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Op-Ed: Kurdish students and the assimilationist Iranian education system

Kurdish national liberation movement activist Kajal Mohammadi explains the hardships faced by millions of Kurdish students in Iran and urges Persian academics and activists to view diversity as an advantage. She also calls on the international community to prevent the annihilation of the Kurdish language and culture in the Middle East.
Kurdish New Year Nowruz celebration Photo Credit: EPA

The Kurds are the fourth largest population in the Middle East after the Arabs, Turks and Persians. The English and French divided Kurdistan over modern-day Iraq (South or Bashur), Iran (East or Rojhalat), Syria (West or Rojava) and Turkey (North or Bakur) in the aftermath of the First World War. Kurdish nationalists estimate the number of Kurds to be between 40-45 million, a figure downplayed by Iraq, Iran and Syria. Turkey even denies the existence of a Kurdish population, even though the Kurds make up about a fifth of the population. The Turkish government banned the Kurdish language, closed down Kurdish schools and even removed the words Kurds and Kurdistan from its scientific works. Iran and Iraq also do not recognize the number of Kurds in their country and Syria denies the existence of a Kurdish population indigenous to this region.

The one state, one language policy adopted by the nation-states occupying Kurdistan has had a devastating impact on the Kurdish nation and national identity. Kurdish artifacts, language, social and political organizations and even Kurdish names were banned. Kurds were also forced and are forced through assimilatory and tyrannical policies and practices to abandon their national identity, culture and language. Kurdish national identity, therefore, emerged in relation to the construction of modern nation-state; the centralization of political power in the countries and the exclusionary and assimilatory practices and policies directed at them.

Aside from the liberated and semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in Bashur, millions of Kurds are still denied access to education in their mother tongue across occupied Kurdistan. In Bakur and Rojava for example, the number of Kurds unable to read, write and even speak in the Kurdish language is in the millions.

The situation is not any better in Rojhalat. The Iranian regime has, in fact, adopted severe restrictions and assimilatory policies and practices in the official institutions and educational institutions. Upon taking power in 1979, the regime banned all newspapers, magazines, radio stations and publication houses. The regime now has complete control over what is published and aired in Rojhalat. Persian is the official language of government, media and the education system.

Kurdish women wearing traditional dress in Badreh, western Iran Photo Credit: EPA

Kurdish students, like their Azari, Arab and Turkmen counterparts, are forced to learn the Persian language and are punished for not mastering it at a young age. This monolithic education system has proved to be very damaging to these students’ educational aspirations and life chances and opportunities. They are at a young age told that their language is the language of the home and not that of higher education and knowledge production and dissemination. These students find it extremely difficult to thrive in a system that continues to deny them the right to education in their mother tongue and treat them as second and third class students and citizens. Speaking in Kurdish on the school premises is considered a threat and a taboo – one that should be avoided at all times to avoid beatings and belittling.

These young children are thus forced to abandon the language that they have been raised with and communicated in with their families and friends. This leads to increase feelings of alienation and isolations from their peers, teachers and the education process and curricula – as they do not see themselves represented. As a result of these systemic and structural barriers, too many students end up not even getting a high school diploma. The discrimination and exclusion do not stop at high school, instead, it is carried out and intensified in higher education settings where there is a heavy security presence. Any signs of objection to the literature, the regime and the ways in which the university operates are perceived and received as a threat to the national and territorial integrity of the state. Students are, therefore, expelled, detained and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences.

Kurds are mocked and made to feel that their language, often labeled as a dialect by the regime, occupies an inferior status through official narratives and discourses, education system, publications and media outlets and programs. On a day-to-day encounter, they are also told to go and ‘correct your accent’ for not mastering the Persian language. Millions of Kurds end up never acquiring education in their mother tongue or learning about their history and literature due to these assimilationists and repressively policies. They further continue to face inhuman linguistic, legal, political and economic measures limiting access to societal intuitions because of their national identity.

These discriminatory policies have extreme ramification on the ground – where for instance, Kurdish political, civil, labor and human rights activists are denied access to legal representation that speaks their language. When and if allowed family visitations, they are to speak in Persian only – as a result, the very young and the very old are often deprived of speaking to their loved ones due to their limited knowledge in Persian. Kurdish detainees are interrogated, tried and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences and even the death penalty in a language that they do not understand.

Kurdish civil and human rights activists have fought for the right to use the Kurdish language in official settings – something perceived by the regime as a call that would lead to separatists’ outlooks, which threaten its territorial integrity. Kurds continue to challenge the linguistic and cultural hegemony of the state and struggle to bring about a more democratic society where linguistic and national diversity is not only recognized but also cherished, protected and celebrated.

Persian academics, social, political and human right organizations and activists must put aside their racial prejudice and discriminatory tendencies and perceive diversity as a strength and not a weakness. These Iranians cannot talk about having civilization and wanting democracy when they turn a blind eye to the sufferings of millions of people because of Persian racism, bigotry and exclusion. They should call out the regime and its genocidal tendencies and stand in solidarity with the people of Kurdistan.

The Kurds in Rojhalat struggle to bring about a democratic society where the rights of all nationalities are preserved and protect. I also call on the international government bodies, the United Nations and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), to take serious steps and measures in preventing the annihilation of the Kurdish language and culture in Kurdistan.

JOL Blogger | Kajal Mohammadi

Kajal Mohammadi is a Kurd from East (Rojhelat) Kurdistan (Kurdistan under Iranian occupation). Her family, along with thousands of other Rojhelati Kurds, was forcefully dislodged from their towns and villages in Rojhalat because of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Khomeni 1979 Jihad and onslaught on the Kurds; and the subsequent 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. She was born in a refugee camp known as Altash Camp in Romadi, located in Western Iraq. She completed my elementary schooling in the camp and relocated to Canada through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2002. She completed her secondary and post-secondary education in Canada. She is a first year PhD student and is a strong advocate of the Kurdish national liberation movement across occupied Kurdistan.

She is especially involved and interested in the East Kurdistan’s renewed resistance movement; and is of the strong believe that the international community and world powers need to support the Kurds in their struggle for democracy, equality and human rights against the terrorist Iranian regime.

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