The Kurdish political movement has started a campaign about the elective Kurdish language courses that children aged 10 to 12 can start following, an option introduced in 2012. If there is enough demand in a school, the state has to provide it, so the idea is that as many parents as possible should enrol their kids. Great – or is it? Let’s unpack.
The whole idea of learning your mother tongue through an elective course is ludicrous to begin with. It is a very basic right to get educated in your mother tongue, and by that I mean: to get the whole curriculum taught in your mother tongue. Indeed, that is what the Kurdish movement has insisted on for years. In parliament, however, the conversation about this fundamental right is impossible. Even suggesting it or proposing ways to make it happen, is considered to be against the unity of the homeland and therefore separatism, which again equals terrorism.
So, in Turkey, even the struggle to get a lousy elective course is quite something already, and causing debate. But within this debate, a lot of aspects are never mentioned, despite them being essential to fully understanding the issue. Besides pointing them out, I’d like to add a fresh idea about language education for you to chew on.
The elective course in either Kurmanci (the most used Kurdish dialect in Turkey) or Zazaki is not available for all children but only for those in class 5 or higher, so starting from age 10-12. What happens in the years before that? Well, many Kurdish kids learn some or a lot of Kurdish at home or on the street, but that is effectively drilled out of them as soon as they enter any school in Turkey. At school, Kurdish is forbidden. Then when they get to 10 to 12 years old, they can start re-learning their mother tongue in a few hours a week, but outside those classes, Kurdish remains a banned language. A banned foreign language, to be precise, because legally, that’s the position Kurdish has, because Turkish is the one and only language officially spoken in Turkey, and that’s final.
Not many parents choose Kurdish as an elective course. The Turkish educational system is very competitive and they prefer their kids to have extra classes that come in handy in their education ‘careers’, like maths and English. ‘Life of the Prophet’ classes are popular too. Knowing Kurdish, Kurds have heavy-handedly learned over the decades, only gets you in trouble with the state, and doesn’t gain you anything. There is also a lack of Kurdish teachers, and that’s not coincidental but state policy.
And what do Kurdish kids actually learn during their elective Kurdish class? Trust me: the language learning isn’t embedded in Kurdish culture, history or geography. All education in Turkey breathes Turkishness and the Kurdish language course is no exception. Sort of like the Kurdish-language channel of the Turkish state broadcaster, TRT, named Kurdi: it’s the same state-approved message, only in another language. That has nothing to do with enhancing Kurdish rights, it is actually disguised forced assimilation. Especially when you see it as part of the whole education package, in which there is no place for Kurds and in which Kurdistan and its history, geography, literature and heritage don’t exist. And in which you still risk a teacher’s slap when you speak Kurdish.
But then what? What’s my idea for you to chew on? Compulsory Kurdish language classes for all children in the whole of Turkey, starting from the first year they enter school. That may strike you as a crazy idea but I call it fresh. It’s part of a larger idea, of course. In Kurdistan, and elsewhere where many Kurds live and parents want it, the whole curriculum is in Kurdish, and Turkish is a compulsory class, starting in first grade. Turkish kids get the curriculum taught in Turkish, and they get compulsory Kurdish classes. Of course, parents can choose which school they prefer for their kids, but the choice must be really free and not be manipulated by state interference or discrimination against Kurdish schools or whichever other dynamic.
I once coined this idea at a conference, and what I remember is that the Kurdish activists who were present were mainly shocked about the idea of making Kurdish language classes compulsory. Surely it should be elective, right? But no, to make learning Kurdish an obligation is a crucial part of this idea. After all, designating certain classes as obligatory for all kids says something about what you think is essential for all children to function properly in the society you envision. Maths, geography, history, sports and music are part of that, and so should the languages of the country be.
The society you would envision, is a multi-cultural, multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society (which Turkey already is, underneath the suppression!) where there is a place for everybody to live according to who they are, and be respected for it. Whether elective Kurdish courses as they (semi) exist now, are contributing to the struggle to reach that society or actually working against it, is something I haven’t made up my mind about yet. How about you?
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her acclaimed weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan