North Africa, West Asia

Iran: how to kill a language

Zara Mohammadi was sentenced to 10 years in prison for teaching Kurdish. This is part of a state policy against minorities.

Haidar Khezri
6 August 2020, 12.01am
Kurdish language teacher and civil society activist, Zara Mohammadi surrounded by her pupils in the Eastern/Iranian Kurdistan
Instagram @zara_sine

On July 14, 2020, Kurdish language teacher and civil society activist, Zara (also Zahra) Mohammadi was sentenced to 10 years in prison by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Courts. Zara was first arrested in her hometown Sine (also known as Sanandaj), in the Kurdistan Province of Iran, on 23 May 2019. Prior to her arrest, she had been subject to several lengthy interrogations by Iran’s Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. She was later released on bail in December 2, 2019, after some six months in prison, where she said she endured Kafkaesque interrogations and was tortured to make false “confessions.”

What was Zara’s ‘crime’? Teaching Kurdish, her mother tongue. The 10 year verdict was precisely calculated by the Islamic revolutionary judge: each year of teaching was punished by a year of imprisonment.

In a video shared on her Instagram page after the verdict, Zara described her crimes as “teaching her mother tongue, distributing chocolates on the street for International Mother Language Day, and helping the victims of flooding in Luristan.” Defending her activities as “humanitarian,” she called on the court to provide any evidence documenting that she had worked for any purposes other than empowering marginalized members of Iran’s Kurdish minority and teaching her mother tongue.

Criminalizing the Kurdish language

In Iran, where people of non-Persian ethnicities constitute more than half of the population, Persian remains the sole legal language of instruction in K-12 and college education. Ethnic minorities, including Ahwazi Arabs, Azerbaijani Turks, Baluchis, Kurds and Turkmen, face entrenched discrimination.

The constitution describes non-Persian languages of Iran with colonizing terms such as “regional and tribal languages”

Although Iran signed the United Nations International Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, and despite the fact that Article 15 of The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran enshrines the right to use non-Persian languages of Iran “for teaching of their literature in schools,” teaching and learning Kurdish language and literature has been historically met with harsh reprisal. Even the constitution describes non-Persian languages of Iran with colonizing terms such as “regional and tribal languages.”

On 9 May 2010, Iran executed four Kurdish prisoners, among them, the Kurdish school-teacher, Farzad Kamangar. According to The Washington Times, Farzad’s crime was

“being a Kurd. He taught at an elementary school in the northwestern Iranian city of Kamyaran, where he was a member of the Kurdistan Teachers Union and wrote for various underground human rights publications. He secretly taught his Kurdish students their banned language and told stories about their culture and history.”

Inhuman conditions inside the prison and his execution brought global condemnations on the Islamic regime of Iran from many organizations including UNICEF, the Education International, and Amnesty International. But Iran’s government continued its human rights abuses against the Kurdish population and other ethnic minorities who still face entrenched discrimination, curtailing their access to education in their mother tongue, as Amnesty International describes in its 2019 review of the situation of human rights in Iran.

Image  1.jpg
Kurdish language teacher and civil society activist, Zara Mohammadi during one of her lectures
Instagram @zara_sine

Many of the officials suspected of being involved in extrajudicial mass executions of religious and racial minorities continue to hold positions of power in Iran’s judicial system. In 2017, Alireza Avaei was appointed Iran’s minister of justice. In 2019 Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed Ebrahim Raisi as the head of Iran’s judiciary. Raisi, like Avaei and his predecessor Mostafa Pour Mohammadi, Iran’s minister of justice from 2013 to 2017, was a member of the “Death Commissions” that ordered the extrajudicial killings of thousands of prisoners, including Iranian Kurds in 1988.

His appointment has ended any remaining hope of salvation for political prisoners, especially those belonging to racial and religious minorities. “The selection of Raisi to serve as head of the judiciary will send a clear message: the rule of law has no meaning in Iran, and those who participated in mass murder will be rewarded,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran. Raisi’s selection came after minorities, particularly the Kurds, voted for his opponent, President Hassan Rouhani, in the country’s 2017 presidential election.

Assimilation and soft linguicide

Unlike Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, countries which banned the use of Kurdish for many decades and even committed hard linguicide against the Kurds and the Kurdish language, Iran has been implementing an assimilationist and soft linguicide policy against Kurdish.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Kurdish in Iran is in a state that linguist Jaffer Sheyholislami describes as “controlled and restricted tolerance.” Although we witnessed the establishment of the first department of Kurdish language and literature at University of Kurdistan in Iran in 2014, according to many scholars of the field such as Jim Cummins, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, and Sheyholislami, Kurdish in Iran is endangered so long as it is not a medium of instruction, especially in the early years of education.

Many of the officials suspected of being involved in extrajudicial mass executions of religious and racial minorities continue to hold positions of power in Iran’s judicial system

On 29 May 2019, just one week after Zara’s arrest, Rezwan Hakimzadeh, the vice president of Iran’s Department of Education announced that the test of “sufficiency in Persian language” will be added across Iran in preschools. According to this discriminatory policy, if non-Persian children of Iran fail a Persian sufficiency test at the age of five, they will be treated as a person with biological defects and special needs, e.g. “low vision” and “low hearing,” “slow learner,” and “learning disabled.” Such systematic and governmental policies aimed at stigmatizing non-Persian children of Iran recall colonial states erasure of national identities of the countries, ethnic enclaves, and populations they colonized.

Under such discriminatory governmental policies, Kurdish language education relies on individual volunteer efforts such as Zara’s. Early this year, retired teacher Jamal Habibullah Faraj Bedar, in a matter of months translated the Qur’an to his mother tongue, Kurdish-Hawrami, in hopes of saving his dialect, which has been categorized by UNESCO as Definitely Endangered language. At present, Kurdish and other non-Persian languages of Iran have no official status, and have not benefited from any notable state promotion or support.

Scholars of Kurdish in Eastern/Iranian Kurdistan are aware of an increase in commitments to diversity at the rhetorical level, and decreasing commitments in terms of practical application, and even punitive reactions. Jim Cummins, one of the most prominent proponents of multilingual education, warns about such superficial progress: “The dominant group might provide some token support for teaching [minority] languages, knowing that just this token support would probably not be effective.”

As Cummins argues, if you put a frog in hot water, it will immediately jump out; however, if you put the frog in cold water and heat, it will tolerate the gradual increase and in its tolerance will die in the boiling water. That is to say, that “if the linguistic assimilation is slow then people will not realize that it’s happening”, and this policy has been adopted by the Iranian regime for many decades. Zara Mohammadi’s prison sentence is an unmistakable sign that the water is already boiling.

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