Iran’s single language policy is blowing in the wrong direction
By: Sharif Behruz
Iran is often in the headlines for its incompliance on nuclear impasse, supporting and condoning terrorism, highest per capita executions in the world, and of course, lately experimenting dispatching monkeys to space; however, what is not heard and covered very often is the restrictions majority of Iranians face because they converse in languages different than the official language of the country, Farsi or Persian.
According to an administrative order obtained by Kurdpa News Agency, school board directors in Kirmanshah Province of the Iranian Kurdistan region have warned school staff and instructors in the province to refrain from using any languages in school vicinity other than the official language.
The order issued by Jalal Amini the Director General of the Board of Education of the Province of Kirmanshah reads: In line with strengthening the standard language and bearing in mind the country’s official language, and the rights of the non-indigenous students in classrooms, and enriching the lexis treasury and better communication in future stages of education, it is best to order that school personnel speak in the Farsi language while teaching and conversing in educational centres and avoid using any local dialects.
The article 15 of the Iranian constitution following the 1979 Revolution that brought the Islamists to power in Iran clearly states that the official language and script of Iran, the lingua franca of its people, is Persian where official documents, correspondence, and texts, as well as text-books, must be in this language and script. However, the use of ‘regional’ and ‘tribal’ languages in the press and mass media, as well as for teaching of their literature in schools, is allowed in addition to Persian.
In essence, despite the common belief, the current constitution does not recognize the existence of non-Persian nationalities and refers to their language only as ‘tribal’ and ‘regional’ languages; furthermore, many Iranian officials and media refer to non-Persian cultures and nationalities as ‘petty culture’ to imply that the culture of those belonging to Kurds, Azeri Turks, Ahwazi Arabs, Baluchis and Turkmens and others are inferior to that of the dominant Persian culture, ethnicity and language.
The order uses “the rights of the non-indigenous students in the classrooms”, meaning non-Kurds, as a pretext to deny millions of children not only education in mother tongue but also communication and speaking in that language as well.
In a similar order in 2010, the Director of Education in Saqiz city (Kurdistan Province), Muzaafer Rostemi had also sent a written order to all schools in the city stating that the use of Kurdish language in schools is prohibited and all teachers and education personnel have to use Persian only in class.
In a detailed paper, Dr. Amir Hasanpour outlines the Iranian state policy of the Kurdish language since the 1900; however, the same policy applies to the language of other oppressed nationalities of Iran as well.
According to Hasanpour, “The first constitution of Iran, adopted in 1906, made Persian the only official language of the multilingual country. Although this may be considered the beginning of an official language policy reflecting the position of Persian nationalists it was not until the coming to power of the Pahlavi dynasty that the central government was in a position to implement the constitutional stipulation effectively.”
In one blog a Kurdish student writes of his experience in Iranian school system: The first five years in school children learn how to read and write Persian. They aren’t allowed to speak Kurdish in their classrooms. They don’t learn Kurdish language at school. Kurdish children are basically illiterate in their native language. They grow up with a perception that their language and culture is less valuable than the Persian culture.
He complains not only of the lack of education in Kurdish for students of Kurdish origin, but also of the state discriminatory policy towards Kurds in pursuing post-secondary education, a concern that the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination well raised in its observations in 2010.
The Committee “expressed concern over reports that the application of the gozinesh criterion, a selection procedure that requires prospective State officials and employees to demonstrate allegiance the Islamic Republic of Iran and the State religion may limit employment opportunities and political participation for, inter alia, persons of Arab, Azeri, Balochi, Jewish, Armenian and Kurdish communities,” and the limited enjoyment of such communities, as well as some groups of non-citizens, to economic, social and cultural rights, including employment. The Committee urged the Iranian authorities to take “the necessary steps to achieve effective protection from discrimination against, inter alia, Arab, Azeri, Balochi and Kurdish communities and some communities of non–citizens, in view of general recommendation No. 30 (2004) on discrimination against non-citizens, in various domains, in particular, employment, housing, health, education and freedom of expression and religion”.
In my testimony before the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development of the Canadian Parliament, I also underlined the assimilation policy of the Iranian regime where the use of the Kurdish language and other nationalities’ languages in education system are prohibited, and this order and others alike are an indicative of the existence of discriminatory culture and systematic bigotry against Non-Persians in Iran.
As a matter of fact, the assimilation is not confined to children when they start attending school, they experience it at birth; parents are banned from registering their babies with certain Kurdish names while Persian and Islamic names are suggested widely, and often forced upon parents.
In examining the extent to which the current regime of Islamic Republic of Iran has deviated, if at all, from the linguicidal policies of its predecessors, i.e. the Pahlavi Dynast,y towards non-Persian languages in Iran, Dr. Jaffer Sheyholislami in his recent paper for the International Journal of the Sociology of Language concluded that both [Monarch and Islamic regimes] have treated multilingualism as a threat to the country’s territorial integrity and national unity, restricted the use of non-Persian languages, and lastly, both have promoted the supremacy of Persian as a venue for unifying the ethnically and linguistically heterogeneous body politic.
He further adds quoting Skutnabb-Kangas that “One of the most effective ways of assimilation and “integration” has been formal education.” Hence, this policy of assimilation is well propagated and enforced by the educational directors in the school system in Iran as the document proves.
There have been rumours of schools teaching Kurdish in elementary schools in Iran for the last 15 years, and it first started with the emergence of the so-called reformists in 1997, but it has been used as a campaign pledge in every sham election ever since to deceive voters, a promise never delivered.
However, the Kurds in Iran along with other nationalities believe that right to education is the basic right that Iranian nationalities must enjoy even under the current oppressive regime; however, they argue that the right to education in mother language is not enough and they have to be able to control the curriculum and others aspects of education locally and that is only possible if Iran is run by a democratically elected government with highly decentralized federal structure where health, education and local security among other local and regional issues are delegated to the regional and local governments and administrators.
The Iranian Kurdish dreams of self-rule is long overdue; nonetheless, the right to education in one’s native language is so fundamental that even the current regime must and can afford to provide, and the international community must and can press Iran on the issue at every venue and opportunity available.
While neighbouring countries provide some breathing space for their Kurds when it comes to freedom to communicate in Kurdish, Iran’s policy on its Kurdish population and other non-Persian population is blowing in the wrong direction, just as like the rest of its policies are against the wind of change in the region.