By Sarvenaz Amanat
Vancouver is a city full of people from all backgrounds, full of creativity and art, and with a strong sense of social justice. As a Canadian Baha’i of Iranian descent who works in the arts, I want to share with Vancouver the upcoming premiere of Changing the World, One Wall at a Time, a film about a global street art campaign that raises awareness about the denial of university education to Baha’is in Iran.
Iranians are one of Vancouver’s larger ethnic groups and many of them are Baha’is; that is, like me, they are followers of the Baha’i Faith, a world religion that teaches the oneness of humanity and of God, the equality of women and men, and the harmony of science and religion.
Canada is also home to Baha’is of European descent, from Indigenous communities, and global backgrounds. Baha’i communities exist all around the world. The faith began in 19th-century Iran, and today the Iranian government persecutes Baha’is just because of their beliefs.
One way the Iranian government persecutes Baha’is is by denying them the right to teach or study at university. It’s a form of oppression that could have affected me—but for the difference of a few thousand miles. I was born in the U.K., around the time of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, before my parents moved to Vancouver in 1982.
Thousands of Baha’is have been denied the right to higher education since the revolution. Iran’s government has also executed hundreds of Baha’is, jailed and tortured many more, denied them the means of livelihood, and even desecrated their cemeteries. My great uncle was executed in 1981 and my father blacklisted in 1979, forcing us to live in exile. The United Nations regularly calls on Iran to abide by its international obligations and to respect the rights of its Baha’i community.
Iranian Baha’is have found a uniquely peaceful way to address this injustice. In 1987, they realized that the government had no intention of letting them attend universities. So they created the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, an “underground university” where its students secretly study in each others’ homes and take classes online.
Because of my field of work and personal background, I’ve decided to join the global "Education Is Not A Crime" street art and human rights campaign with its first Vancouver event. Education Is Not A Crime was started in 2015 by an Iranian Canadian, journalist Maziar Bahari, who decided to work with street artists to create murals around the world that raise awareness about the denial of higher education to Baha’is in Iran.
Maziar himself is not a Baha’i, but as a journalist he also suffered at the hands of the Iranian government. He was covering the disputed 2009 presidential election in Iran, which saw hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets in protest, when he was jailed in solitary confinement, interrogated and tortured for 118 days in Tehran’s Evin Prison. Maziar was a Newsweek reporter and an international campaign helped secure his release. His story was told in Jon Stewart’s 2014 film Rosewater.
Maziar decided, after his release, to talk about issues that Iran suppresses inside the country. Chief among these is the treatment of the Baha’is.
Education Is Not A Crime has since produced more than 40 murals in cities on every continent. Leading international artists have installed pieces in London, Cape Town, Delhi, Sydney, São Paulo, and Detroit.
Twenty of these murals were also installed in Harlem, New York City, which is a bastion of civil rights history and cultural experimentation. Harlem welcomed the street art project with open arms and gave the project a relevance beyond Iranian Baha’is.
The experience of this project is told through a documentary film called Changing the World, One Wall at a Time, which will have its Vancouver premiere on Saturday (October 13) at HiVE Vancouver. The film features interviews with Iranian Baha’is, street artists, and many others to tell a positive story about how an injustice in Iran can be challenged not through anger or protest but through art and constructive resilience.
Changing the World, One Wall at a Time also bridges the story of Iranian Baha’is with discrimination against people of colour elsewhere—especially African-Americans in the United States and black South Africans. One of the great messages of this film, and Education Is Not A Crime, is that the suffering of the few is the suffering of all. And that one government’s policy to deny a group its right to education is driven by the same fear and hatred that is at the heart of injustice in any part of the world.
What is most inspiring about Changing the World, One Wall at a Time is that, from the artists to the activists in Harlem to the South Africans with a personal experience of apartheid, people without any obvious connection to the story also care and want to help. Education is a universal right and upholding it anywhere is the responsibility of people everywhere.