When Mohammad Taha Zanjani, a third-grade student in Iran, came home and showed his father the textbooks for his new school year, his father soon became livid. A quick check confirmed the rumors that had been swirling online. There was a major change in the design of a third-grade math textbook: all the depictions of girls had been removed from the cover. Previously, the cover to the textbook had shown five kids playing under a tree, including two girls, donning the Islamic veil and playing separately from the boys. In the new edition, the girls had simply been taken out. Now there were only three boys.
Mohammad’s father, Mohsen Bayat Zanjani, is the son of Ayatollah Zanjani, an influential cleric in the holy city of Qom and a former deputy speaker of the parliament. His response shows that the zealotry displayed by Iran’s Islamic Republic now enrages not only the secular-leaning sections of the population, but many of the devout. The livid father took to Twitter to complain.
“I am about to explode,” he wrote. “Where in the world do you live? What percent of society shares your ideas?”
The marginalization of women and promotion of gender stereotypes is nothing new in the Islamic Republic. In 2017, Iran ranked 109th out of 160 countries in the Gender Inequality Index, which measures reproductive health, empowerment and labor market participation. Iran is the only country in the world in which all women everywhere are forced to cover their hair, arms and legs, thus observing the Islamic hijab. In Iranian movies or TV, no woman is allowed to touch a man, even if actors are showing emotions between, say, a mother and her son. Until recently women weren’t allowed in sports stadiums and there are still many restrictions.
These backward and misogynistic rules are countered by an active feminist movement and lively participation of women in many fields, professions and disciplines. The official ideology, however, promotes conservative gender stereotypes that limits women to housework and maternal duties. Hopes that things would be different under pro-reform President Hassan Rouhani, who appoints the education minister that’s in charge of the textbook designs, have been dashed.
Zanjani wasn’t the only one upset about this obvious omission. The uproar spread quickly. Mostafa Tajzadeh, a deputy interior minister under reformist President Khatami (president from 1997 to 2005), protested loudly on Twitter and said Iran was competing in extremism with the Taliban government that once ruled Afghanistan. He used the hashtag #Girls_won’t_be_erased.
On September 10, when the Ministry of Education finally reacted, its response was Orwellian and bizarre. The ministry’s research and planning department said the change had happened because the previous cover had been “too crowded.” The girls had been erased due to “artistic, aesthetic and psychological considerations,” it added. As the outrage continued, the minister himself, Mohsen Haji Mirzaee, made a vague retreat. On Twitter, he said he had asked the head of the research department to “carefully monitor, reform and report back on the shape and content of textbooks.” He added that he “cared for people’s concerns” and that “girls of the nation deserve respect.”
Who’s the Cleric in Charge of Textbook Designs?
Erasing girls from a textbook cover is not an isolated incident. In 2019, interim education minister Javad Hosseini said a study he had conducted showed that 70 percent of all Iranian textbook content was male-dominated. Things are unlikely to get better under Ali Zoelm, the cleric who has been in charge of the education ministry’s research and planning department since early 2019. Zoelm’s appointment was protested by many Iranian teachers, whose trade union published a long piece about the cleric warning of the “destruction” he would bring.
Zoelm also works at an institute dedicated to the study and publication of the works of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s Supreme Leader. As a vice president there, Zoelm is in charge of providing content for khamenei.ir and producing books from Khamenei’s speeches, including titles such as The Sun Continues. He is open about his devotion to Khamenei, who has stood hard and fast against any loosening of strict Islamist rules governing the educational system.
Khamenei has made a bugbear out of UNESCO 2030, a plan by the UN’s cultural agency for educational progress as part of the Sustainable Development Goals agreed on by every member of the UN including Iran. Even the September 10 statement by the education ministry’s research department made sure to decry the UNESCO 2030 plan: “Everyone in our department, from the head to those in the lower ranks, is a soldier of the Islamic Revolution and the regime and has nothing to do with UNESCO 2030. We resolutely oppose this secularist document.”
Zoelm’s reign has seen worrying changes in textbook content, even by the low standards of the Islamic Republic. Last November, parents were shocked when they saw many masterpieces of Iranian poetry had been taken out of Persian literature textbooks. These included works by Nima Yooshij, the founder of modern Persian verse; socialist Houshang Ebtehaj, arguably the most notable Persian poet alive; the lyrical master Rahi Moayeri; and even the story of fabled 9th-century mystic Sufi Al-Hallaj as told by the medieval master Attar in his magnum opus Biographies of the Saints. Translated into French in 1889 as Le Memorial des saints, this classical text is included in many academic syllabi the world over, but is no longer recognized in Iran’s own schools. Poems by classical poets Rumi and Omar Khayyam, who are some of the best-selling poets around the world in translation, were also taken out. Instead of the old masters, a new poem was added: a recent work by 53-year-old poet Morteza Amiri Esfandaghe that commemorated Mohsen Hojaji, a young soldier from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) who was killed in Syria in 2017. Hojaji, who was killed by ISIS, has become a symbol of Iran’s intervention in the Syrian civil war.
Hossein Ghasempour Moghadam, the man in charge of the changes, defended the move and said students should study texts that “are closer to the beliefs of our regime.” Minister Haj Mirzaee himself stood behind the decision and said including a poem about Hojaji “had priority over [classical Persian poets] Hafez and Saadi,” in words that seemed designed to cause outrage in Iran, where these poets are national treasures.
An even more Orwellian move, also in line with Tehran’s policy in Syria, was taken in the publication of Persian literature textbooks for grade 11. An educational expert in the country wrote that content about “Russia’s historical crimes in Iran” had been erased. For years a colonial empire that shared borders with Iran, Russia has played a major role in the country’s history, including occupying Tabriz, at the time Iran’s second most important city, from 1909 to 1918 as part of its effort to crush the Persian Constitutional Revolution. The changes were once more defended by the ministry’s officials, who said it was aimed at “making space” for other content. The same excuse was used when the mathematical concept of integrals was taken out of primary school math textbooks. “We have to get rid of these to make room for content on lifestyle and skills,” Zoelm said. He also promised the new textbooks would include more anti-American content.
The Popular Fightback: The Iran of Mirzakhani
The news of the women being erased from educational texts was especially bitter to the many Iranians who still remember the story of Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian professor of mathematics at Stanford University who, in 2014, was honored with the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics, for her work on the geometry of Riemann surfaces. Mirzakhani, who died in 2017 from breast cancer, remains the only woman to date to have received the award. Her birthday on May 12 is now recognized as International Women in Mathematics Day — a feat achieved after a campaign by Iranian female mathematicians. Once more Iranians have to deal with the ironic dilemmas of their life: a country that produces world-class female scientists like Mirzakhani, but whose official policy remains exclusionary and misogynistic. The late mathematician has now become a symbol of the popular fightback.
Narges Shahraeeni, an illustrator in Iran, turned to Mirzakhani to help the fightback. She published a design of a new cover of the math textbook that features the Stanford professor with a boy and a girl playing on each side of her. People can now print this cover and put it on their kids’ textbooks, many suggested online. Shahraeeni’s design was inspired by that of Nasim Bahari, the woman who illustrated the original cover for the third-grade math textbook. Bahari took to Instagram to decry the change and tell the story of the censorship that her original design had already gone through even before this egregious erasure of girls.
“In my original design, one of the girls was climbing the tree,” Bahari wrote. “The ministry officials told me it looks like the girl is going toward one of the boys. ‘Please fix it,’ they asked.”
Hard as it may try, the Islamic Republic can’t forever hinder Iranian women from standing up for their rights.