From activism to exile
18 June 2019
Sajjad Khaksari’s early lessons in Iran were about rights, courage and taking a stand – the result of growing up as the son of high-profile trade union and human-rights activists, Soraya Darabi and Mohammad Khaksari. In this edited extract of a blog published late last year on worldsofeducation.org, the 37-year-old talks about his parents’ work and his own fate.
My parents are both journalists and teacher union activists. Twenty years ago, my father founded the first non-governmental association of Iranian education workers after the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. In 2003, he created a weekly independent magazine focusing on education and trade unions called Teacher’s Pen or Ghalame Moallem in Persian.
My parents worked together in the umbrella teacher association (Coordinating Council of the Iranian Teacher Associations affiliated to Education International) and as editor in chief and editor of the Teacher’s Pen. In 2007, my mother was active in Madarane Solh (the Mothers of Peace), collaborating with Nobel Peace Prize Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi in the Centre for the Defence of Human Rights. It was shut down a year later by the Ahmadinejad regime.
Both my parents have suffered years of intimidation, court charges and detentions due to their roles at the helm of the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association, which has never been legalised by the Iranian government. In May 2007, my mother was one of a small number of female teachers arrested in front of the Parliament in Tehran after calling for better rights and status. She was detained in prison and condemned by the Islamic Revolutionary Court.
Later that year, my father was interrogated for days after he returned from the Education International’s World Congress in Berlin. His passport was seized and held for years. A few months later, on World Teachers’ Day, my parents’ apartment and the apartments of other union leaders were searched by agents of the Ministry of Intelligence. Computer and papers were confiscated.
Because of their union involvement, my family received public death theatres. Once, a teacher close to the Iranian regime threatened to burn my father’s home and family, “stitch his mouth and kill him”. It was not the first time my parents were subjected to such threats. The authorities never acted to protect their safety.
Over the years, Education International has consistently denounced the fact that teachers are deprived of freedom of association. The teacher associations are still banned and teacher unionists still detained. EI has also launched a new case to request the release of teacher unionists. At least 15 names are known, and dozens of others are presumably detained as well. This new way of arrests follows the monthly protests of teachers throughout the country.
A year after graduating high school, in 2001, I was attending a small gathering in the north of Tehran where I was shot in the leg by a Pasdaran (Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution). I was taken to the military hospital for treatment. Many operations and months of physiotherapy treatment followed. The news of my shooting was censored in the media because the military was responsible for the attack. The assault was never officially recorded.
A year later, I was arrested by the security forces for launching a student demand for additional study rooms in the University of Arak where I was studying industrial engineering. When I later transferred to the University of Tehran, I suffered further intimidation from the university’s security because of my activism and “illegal” publications challenging the Iranian regime propaganda.
I was contributing articles and photographs to my parents’ magazine in and 2006, was arrested for releasing an article in the Teacher’s Pen and distributing the magazine in several provinces of Iran. I was arrested again that year for releasing another article in the magazine and for participating in a teachers’ demonstration in front of the Iranian Parliament.
In 2007, I graduated with a Bachelor of Science, however my thesis on the Education Management Information System in Iran was rejected and censored because of its critique of the Iranian regime’s education policy. I was deprived of my right to study further in Iran.
Two years later, I was arrested again during a gathering of teachers demanding permanent contracts. After some days of interrogation and solitary confinement, I was sentenced to a year in prison, charged with “propaganda against the sacred regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran”, “disturbing public opinion”, and “disordering the public order”.
A further six months was added to my sentence for my participation in teacher rallies, but I was released early in 2009 and invited by the Italian government, UNESCO and UN Habitat to take part in the first Youth Meeting for a Sustainable Future, held in Italy. During the trip, my request for asylum was granted and I moved to Piedmont to return to study, graduating with a Masters of Science in engineering and management.
My parents, now aged in their 60s, are still committed teacher unionists although they suffer many health problems because of their ill treatment during their times in detention.
The trade union situation in Iran remained very complicated. In 2015, my father and other Iranian teacher union leaders were denied participation in the 7th World Congress of Education International. Participation in these international gatherings is very important for Iranian teachers as it provides an opportunity to talk about the conditions of teachers and challenges in the education system. Not only are union freedoms and collective bargaining denied, academic freedom is restricted, schools are unsafe, especially in the rural regions, minorities are discriminated against, there is gender segregation and no respect for diversity.This article appeared in the Australian Educator Winter 2019.