On International Mother Language Day, Iran is the worst globally in the suppression of ethnic minorities’ languages
International Mother Language Day, celebrated annually on 21 February, is a global observance to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and encourage multilingualism. Its mission is to raise awareness of the importance of preserving and promoting mother languages, many of which are under threat in today’s globalised world. The event was first announced in 1999 by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, to honour the Bengali Language Movement, in commemoration of and protest against the brutal killing of people protesting for the right to speak their mother language on 21 February 1952, in what is now Bangladesh. The movement for linguistic rights arose in response to the newly-formed government of Pakistan’s decision to declare Urdu as the sole national language, which was met with strong opposition by the Bengali-speaking population.
Each year, UNESCO selects a theme for the day and organises associated events and activities worldwide to celebrate and promote the use of mother languages, with the goal of highlighting the importance of linguistic and cultural diversity and encouraging people to preserve and use their native languages. International Mother Language Day provides an opportunity for individuals, organisations, and governments to come together and support the preservation of linguistic diversity. In addition, it is a chance to celebrate different communities’ unique identities and cultures worldwide.
International Mother Language in Iran
While this day is officially recognised in Iran, the use of some citizens’ mother languages is not simply discouraged but actively opposed, with their speakers facing various forms of discrimination.
Iran is home to numerous ethnic and linguistic groups, including Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Baluchis, and Ahwazi Arabs. Despite this linguistic diversity, Persian remains the dominant language in the country, with the speaking of other languages forbidden or severely limited in schools, media, and public life. As a result, the use of mother languages such as Azerbaijani Turkish and Ahwazi Arabic has been restricted, leaving their speakers marginalised.
Although some efforts have been made to promote linguistic and cultural diversity in Iran, including the introduction of some minority language courses in schools and universities, a great deal more needs to be done to fully recognise and support the use of mother languages.
For this year’s International Mother Language Day in Iran, some activists and organisations are calling for greater recognition of the linguistic and cultural rights of minority groups and the promotion of multilingualism. However, this seems a forlorn hope, with the national ethnic minorities( majorities in their own regions)unable to freely use or celebrate their mother languages due to government restrictions without facing discrimination or even legal repercussions. Thus, while the day is officially recognised, there are still significant challenges to promoting linguistic and cultural diversity in Iran.
South Azerbaijan (Northwest Iran)
Iran’s ethnic composition is a subject of much debate and controversy, with different sources providing varying estimates. For example, while the United Nations, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Library of Congress suggest that Turkic people make up 25-30% of Iran’s population of about 83 million people, some South Azerbaijani political activists claim that the percentage is higher, around 35-40%. This would mean about 20-25 million or more Turkic people in Iran. However, it is difficult to obtain exact figures on Iran’s ethnic composition, and these estimates may differ depending on the source.
In South Azerbaijan, a region in northwestern Iran, the use of the Azerbaijani Turkish language is also heavily proscribed by the Iranian regime. Despite being one of Iran’s most widely spoken languages, Azerbaijani Turkish has been discouraged and marginalised, particularly in public settings, schools, and the media. This has resulted in discrimination against and marginalisation of Azerbaijanis, despite their status as a significant ethnic minority.
On International Mother Language Day this year, South Azerbaijani activists and organisations will continue to push for greater recognition and support of their linguistic and cultural rights. As with other minorities, however, the regime’s repression of South Azerbaijani activists and supporters has been severe. For instance, Alireza Farshi, a prominent South Azerbaijani activist, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his involvement in promoting the use and celebration of Azerbaijani Turkish on International Mother Language Day and for distributing Turkish books and novels to young South Azerbaijanis to encourage them to learn and speak their native tongue.
Despite such challenges, South Azerbaijani activists and organisations continue to call for promoting multilingualism and for Azerbaijani Turkish to be recognised as an official language in Iran. International Mother Language Day is a poignant reminder of the need to promote and celebrate linguistic diversity worldwide and the ongoing struggle for linguistic and cultural rights in South Azerbaijan, as in other minority regions.
Ahwazi Arab and other colonised nations in Iran
Ahwazi Arab activists and organisations have been calling for decades to recognise their linguistic and cultural rights
Like Azerbaijani Turkish, Iran’s Ahwazi Arabs, Kurdish, Baluchi, and Turkmen also face similar challenges. Despite Arabic being one of the most widely spoken languages in the Arab Ahwaz region located in the south and southwest of Iran, the use and promotion of Arabic have been restricted and discouraged, particularly in public settings, schools, and the media. As a result, young Ahwazi Arab activists and organisations have been calling for decades to recognise their linguistic and cultural rights, including the right to promote their indigenous Arabic language and education in their Arabic language. However, the Iranian government has responded with repression and resistance, leading to the arrest and detention of activists and students who advocate for using and promoting Arabic.
On International Mother Language Day, Ahwazi Arab activists and organisations will once again be pushing for greater recognition and support of their linguistic and cultural rights. They call for promoting multilingualism and recognising Arabic as an official language in Iran. However, due to government restrictions and repression, the celebration and use of Arabic are still limited, and the struggle for linguistic and cultural rights in the Ahwazi Arab region remains ongoing.
It is linguicide, part of the regime’s efforts to eradicate all traces of the Ahwazi people and the rest of the oppressed ethnic groups. But successive governments have been trying to do that for 98 years to date, and they didn’t succeed.
The repression of Ahwazi Arab activists by the Iranian government in retaliation for speaking or even learning other languages has been severe. Many have been arrested and detained on national security charges for their involvement in promoting the use and celebration of Arabic on International Mother Language Day, among other activities. These harsh measures highlight the government’s resistance to promoting linguistic and cultural diversity and its willingness to go to great lengths to suppress dissent and opposition.
International Mother Language Day is an essential reminder of the need to promote and celebrate linguistic diversity worldwide, including in Iran. The recognition and support of mother languages are crucial to preserving and promoting cultural heritage and building more inclusive and tolerant societies.
Adverse effects of deprivation from education in Mother Language
Turkic Students in Iran Face Barriers to Education in their Mother Tongue
The deprivation of mother tongue education can have significant psychological effects on minorities, including Turkic students in Iran. The lack of access to education in one’s mother tongue can lead to feelings of isolation, exclusion, and marginalisation. In addition, students may need help to fully understand and engage with the material being taught, leading to frustration and a lack of motivation to continue their education among those incapable of doing so.
In Iran, the government’s policy of banning the use of the Azerbaijani Turkish language in schools has resulted in a disproportionate number of Turkic students dropping out of school. According to various reports, Turkic students are much more likely to leave school than their Persian-speaking counterparts.
The lack of education in their mother tongue and difficulty understanding and engaging with the material being taught in Farsi are major contributing factors to the high dropout rate among Turkic students. In addition, this policy has been a source of continued tension between the Iranian government and the Turkic minority.
The psychological effects of deprivation of mother tongue education can have long-lasting effects on a student’s self-esteem, identity, and overall educational achievement. Students unable to fully express themselves in their native language may feel a sense of shame or inadequacy, leading to a lack of confidence in their academic abilities. This can further exacerbate the already high dropout rate among Turkic and other minority students in Iran.
Efforts to promote and provide education in the Azerbaijani Turkish language can positively impact Turkic students’ psychological well-being and academic achievement in Iran. Providing instruction in one’s mother tongue can help students feel a greater sense of belonging, cultural identity, and pride in their heritage. It can also help them better understand and engage with the material being taught, leading to improved academic achievement and a greater likelihood of completing their education.
As International Mother Language Day is celebrated worldwide, it is crucial to recognise the importance of promoting linguistic diversity and the right to education in one’s mother tongue. The struggles of Turkic students in Iran serve as a reminder of the ongoing need to address language-based discrimination and promote the value of linguistic diversity in education.
South Azerbaijanis in Iran face a complex and challenging situation marked by discrimination, marginalisation, and political repression. This minority group has long been subjected to policies restricting their use of the Azerbaijani Turkish language, limiting their cultural expression, and suppressing political dissent.
One of the most significant issues facing South Azerbaijani is the need for greater access to education in their mother tongue. The Iranian government’s ban on using Azerbaijani Turkish in schools has led to a high dropout rate among Turkic students in Iran and limited access to higher education and employment opportunities for South Azerbaijanis.
Furthermore, South Azerbaijanis’ cultural expression has been restricted by the government, with limitations on using Azerbaijani Turkish in media, literature, and the arts. This has resulted in a suppression of cultural identity and a lack of representation for South Azerbaijanis in Iranian society.
Political dissent and calls for autonomy or independence have also been met with the government’s harsh crackdowns and arrests, leading to well-documented instances of torture and mistreatment in detention. In addition, activists advocating for the rights of South Azerbaijanis have faced harassment and imprisonment, with human rights abuses commonplace.
While some efforts have been made to address these issues, including calls for greater cultural and linguistic rights, much remains to be done to achieve greater equality and representation for South Azerbaijanis in Iranian society. The situation of South Azerbaijanis serves as a reminder of the need to promote and protect the rights of minority groups worldwide.
Independence as a solution in South Azerbaijan
The demand for greater autonomy and independence among the South Azerbaijani people in Iran has gained momentum due to the decades of suppression and marginalisation they have faced. This oppression and denial of any access to education in their mother tongue and the stifling of their cultural expression have only strengthened support for greater self-determination.
Although South Azerbaijani activists and organisations have long advocated for greater linguistic and cultural rights and political reforms to achieve regional autonomy, the Iranian government has responded with further repression, cracking down on dissidents and suppressing political opposition.
Despite these challenges, the demand for independence has only grown stronger in recent years, with some South Azerbaijani groups calling for an independence referendum; these calls too have been angrily rejected by the Iranian government, which deems them a threat to national security and territorial integrity.
The call for independence from Iran is a reaction to years of marginalisation and repression. While this remains a contentious issue, it highlights the importance of upholding and protecting cultural and linguistic diversity and ensuring political participation and representation for South Azerbaijanis and all national ethnic minorities in Iran.
Iranian politicians are well aware that the doctrine of Reza Pahlavi, the former dictator king of Iran, which aimed to create a nation unified by one ethnicity 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 jeopardised 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 has been impacted directly as a result of this imposed Persian supremacy which gained momentum due to colonialism. Many Persians in Iran seem unable to accept the idea that the Ahwazi Arabs, Turks, Kurdish, Balochi and Turkmen are also entitled to study in their own languages and preserve their cultures.
They are unable to accept the idea that despite all the oppressive methods that Iranian authorities have used to obliterate the identities and languages of other peoples, the people and languages persist. Their cultural and linguistic war has not prevailed; however, this policy has resulted in a high rate of students dropping out of schools at early ages in the marginalised 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 the Persian language.
Today, it would be better for UNESCO to expel Iran from its membership and disallow their participation in its activities. The regime is trying to destroy several languages native to Iran in lieu of solely promoting the Persian language.
By Babek Chalabi
Babek Chalabi is a South Azerbaijani activist based in Washington DC; Chalabi also is the founder of ArazNews.org. Babek tweets under @BabekChelebi.