Iran targets non-Persian children with new language policy

The injustices perpetrated by successive Iranian regimes against non-Persian peoples who collectively making up over half of the population in Iran are amongst the most contentious of issues, whose damaging effects have only grown in scope since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. The demands of these long-marginalised and oppressed minorities came to the fore following the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, after the era of rule by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1941-1979) and his father Reza Pahlavi (1925-1941) was marked by brutal repression against the ethnic minorities’ demands for rights and recognition.

The current regime is brutally following in the previous regime’s footsteps, pursuing policies based on repression involving discrimination and humiliation through promoting false narratives and allegations against non-Persian peoples in Iran, trusting that the world will not pay attention to its lesser-known authoritarian actions, even as it targets children at a critical developmental phase.

Despite Iran’s composition as a multi-ethnic country whose citizens speak dozens of languages, including Arabic, Farsi, Kurdish, Turkish, Gilki, and Balochi, the prevalent educational policy in the country deliberately ignores this linguistic pluralism, and enforces Persian-Iranian hegemony in the form of language exclusivity.

Primary factor in child development

Education in one’s mother language plays a crucial role in educating children. It is a primary factor in the process of intellectual development in children, and is a foundational cultural phenomenon which first shapes a child’s very perceptions of the world around them. Children encouraged to speak their mother tongue have a far greater confidence and ability for self-expression and articulating the full emotional range from joy to grief, fulfilment to pain, fear, hunger, thirst, love, hate and all shades of emotional complexity. Therefore, the mother tongue is not only a means of communication but also a platform for the deepest of thoughts, feelings, learning, and experiences, shaping memory and culture and expressing the feelings found in the brain and heart of every human being.

Even this basic aspiration of non-Persian citizens for their children to be educated in their mother tongues is viewed as a threat by the Iranian regime, which asserts that this is a move towards separatism, needlessly politicising what is a fundamental human right under international law.

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, as 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.

For example  every year hundreds of  Ahwazi first grade pupils fail the Farsi language proficiency test which is essential for them to advance to the next level;  they are denied this opportunity not because of any academic failing, but because they have been raised speaking their mother tongue, Arabic, and have only just begun learning Farsi which is an alien language to them, so they have difficulty in mastering  it with such limited exposure and in such a short time.

 Disadvantaging children

As a further disadvantage, 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. 

Rezvan Hakim Zadeh, the deputy of the regime’s elementary education department announced that his department, in cooperation with the Organisation for the Education of Children with Special Needs, is going to evaluate pre-school children’s level of proficiency and comprehension in the Persian language as a part of  health assessment plan for children in this age group, which means children who fail to pass the Persian proficiency assessment (known as Pasandegi in Persian) will not be accepted or allowed to attend state kindergartens, and that children from non-Persian ethnic groups such as Ahwazi Arabs, Turks, Kurds, Balochis  must undergo an intensive period of remedial education in the Farsi language.

This plan very clearly aims to eradicate the mother languages of non-Persian ethnic minorities who make up over half of Iran’s population. Zadeh added that whilst this educational assessment is currently confined to physical and mental health, his department hopes that the new Persian proficiency assessments will be introduced across Iran at least two years before children enter first grade at school, so that the regime can ensure “better intervention”; clearly what he means by better intervention is an acceleration in the eradication of non-Farsi citizens’ native languages so that these citizens can be more rapidly forcibly assimilated.

Unconscionable violation of human rights

The regime is violating not only international law, but article 15 of the Iranian constitution, which affirmatively states that despite Farsi being “the official and common language and script of the people of Iran” in which “documents, correspondence, official texts, and schoolbooks” must be presented, “the use of regional and ethnic languages in the press, the mass media, and the teaching of their literature at schools, alongside the Persian language, is freely permitted.”

The International Convention on the Rights of the Child defines the rights which children should have from birth. The convention, which emphasises equal rights and non-discrimination for children, was approved by the United Nations in November 1989, with the approval of all the countries of the United Nations, including Iran.

Maintaining a child’s culture and mother tongue is one of the rights enshrined in this convention, which emphasises the importance of this ability in educating children. Iran is one of the few countries that systematically undermines and violates this international convention.

Regarding this new policy, which many leading minority figures in Iran have suggested is a form of linguicide, prominent American lawyer and human rights activist Irina Tsukerman said, “Iran’s policy of equating non-Persian children with developmentally developed is an unconscionable violation of human rights. Forcing these children to undergo two years of Persian education is aimed at destroying their sense of cultural identity and connection to their cultures, rather than integrating them into a bigger national identity. It will also have the effect of separating them from their families. With the evaluating authorities already biased against their culture, the outcome is predictable: most, if not all, such children will be automatically derailed into the education system for the disabled, rather than tutored in Farsi.”

Tsukerman continued to hypothetically question the effect this scheme will have on the confidence of these children, who will be stigmatised and prevented from integrating educationally or socially, which will inevitably lead to insurmountable obstacles academically and later in seeking employment.

Stigmatising children

Tsukerman condemned the regime for stigmatising non-Persian children through this policy, which she said “is a step by step plan to ensure second class citizenship treatment of these nations for generations to come,” which “seems inspired by Soviet and Nazi erasure of national identities of countries and autonomous enclaves which they colonised. Furthermore, the Nazi regime treated non-Aryans (another word for Persians, or ‘Iran’, a word coined by the ideological fellow travellers), as physically and mentally inferior. The dehumanising effect of such treatment led to the mass atrocities and the Holocaust of Jews and other groups considered inferior and undesirable.”

Tsukerman averred that the international community must put considerable pressure on Teheran, and that any cooperation must be expressly conditioned on cancellation of these measures.

Regime persecution in Iran and regionally

The prominent lawyer concluded by saying, that “a government that does not hold fair elections, that holds no popular support even with all the lifelong indoctrination and attempts to cut off access to the outside world, has to face accountability before the international law, and must not be allowed to have a free hand with the systematic abuse and degrading of millions of people. The soul-crushing developments inside Iran, what Iran is doing to the non-Persians, is only a glimpse of the future of the region if Tehran’s terror triumphs thanks to the silence, greed, cowardice, and hypocrisy of the international community, human rights activists, and the media.”

The regime and its predecessor have conducted psychological and physical assessments of children entering the education system for some years, with children categorised according to their physical and mental condition to assess whether they have special needs for which extra support is required. If lack of proficiency in Farsi is accepted as another criterion for designation as a special needs pupil, this means that minorities whose first language is not Farsi are characterised as suffering from a disability akin to blindness, deafness or mental impairment; the plan also indicates that the regime intends to attempt again to enforce assimilation by denying these non- Persian nations their basic rights to preserve their language, identity, and culture.

In order to remedy this grotesquely unfair situation and bring Iran into the modern age, it is essential that the education system be modernised and made multilingual, giving all children a fair chance.  In such a multilingual education system, the rights of all children would be protected, with no need for regressive, racist and exclusionary policies like the Farsi proficiency assessment plan. Academic studies and research conducted worldwide have repeatedly found that bilingualism is a positive asset for children’s intellectual development and future employment prospects.

Human Rights as Civil Rights

New York-based attorney and researcher Aaron Eitan Meyer commented that this latest Iranian machination stands in stark contrast to what has happened in the United States. He noted that “the U.S. Supreme Court was faced with a related problem 45 years ago, when it considered the case of Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974).” He explained that the case centred around the fact that a large number of minority students who did not speak English well enough were not being given supplemental courses in English language or instruction in their own home-spoken language, in this case Chinese.

Meyer explained that the majority of the Court held that the Board of Education had to squarely consider the problem and present solutions aimed at ensuring that approximately 1800 children be provided whatever assistance would put them on equal footing with English-speaking children, because to do anything else would “deny them a meaningful opportunity to participate in the educational program”, which is a type of discrimination banned by the Civil Rights Act.

Meyer continued to say that New York State appellate courts have expressly held that “discrimination against limited English proficiency (LEP) individuals such as plaintiffs constitutes discrimination based on national origin”.

The point, he said, was that “what the regime is doing is the precise opposite of legal development in much of the world over the past half-century, in which courts and legislatures alike have worked to ensure that children whose native tongues are not those of the dominant national culture are not disadvantaged thereby.”

 Multi-faceted Fascism

Fascism is defined as “a governmental system led by a dictator having complete power, forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism, regimenting all industry, commerce, etc., and emphasising an aggressive nationalism and often racism.”

The Iranian regime’s fascism has several layers, of which this linguistic suppression is only one tactic. The heightened Persian ethnic supremacism exhibited by the regime as it seeks to control all aspects of life domestically and export its ideology elsewhere is yet another.

And this is a specifically insidious tactic, since it attacks an aspect of supremacist Persian-ism that many ethnically Persian critics of the regime instinctively share. While protests against blatant human rights abuses, executions without due process, enforced wearing of hijabs and the like are growing in force, the regime’s opposition has been all too silent with respect to its actions targeting minority ethnic populations especially Ahwazi people.

In order to fight the Iranian regime, the extent of its fascism and crimes against all of its citizens must be made clear and fought in its entirety. And that means confronting the regime over its attempts to trample the human rights of non-Persian speaking children as it seeks to prevent them from ever obtaining the education necessary to stand fully for themselves as full citizens. To do otherwise would be to tacitly accept parts of Iran’s multilayered fascism.

Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. You can follow him on his twitter account:

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