But in October 2016, Abdi was sentenced to six years in prison for activities against national security and propaganda against the regime in connection with his involvement in a teachers’ protest in 2015.
“Security Culture” Or a “Secure Culture”?
When he was appointed as minister of education, Fani announced that he wanted to transform the “security culture” established under Ahmadinejad into a “secure culture.”
But, like Abdi, Fani’s hopes for change were unrealized, and he resigned on October 16 after being accused of mismanagement, part of a scandal over corruption at the Teachers’ Fund and the arrest of its CEO.
Ali Poursoleyman, an educator and the director of the website Teacher Talk, has praised Fani for his efforts to resolve security and political issues affecting teachers. At the same time, he does not believe enough has been done. “The letter that Fani wrote to the judiciary chief defending teachers was a positive step,” he wrote in April 2015. “It was welcomed by teachers’ organizations — although he did not receive an answer. But nothing has changed when it comes to the activists who have been condemned by the Education Ministry’s disciplinary committees.” Poursoleyman has experience with the Islamic Republic’s more extreme approach to teachers. He was arrested in 2011 and spent time in solitary confinement at Evin Prison. He was charged with insulting authorities and propaganda against the regime and faced a one-year ban from teaching.
But over the last year, there have been efforts to ease pressures on Iranian teachers. “Pressure from the international community has undoubtedly been effective in securing the release of imprisoned teachers,” Hashem Khastar, a member of the Teachers' Union — also called the Teachers' Trade Association — told IranWire. Like Poursoleyman, he has experienced his share of arrests and imprisonment.
The Influence of International Pressure
“Of course Iranian public opinion has played a major role as well. As a teacher who has been imprisoned, I can tell you they are very scared of international pressure and public opinion inside Iran.”
Khastar has seen a noticeable difference in the behavior of security forces in particular. “Twenty-five years ago, when they wanted to summon me in connection with an insignificant issue, they insulted me and cursed me. But now they ring me up and say, ‘Mr. Khastar, come here for a conversation.’”
One of the activists’ chief demands is for their associations and unions to be recognized, including the Teachers' Trade Association, which has faced intense pressure from security services almost since its inception in 1999. In addition to Esmail Abdi and Hashem Khastar, Mahmoud Beheshti Langroudi and Rasoul Bodaghi are among prominent activists who have faced arrest and harassment – with the situation being particularly tense following the disputed presidential election in 2009. Even as recently as July 2015, more than 100 teachers were detained during a peaceful protest.
According to Esmail Abdi, Rouhani’s government has formally recognized the Teachers' Union, but it is exactly this recognition that has created a very obvious conflict between the government and what he describes as the “authoritarian currents” within the regime who do not acknowledge the legitimacy of unions. “Even the lives of moderates and reformists are dependent on the regime but, all in all, at least Rouhani’s government has done much better.”
Hashem Khastar agreed that, formally, the Teachers' Trade Association is permitted to operate. “But practically, under the heavy security watch, it can’t do anything. It can’t stage a rally or organize a meeting because the consequences can be serious.”
"Teachers have been ignored"
Khastar says the ultimate goal of the Teachers' Trade Association is to achieve “freedom to defend teacher’s interests.” But he is not optimistic about the recent change at the Ministry of Education and the appointment of Fakhreddin Ahmadi-Danesh-Ashtiani as the new minister. He predicts the change will be “ineffectual” and will fail to have a positive effect on freedom for educators and their unions. He says the problems cannot be solved simply with a change of minister. On top of everything else, the bureaucracy of the Islamic Republic —which he says is “very dirty” — will hold progress back.
One of the Teachers' Union's most consistent demands is the implementation of the “Law to Harmonize Government Employees’ Salaries,” which parliament passed in September 1991 but has not been implemented across the board. “If the law that was passed under [former President] Hashemi Rafsanjani is put into action discriminations would go away,” says Mahmoud Beheshti Langroudi, the former spokesman of the group. “Teachers say that if they have a BA or an MA, then they must be paid on the same level as other government employees with the same degrees. Of course, the complexities of certain jobs must be taken into account.”
The law was supposed to apply to all government employees, but teachers never saw any benefits. Their demand has considerable support from within parliament, especially after it was revealed that at least some government officials were being paid what some have called “astronomical salaries.” Amir Khojasteh — an MP from Hamadan, a prisoner of war for eight years and a former director at the education ministry — is one of the teachers’ allies. “The failure to enact the law has had a negative motivational impact on the teachers,” he told reporters in October, “while in certain government agencies they pay salaries in millions. The government must take care of this issue.”
Email Abdi also spoke out against the injustice of teachers being left out of the government employment law. “At the moment, a teacher with a BA who has worked for 20 years gets a [monthly] salary of one and half million tomans [around $463],” he said in an interview in 2015, “while an employee for the Civil Registration Office receives 3.5 to four million [close to $1240]. A bank employee with the same number of years in service receives twice our salary.” In July he said that “the government had ignored teachers.”
Waiting For Democracy
But the fact that teachers have been left out of this law is only one part of the problem. Security forces use teachers’ inability to make ends meet to silence their protests. According to Hashem Khastar, one tactic is “forced retirement.” He cites Mahmoud Bagheri, a union member who was given a nine-and-a-half-year sentence for his activism, as an example. He believes that security forces use such pressures to “knock out” teachers’ protests.
Security forces also use the intimidation tactic of cutting retired teachers’ salaries. Khastar says that more than 500,000 thousand tomans was cut from his retirement salary because he organized a protest. Khastar, who now lives in Mashhad, receives a monthly benefit of the equivalent of $525 despite the pressures created by ongoing inflation.
Hashem Khastar doesn’t hold out much hope. He says the situation for teachers will only improve when democracy takes root in Iran. He admits that life under Rouhani is preferable to life under Ahmadinejad. But the situation for teachers continues, and the issue goes far deeper than a simple political struggle. “I was imprisoned under both the reformists and the principalists,” he said. “Setting right the political structure has nothing to do with the principlists or the reformists.”