The oppression and plight of Ahwazi people and their society have received little or no attention from Western analysts, policymakers, and media. This negligence may be largely due to the Tehran regime’s predominant status as the focal point of Iranian culture, politics and foreign policy, which are strongly Persian in nature.
Ahwaz has been and continue to be extensively and brutally marginalised by Iran’s Persian-dominated theocracy regime. The suppression and denial of Ahwazi people’s rights have resulted in many savagely crushed protests and uprisings over the years, with this backlash against the regime’s systemic injustice and bigotry continuing to bedevil it to this day.
Many oppressed peoples worldwide have been subjected to socioeconomic and political oppression and a denial of their mother tongue which effectively amount to an attempted linguicide by the oppressors.
For the past nine-plus decades, since the Iranian occupation of the state of Ahwaz, the Ahwazi people have been continuously subjected to efforts to outlaw and eradicate their language, along with their own heritage, culture, and history. Successive regimes up to the present day have instituted policies forbidding the people from being educated in or publicly using their mother language, with only the people’s determination keeping their own language and culture alive.
This article discusses some of the efforts by successive Iranian rulers to erase the Arabic language from Ahwaz via the education system and other means, as part of an effort to forcibly assimilate the Ahwazi people. It must also be acknowledged that other non-Persian people in Iran and the region have also been denied their linguistic and other rights through similar strategies, with Iran’s crimes against Ahwazis being repeated against other minorities, both in Iran and elsewhere.
Peoples of non-Persian form around 60 to 65 per cent of Iran’s population. The main majority groups are Turkish-speaking Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Ahwazi, Baluchis, and smaller populations of Turkmen. Although all these groups also suffer dreadful cultural and political discrimination at the hands of the regime. Ahwazi, Kurds, and the Baluchis people are subjected to the most brutal discrimination by Iran’s theocracy regime.
From the time of Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925-1941), the Iranian central government has sought to mold Ahwazi people into the state’s vision of an idealised Iranian Persian nation. Reza Shah adopted military might to suppress and subjugate non-Persian, banning the writing of non-Persian languages, and enforcing Farsi as the national language of Iran. The Persianisation of Iran continued under Reza Shah’s son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1941-1979).
While the Pahlavi dynasty attempted to reshape Iran into a more homogenous, Persian-centric, and Western-leaning society, the Islamic Republic has attempted to reconstruct it as a theocratic Shiite, but still Persian-centric nation. For both regimes, unassimilated minorities represented a threat to the construction of a prescribed national identity.
Historically Iran first adopted an education policy in Ahwaz that clearly prioritised assimilation in the late 1960s, a policy which has continued to this day.
Evidence from that period and the recollections of older Ahwazis show that schools in the region were heavily understaffed and offered curricula which omitted Ahwazi language and failed to mention their millennia-old Arab culture, history, and literature. The schools used underqualified teachers called ‘literacy teams’ (sepah danesh in Farsi) and ‘teacher-soldiers.’ This assimilationist strategy, also pursued by successive regimes, was intended to deny Ahwazi students knowledge and expression of their identity, weakening and ultimately eradicating the region’s Ahwaz character.
The exclusion of Arabs’ language and culture in Iran’s education policies in Ahwaz drove a high percentage of students towards a marginalised identity, leading many Ahwazi students to deny their cultural and linguistic heritage. Some students embraced the values and goals of Persian education, which in turn led to low levels of academic attainment and low graduation rates among Ahwazi students.
The preliminary outcome of this very deliberately exclusionary Iranian policy has driven a high percentage of Ahwazi students to leave school early without achieving academic qualifications, as well as resulting in the weakening of Ahwazi language education, leaving many young people deficient in both Farsi and Arabic, further marginalising Arab identity. This has left Ahwazi students lagging further behind their more privileged Persian counterparts, failing to attain academic aptitude and being socially, scientifically and technologically disadvantaged.
These problems are further exacerbated by the resulting despair and hopelessness among people denied their own history, language, culture and identity. Many Ahwazi children are not even enrolled in school due to the chronic poverty and deprivation in the region (where it should be noted over 90 per cent of the oil and gas resources claimed by Iran are located), with others suffering due to a lack of the most basic education facilities. Being denied education in their mother tongue has had a significant negative impact on Ahwazi children, resulting in high levels of social exclusion, a central theme in the discussion of the crisis affecting young Ahwazis in the region.
According to educationalists, children who are not educated in their own tongue are more likely to fail academically, with international human rights legislation stating that all children should be able to learn in their first language, which UNESCO has stated is an essential condition for primary school education. Despite this and despite the fact that Article 15 of the Iranian Constitution states that non-Persian minorities in Iran, such as Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Balochi peoples, have the right to study in their own language, the regime’s education system teaches exclusively in Farsi, outlawing teaching in any other languages. Increasingly, this policy has led to Ahwazi children dropping out of school due to their inability to engage and participate in the education process, leading to low levels of academic attainment in the region.
Nine decades ago, Iran invaded and annexed Ahwaz. The ‘Persianisation’ policy subsequently implemented by the then-Shah has since been intensified and increased, with the Ahwazi people forced to use the Farsi language instead of their own, wear Iranian-style clothes and adopt Iranian culture, while their own language, culture, and history are marginalised or officially outlawed.
The regime brings Iranian officials of Persian ethnicity to Ahwaz to run the regional government and state bodies, meaning that the Farsi language is the language of education, the law, and regional government. The teaching of Arabic, meanwhile, is forbidden, a policy so nakedly racist to the indigenous people that even Israel has not dared to implement it with Palestinians. Civil service jobs and all well-paid or high-level positions, including those in the regional oil and gas industry, are automatically denied to Arabs, with Iranian incomers being appointed instead. These Iranians are also provided with homes in specially constructed settlements provided with amenities not available to the people of Ahwaz. Unsurprisingly this apartheid-style system encourages the now-endemic systematic discrimination against the Ahwazi people.
Due to Iran’s economic development, speaking Farsi has become vital to making any sort of progress, a necessity which Ahwazis, particularly among the younger generation, inevitably feel compelled to attain if they wish to escape grinding poverty. The relentless political, social and economic pressures from above and from below have ensured, therefore, that the people of Ahwaz are forced to adopt Persians’ language and culture simply in order to live. In addition to this, the open anti-Arab racism and supremacist attitudes which are encouraged and indeed informally systematised by the regime lead to a two-tier unofficial but clear apartheid in the region, with many Iranians believing themselves to be racially superior to the indigenous Arab people.
Unsurprisingly, the Ahwazi people feel that the ‘Persianisation’ policy adopted by successive Iranian regimes is a grotesquely unjust fundamental attack on their culture, identity, and nation.
Successive Iranian regimes’ efforts to eradicate the use of Arabic language amongst Ahwazi people have been well documented, with rulers from the Shahs to the ayatollahs abusing the education system as a means of indoctrinating Ahwazi people with a form of cultural imperialism to deny their Arab identity, history, and culture and mould them so that they become fully Persian. Although the schools in Ahwaz work under the guise of providing education, their real purpose is far darker and less noble – the systematic eradication of a people’s identity. The negative impact of this discrimination, abuse, and cultural imperialism are felt at every level in Ahwazi Arab society, among individuals, families and the students at school and university prohibited from learning in their own Arabic language. In summary, the ultimate intent of the Iranian education system in Ahwaz is cultural genocide of the Ahwazi Arab people.
By Mostafa Hetteh
The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the Dur Untash Studies Centre.