Iran: Minorities Campaign for Right to Education in their Mother Tongue
23 September 2018 was the first day for school in Iran. Unfortunately, the first day for children from national minorities is not an enjoyable experience. It is a day when minority students experience their first cultural and language shock at the age of seven. They go from their homes and neighbourhoods, where they speak their native tongue, and enter a totally foreign environment that not only does not allow students to even speak their mother tongue among themselves, but also subjects them to humiliation due to their accents or inability to speak Persian (Farsi), the only official language of Iran.
According to Hamid Hajbabaie, the minister of education, in 2012 70% of students who started their education in Iran did not have Farsi (Persian) as their mother tongue. Instead of accepting the fact that the monolinguist education system has to change, he proposed allocating a larger budget to teaching schoolchildren Persian from a really young age – this despite article 15 of the Iranian constitution, which states: “Persian is the official and common language and script of the people of Iran. The documents, correspondence, official texts, and schoolbooks must all be in this language and script. However, use of regional and ethnic languages in the press, the mass media, and the teaching of their literature at schools, alongside the Persian language, is freely permitted.”
The government refuses to apply this article and punishes activists who advocate for the possibility of education in a child’s mother tongue. In the 22nd Parliament Meeting for drafting the constitution on 23 Agust 1979, which was recorded, Baluch Representative Molana Abdel Azizi Mula Zadeh raised the following question: “does this article means that the government is responsible for providing education in Baluchi or Arabic languages including teachers and curriculum?” The head of Parliament, then Ayatullah Beheshti, responded “it is freely permitted”.
39 year after this discussion, the Iranian government not only does not allow the use of national minority languages but has begun to reinterpret the article to affirm that minorities must study their language in their own capacity.
In addition to what is stated in the constitution, Iran has international obligations to respect the right of minorities to study in their mother tongue. What is happening on the ground, however, is far from achieving what is given as a basic human right.
In 5 November 2017, concurrent with the National Student Day in Iran, two Ahwazi Arab girls were punished and humiliated by their teacher, “Mrs. Shohtari”, for speaking Arabic together in class. The teacher forced the students to write: “We refrain from speaking Arabic in the classroom” 100 times as a punishment.
This incident turned to a public debate among all other national minorities. However, this did not stop the minister of education who in June 2018 sated: “education in Persian is the government’s main concern”.
In light of these violations, this year all national minorities including Arab, Kurd and Turk activists relaunched their annual campaign for the right to study in their mother tongue. In Azerbaijan, Turk activists even distributed books in Turkish among the school students.
Unfortunately, there were no such organized campaigns in Baluchistan as the region, in comparison with that of other minorities, is even more deprived economically and schools there consist of clay huts.
After some 100 years of forced assimilation of non-Persian minorities in Iran, still the demand for education in one’s mother tongue resurfaces every year to shake the monolinguistic education system in the Islamic Republic of Iran.