Written by Rahim Hamid
Many international organizations and institutions across a multitude of countries are working to strengthen and support the use of peoples’ mother tongues – especially those languages facing extinction due to the lack of native speakers. UNESCO was founded to preserve the cultures of peoples and nations so that the world could sustain its cultural diversity. Counter to this endeavor, however, there are countries that actively seek to destroy certain cultures and languages by prohibiting those languages and punishing those who speak them.
Among these countries is Iran, which publicly espouses the belief that the country should be unified in one culture and one language – Persian. However, in Iran, there have historically been many different groups of people who used a variety of languages freely until these were outlawed by the regime, with some forgotten over time due to lack of use. Since the 1936 establishment of the Iranian nation-state, the Persian rule, imposed by military force and repression, has sought to assimilate several peoples, some of whom still exceed the Persians in number, in order to create one people with one culture and language – Persian and Farsi respectively.
In the first quarter of the twentieth century, the Iranian regime sought to spread the Farsi language and mandated its usage in all the regions it occupied – regardless of the indigenous language and culture of the native people there. At the time, they did this under the pretext that the modern state they founded needed a single language and a common culture in order to thrive. As such, authorities banned the native languages in order to merge and ultimately eradicate indigenous identities. The regime of the time sanctioned racial discrimination which has subsequently become the norm, with state laws favoring Persian people while ignoring or neglecting other ethnic groups in terms of social, political, and economic rights. After a long period of being prevented from using their own mother tongue, these native languages, such as the Arabic language of the Ahwazi people, began to disappear – forgotten over time due to the oppressive laws of successive Iranian regimes which continue till this day.
In 1979, the Islamic Revolution took place. The uprising was initially supported by peoples of diverse ethnicities such as Ahwazi Aras, Turks, Kurds, and Baluchis, who supported the revolution hoping to reclaim what they had lost under previous authoritarian regimes’ rule. One of the most sought-after freedoms amongst all the ethnic minority groups in Ahwaz, Kurdistan, South Azerbaijan and Baluchistan was to study in their local languages.
This was clearly demonstrated at the time by the demands voiced by delegations of these peoples during meetings with Ayatollah Khomeini. Among these peoples, the Arab people of Ahwaz demanded recognition of the importance of preserving their culture and Arabic language. However, Khomeini rejected all the demands of those delegations on the pretext that any actions to preserve or revitalize the languages and cultures of these peoples would only contribute to fragmentation and division of Iran. What Khomeini said directly contradicted legal articles contained in the regime’s own constitution which seemed to have been created to meet the demands of these groups, but these articles have not been implemented this day.
Article 15 states that the Persian language must be taught in schools, but those other languages may be taught alongside it. This draws a clear distinction between the Persian language, which is obligatory, and other languages, which are permissible. However, there is a catch embedded in the language of this Article. The aforementioned article of the Constitution stipulates that it is permissible to teach non-Persian languages, but this does not mean that schools can give lessons spoken in that language. For example, students cannot have all their lessons taught to them by a teacher speaking their native language, but they can take one class dedicated to the study of it as a “foreign language”.
In another effort to crush the linguistic variety in the country, the non-Farsi language textbooks provided were substandard and written and arranged in such a way to be purposefully unclear and confusing. The Persian teachers tend to teach minority languages poorly and apathetically, despite putting massive pressure on the students to do well in the final exams, however woefully inadequate the preparation and teaching they’ve received, arguably deliberately setting the children up to fail. When children are taught their native languages improperly, then set up to fail their exams, it is only natural for them to struggle in their studies, lose faith in their abilities, and eventually give up pursuing them altogether. Persian teachers also actively promote offensive racist stereotypes in the classroom about non-Persian students – such as laughing at the accents of Ahwazi Arabs, Turks, and Kurds when they are speaking Persian. The teachers mock these non-Persian students’ efforts, for instance routinely telling the non-Persian children that their native accents are too coarse and lacking in the necessary breeding and refinement to properly master the “sweetness” of the Persian language. This blatant and relentless supremacist indoctrination is a way to break students’ spirits. Due to this constant degrading treatment and humiliation, all but the very strongest students suffer a dual-identity crisis – feeling they must hide their true ethnic and linguistic identity behind a fake ‘Persianism’ in order to get ahead or prosper in life.
All these practices promoted by the Iranian regime against non-Persian ethnic groups are justified under the pretext of preserving the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iran to save the country from fragmentation and division. The Iranian regime also flatly rejects any suggestion of providing education in other languages, claiming that this would dilute and bring about the loss of the Persian language. But none of these authorities asks themselves why the capabilities, languages, and cultures of these other groups of peoples must be sacrificed in order to preserve only the language and culture of the Persians.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, Maryam from Ahwaz said, "Writing in Arabic is so difficult that it pushes me to quit but, I cannot quit… The Arabic language is part of me. Words are mirrors that reflect my ideas and my feeling… Without [our] language we are nothing… A language is a part of our personality…mother language is my identity… to express our inner thoughts and feeling, and soul. No language is closer to one's feeling and soul than the mother tongue. When writing I might make mistakes, I may not have rich vocabulary – but let’s not quit, let’s continuing writing.”
Iranian politicians are well aware that the militant doctrine of Reza Pahlavi, the former king of Iran, which aimed to create a nation unified by one people and one language has not, and will not, be successful, and that ultimately the repressive practices of successive regimes cannot continue indefinitely and will sooner or later be abandoned. The regime, however, refuses to give up its forcibly acquired acquisitions and will seek to preserve them by oppression and extremism. What no-one in positions of power in Iran appears capable of understanding is that the Persian language will not actually be jeopardized if the non-Persian peoples gain the right to receive education in their own languages; indeed people are less likely to resent it if they also have the chance of proper education in their mother tongue.
The situation in Iran today is directly impacted by this brutally imposed Persian supremacist worldview which gained momentum due to the colonialist practices of successive regimes. Many Persians in Iran seem unable to accept the idea that the Arab, Turks, Kurdish, Baluchi, and Turkoman are also entitled to study in their own languages and preserve and cherish their own cultures. Years of indoctrination with supremacist ideology have left many unable to accept the reality that despite all the oppressive methods that Iranian authorities have deployed in their efforts to eradicate the identities and languages of minority groups, the people and languages persist. While the regime’s efforts to eradicate the cultural and linguistic heritage of the minority groups has not been successful, however, this policy has resulted in a high rate of students dropping out from schools at early ages in the marginalized non-Persian regions in Iran: due to the challenges of learning the Persian language, students are held back linguistically, becoming only partially proficient in both their native tongue and the imposed Persian language.
Ruth Riegler, a Scottish writer-editor and freedom activist, asserted, “It is linguicide, part of the regime's efforts to eradicate all trace of the Ahwazi people and the rest of the oppressed ethnic groups. But successive regimes have been trying to do that for 92 years to date, and they didn't succeed, I don’t believe they ever will. No tyranny lasts forever.”
Today, it would be better for UNESCO to expel Iran from its membership and forbid the regime’s participation in its activities. The regime is trying to destroy several languages native to Iran in favour of solely promoting the Persian language, as well as systematically oppressing and punishing anyone who insists on learning and using their native language. These practices are in stark contrast to what UNESCO stands for.
Rahim Hamid is a freelance journalist and human rights advocate and co-founder of Ahwaz Monitor website who writes about the plight of his community – the Ahwazi Arabs – and other ethnic groups in Iran. You can follow him on twitter: https://twitter.com/samireza42
Written by Rahim Hamid