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HomeStudiesThe Language of Repression: How Iran Silenced  Non-Persian peoples

The Language of Repression: How Iran Silenced  Non-Persian peoples



The UN’s International Mother Language Day, held every year on 21 February, emphasises the central nature of native languages in sustainable development. [1]

As the UN itself states, ‘To foster sustainable development, learners must have access to education in their mother tongue and in other languages. It is through the mastery of the first language or mother tongue that the basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy are acquired. Local languages, especially minority and indigenous, transmit cultures, values and traditional knowledge, thus play an important role in promoting sustainable futures.’ [2]

International Mother Language Day also supports target 6 of Goal 4 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): “Ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy.”[3]

 Importance of linguistic diversity for peace

 UNESCO also believes that linguistic diversity promotes a culture of peace and cultural understanding because each language is a key part of a distinctive culture, offering useful insights and lessons for human society. In the words of UNESCO Secretary-General Irina Bokova, “Access to linguistic diversity can weaken the curiosity and mutual understanding among people. That is why learning languages is a commitment to peace, innovation and creativity. ” [4]

In Iran, a country with multiple ethnic minorities, cultures and languages, the potential of this linguistic diversity has been quashed for generations due to successive rulers’ and regimes’ efforts to enforce assimilation under the ethnically Persian population. These efforts include outlawing education in the native languages of these minorities and punishing those found teaching those languages or disseminating materials in languages other than Farsi. [5]

This is part of a longstanding, methodical and systematic effort by Iran’s leaders to forcibly subjugate and assimilate non-Persian minorities within Iran which has encouraged a culture of Persian supremacism and of overt prejudice and racism toward Ahwazis and other ethnic minorities whose refusal to abandon their cultural and linguistic heritage is presented in a wholly negative light.  These efforts at enforced cultural homogenisation did not begin under the current theocratic regime, but date back at least a century, reflecting European supremacist ideologies of the late 19th and early-to-mid 20th centuries which were disseminated by the imperial conquests of that age and enthusiastically adopted by the Persian rulers of the time.  The adoption of these ideas of superior and inferior races, particularly the idealisation of the supposedly superior Aryan ‘master’ race, had a poisonous effect on building a mythology of Persian supremacism, which remains strong today. This has affected every aspect of the lives of minorities in Iran, who are marginalised politically and socially, with media and education – solely available in Farsi – all reinforcing the message of Persian supremacy, whilst minorities’ culture and languages are depicted as innately inferior.  Art, literature and media are geared towards celebrating only Persian culture while belittling and denigrating that of Ahwazis, Kurds, Balochis and other minorities and punishing those who cling to their culture and identity. [6]

Forced to abandon cultural heritage

All these factors mean that anyone in Iran wishing to pursue a successful career and avoid humiliation, marginalisation and poverty must reflect the dominant Persian culture, communicating solely in Farsi preferably with a ‘pure’ Persian accent; Ahwazis, Kurds, Balochis and Turks, who each have a distinctive language and culture of their own, must wholly abandon their cultural heritage and even their dialects to be accepted or to have any hope of academic or professional success, with any expression of pride in their heritage risking ridicule,  humiliation and social opprobrium. [7]

This, understandably, leads to resentment and to tensions between the Persian majority and the ethnic minorities in the country; when peace and harmony in multiethnic societies are, as UNESCO points out, conditional on the acceptance of linguistic diversity, enforced linguistic homogeneity can only result in hostility and antagonism.

This profoundly racist policy begins in childhood, with schoolchildren forced to learn solely in Farsi and routinely humiliated and punished for speaking in their mother tongue, even if that is the only one they’ve been raised speaking. [8]

Ironically whilst many among the Iranian leadership are apparently concerned that multilingualism may challenge their supremacy and weaken the state’s territorial integrity leading to the eventual break-up of Iran, many Ahwazi, Kurdish, Balochi and Turkish thinkers and activists argue that it is precisely that inflexibility and refusal to accept the diversity of cultures within Iran which is more likely to result in stronger support for separatism amongst minorities and the break-up of the country into smaller states.

Activists from among the country’s ethnic minorities have pointed out that the mother tongue is a foundational cultural phenomenon that first shapes a child’s perceptions of the world around them and helps to form every aspect of their character, from their behaviour and learning patterns to their intellectual development. [9]

Hostile educational environment for children

In addition, many children from minority backgrounds in Iran face difficulties in transitioning from learning, hearing and speaking in one language in their home and community – whether Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish or Balochi – to being educated solely in an alien different language at school, where children are forbidden from speaking or being educated in any language but Farsi. This would be intimidating enough for adults, but for children, especially those from disadvantaged ethnic minority backgrounds where Farsi is rarely or never spoken in the home environment, it can be overwhelming, particularly in a hostile educational environment where racism and bigotry by educators towards these children’s cultures and languages are normalised and systematic. [10]

For these already marginalized, children, the refusal of Iranian education authorities to allow them access to education in their own language and the struggle to master another alien language in a hostile educational environment can be too much, for all but the most determined and thick-skinned, leading to high educational dropout rates and widespread illiteracy among minorities, who are thus left even more marginalised and unable to compete with their academically qualified peers from the ethnically Persian majority; in a highly competitive employment market, particularly for skilled jobs, this traps ethnic minorities in a cycle of deprivation, poverty and resentment.[11]

The statistics bear this out, with one-third of Ahwazi pupils dropping out of full-time education at the elementary school stage and another one-third of the remainder abandoning education by the time they reach high school. Ultimately, only one in four Ahwazi school pupils attains his or her high school diploma. While there are a number of other reasons for low academic achievement levels among ethnic minorities, including family poverty, lack of schools and educational materials, and poor teaching, the insistence on a Farsi-only monolingual education system is a primary reason for dropout rates.    Abdul Hussein Moghtadai, a former governor in the Ahwaz region, described the enforced Farsi-only monolingual education system as the primary reason for the high rates of educational dropping out in minority “bilingual” provinces, calling for a radical revision of the system to allow these children a chance to break this cycle; while he’s since been replaced, the education system remains unchanged. [12]

Putting children at a disadvantage

This pattern is also seen among other ethnic and linguistic minority populations in Iran; students from all the country’s minorities, which have six distinct languages between them, are put at an immediate disadvantage from the first by an education system which flatly refuses to recognise or assimilate languages other than Farsi into the teaching curriculum; while children can learn English, French or any other foreign language they cannot be taught in their mother tongues.

This monolingual system is one of the starkest examples of the Iranian leadership’s longstanding unofficial but widely acknowledged policy of attempting to forcibly assimilate minority populations and to eradicate their own distinctive cultures and languages, even while subjecting them to systemic racism;  this is, in effect, an effort by the state to annihilate all other identities and cultures but that of Persian Iranian, with this attempted linguicide simply part of a larger systemic effort at cultural extermination.  Whilst generations of Ahwazis, Azeris, Kurds, Balochis and other minorities have rejected this, clinging to their long cultural heritage as a key part of their identity, it has led to an identity crisis among many; deprived of a chance to properly learn to read and write their mother tongues in an academic setting and simultaneously struggling with a language widely viewed as a hostile imposition by supremacist occupiers and colonialists who treat them with contempt, minorities have the worst of both worlds, further marginalising them academically and socially.  These problems also impoverish the languages themselves; any language which is not maintained and constantly updated through education and cultural instruction becomes steadily poorer and less able to adapt to a rapidly changing world; many suspect that this is the ultimate objective of the Iranian rulers’ monolingual education policy, to ultimately see these minority languages fade into obscurity, leaving minorities with no linguistic option but Farsi.

Despite successive Iranian rulers’ efforts, however, Iran’s minorities remain rightly proud of their own unique heritage, cultures and languages, just as the ethnically Persian Iranians are of their own.  Many activists are now asserting that in the 21st century the leadership in Tehran can no longer promote this antiquated and profoundly racist policy towards the ethnic minorities, which not only attempts to strip the dignity and self-esteem from the long-suffering ethnic minority populations on the shoddy pretext of preserving territorial integrity but also violates the terms of the United Nations’ 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a signatory. [13]

Mother tongue from a legal perspective

 According to Article 27 of the ICCPR, in countries with racial, religious or linguistic minorities, persons belonging to these minorities cannot be deprived of their right to enjoy their own culture, and practice their religion, and learn, apply and promote their own mother language.

The ICCPR was adopted by the former Iranian regime in 1976, with the current regime, which came to power following the ‘Islamic Revolution’ in 1979, still committed to upholding it according to international law. [14]

The most fundamental problem facing activists attempting to ensure that this legislation is upheld is that the Islamic Jurists who now rule on every aspect of law in Iran vehemently oppose any effort to ensure that the non-Persian ethnic minorities in the country can receive education in their native languages, placing the regime’s own theocratic constitution above the requirements of international law.   The regime’s response to peaceful protests by activists on International Mother Language Day urging the leadership to allow children this basic right is to have the activists arrested and imprisoned as a “security threat”. The regime has forbidden the establishment of a language academy teaching non-Farsi languages and routinely claims that any effort to secure the educational rights of minorities who collectively comprise around half of the Iranian population is an “English plot” to sow ethnic division amongst Iran’s peoples. [15]

The regime Jurists commonly respond to complaints about this injustice by citing Article 15 of the Islamic Republic constitution drafted in 1979; whilst this article does state that the Farsi language must be taught in the country’s schools it also states that the other minority languages can be taught alongside it.  In their rejection of any demands for equal linguistic educational rights for minorities, the Jurists base their argument on the semantic point that, according to Article 15, the Farsi language is mandatory but other languages are optional. [16]

Article 15 also provides the Jurists with further help in stipulating that while it’s possible for students to learn minority languages, this does not mean that schools can provide lessons delivered in those languages or any language but Farsi.  It further states that children from these linguistic minorities cannot receive all their lessons in their native languages, but can have one class dedicated to studying them so long as the minority language in question is defined as a “foreign language”.

Another method used to make education in non-Farsi minority languages difficult is the lack of suitable textbooks and materials; those which are provided by the country’s education authorities are poorly written and apparently deliberately vague, as well as being littered with mistakes.  The ethnically Persian teachers who do teach these languages tend to do so indifferently and apathetically, expressing their contempt for what they view as inferior languages to Farsi, even while pressurising pupils to do well in final exams; this is, of course, virtually impossible without external help, leaving pupils struggling and often simply abandoning their studies.

Racism in the classroom

Racism towards minorities is found in education as in other aspects of Iranian culture, with the regime actively if not officially encouraging this through the dissemination of crude and offensive racist stereotypes of Ahwazis, Azeri Turks, Kurds, Balochis and other minorities in media; since all media are tightly state-controlled, this is fully deliberate.  In schools, children from ethnic minorities are mocked by ethnically Persian teachers and other school personnel for their dialects and ‘imperfect’ spoken Farsi, as well as being subjected to ridicule using insulting stereotypes. A common complaint, voiced by ethnically Persian teachers, is that minority pupils’ accents and dialects destroy the supposed “sweetness” of the Farsi accent.

This blatant and relentless humiliation and racism, expressed both overtly and covertly through teachers’ words and behaviour obviously has an effect on influencing the views of already vulnerable children, who feel compelled, especially as they get older, to attempt to hide their ethnic identity if they wish to have a chance of success socially or professionally.

Regime officials and politicians also routinely claim that, as well as supposedly threatening the territorial integrity of Iran, any provision of education in minority languages would somehow dilute the ‘purity’ of the Farsi language and lead ultimately to its demise. As well as being an implausible argument, this point also shows that the same officials and politicians apply a double standard to their own language and the minority languages, apparently feeling that minorities should simply accept their own languages and culture being eradicated for the benefit of the ethnically Persian population.

Whilst the Iranian leadership is well aware that the outdated colonial-era vision of Shah Reza Pahlavi to create an ethnic supremacist state united under one (Persian) people and language, which the current regime still follows, albeit unofficially, will never be successful and that the countries’ minorities will continue to refuse to abandon their linguistic and cultural heritage,  the regime refuses to jettison this mindset or to accept any compromise with the country’s minorities, instead redoubling its brutality in response to any request for the most basic of rights.

The regime apparently either cannot or does not wish to understand that the Farsi language will not be jeopardised by allowing children to be educated in their mother tongue; indeed, it’s likely to be strengthened, like the primary languages in other multilingual nations. Instead, the refusal to allow education in minority languages is simply building resentment amongst minorities that is far more divisive and more likely to strengthen support for separatism than any compromise would do.

 Outdated supremacist attitudes

The current situation in Iran, under a system redolent of long-outdated colonial supremacism, means that increasingly younger generations amongst the country’s Ahwazis, Turkish, Kurdish, Balochi, Turkmen and other minorities are rejecting all aspects of Persian culture which they view as hostile and oppressive, particularly when it refuses to acknowledge their own distinctive cultural and linguistic heritage.

Rather than helping to unite minorities under Iranian leadership, this cultural insensitivity ad overt racism is a cause of resentment that contributes to marginalisation, division and growing separatist sentiments.

In conclusion, if the Iranian leadership refuses to accord minorities in Iran the most basic right to education in their own languages in compliance with the UN legislation to which it is a signatory, the UN should consider suspending Iran’s membership and prohibiting the regime’s participation in UN activities until it has resolved this blatant violation of the people’s rights and dignity.  To allow this situation to continue without any action to penalise this gross injustice would be a violation of the values which the United Nations stands for.

 By Rahim Hamid, an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42.


1: http://www.un.org/en/events/motherlanguageday /

[2]: https://rayharris57.wordpress.com/category/education/bilingual-education /

[3]: http://www.devpolicy.org/international-mother-language-day-20180221/

[4]: https://news.un.org/en/story/2017/02/551942-multilingual-education-absolutely-essential-unesco-chief-says-mother-language & https://en.unesco.org/indigenous-peoples/culture

[5]: https://clarionproject.org/iran-stamp-non-persian-languages/


[7]: http://www.ahwazmonitor.info/articles/iranian-regimes-cultural-genocide-ahwaz/

[8]: https://www.countercurrents.org/hamid200416.htm

[9]: https://www.radiozamaneh.com/326237

[10]: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CRC/Shared%20Documents/IRN/INT_CRC_NGO_IRN_19735_E.pd

[11]: http://unpo.org/article/19590

[12]: https://www.radiozamaneh.com/314548

[13]: https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx

[14]: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/275642622_Article_27_of_the_ICCPR_Revisited_-_The_Right_to_Culture_as_a_Normative_Source_for_Minority_Indigenous_Participatory_Claims_in_the_Case_Law_of_the_Human_Rights_Committee

[15]: http://www.ahwazmonitor.info/articles/ahwazi-arab-students-launched-campaign-to-demand-school-education-offered-in-their-arabic-native-language /

[16]: http://www.iranhrdc.org/english/english/human-rights-documents/iranian-codes/3017-the-constitution-of-the-islamic-republic-of-iran.html?p=7


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