While in Turkey, Kurdish is still ridiculed as a language and those who use it continue to be prosecuted, the status of Kurdish as the second official language of Iraq is also crumbling in practice. As long as there is no policy to develop a curriculum for all children – not only Kurds – to have proper language education that meets the realities in their lands, everybody loses.
Last week, a Turkish TV-presenter made headlines after cutting off a speaker in a programme for speaking an ‘eastern language’. Earlier this month, an investigation was started against Kurdish political prisoners in Elazığ women’s prison for singing songs in Kurdish, which was considered an ‘incomprehensible language’.
In Iraq, Kurdish is officially the second language. Yet the independent website Kirkuk Now published a sobering story about Kurdish language education in Kirkuk, a mixed city with a Kurdish, Arabic, Turkmen and Christian population. It is painful to see that an increasing number of Kurdish parents decide to withdraw their children from Kurdish language schools (where the full curriculum is taught in Kurdish) and enroll them in Arabic ones instead.
In Turkey, Kurdish has never had any status. The closest education in Kurdish has ever come, was when in 2013 as part of a ‘judicial package’ to ‘grant Kurds more rights’, private schools were allowed to teach the whole curriculum in Kurdish. An empty measure: as many Kurdish parents can’t afford a private school, but more importantly, the Kurdish political movement demands the right to education in mother tongue in public schools. This goes against the Turkish constitution, and is considered to be a ‘separatist’ demand.
What is possible in Turkey, is for children to choose Kurdish as an elective course starting at age 11 or 12. But the system soon imploded. There were not enough teachers (because the state didn’t allow enough students to enroll in universities where Kurdish could be studied) and parents considered learning Kurdish not very useful for the future education and careers of their children, in which Turkish would be the sole language. Their children could learn Kurdish on the street, many parents reasoned. But the Kurdish on the streets is mixed with a lot of Turkish, and on the streets, children don’t learn to read and write their mother tongue.
The same mechanisms as in Turkey, play a role also in Iraq, the article on Kirkuk Now shows. When the Kurdistan Regional Government ruled Kirkuk (between 2014 and 2019), some investments were made into Kurdish schools, but due to disputes with Baghdad and mismanagement, there were not enough teachers, and the teachers that were available were often not paid. People started to enroll their children in Arabic schools, because they considered that more relevant for their futures. This increased after Baghdad re-captured the city from the KRG, after the independence referendum in Kurdistan in September 2019.
Of course, in the Kurdistan Region, Kurdish is the language of education. Nowadays, only the older generations speaks fluent Arabic, the younger ones in general only speak, read and write in Kurdish. And although that is good for the language, it does minimalise options for Kurdish youth. Job opportunities in the Kurdistan Region are few but finding employment elsewhere in Iraq or the wider Middle-East is impossible without speaking Arabic.
To solve these problems and to grant children the right to education in their mother tongue, national dialogues need to commence. There are all kinds of possible models to apply and they need to be discussed, but in Turkey, any effort that the HDP has made to discuss the issue in parliament, is rejected by other parties. In Iraq, there is no serious dialogue about this either. Would it not be a win for all children, both Arabic and Kurdish in Iraq, and both Turkish and Kurdish in Turkey, if they all learned both their own mother tongue and the other main language of the country? That parents can choose whether they want the curriculum of their kids to be in either Arabic, Turkish or Kurdish, but that their children learn the other language perfectly as well? No, not as an elective class, but obligatory. Kids at Arabic schools have to learn Kurdish, kids at Turkish schools have to learn Kurdish, kids at Kurdish schools have to learn either Arabic or Turkish.
Sounds far-fetched? Not at all. It enriches the lives of all children, and opens a wide range of possibilities later in their lives. It is also a good way to de-politicise languages. There is a lot of prejudice against Kurdish, which is considered to be a language not fit for art and science, a ‘incomprehensible language’, a terrorists’ language, or not even a real language at all. I also see the problem of obligatory Arabic classes to a population that still considers it the language of the oppressor (a sentiment less strong among Kurds in Turkey about Turkish), but can’t it be discussed?
The richness of the languages of the region is there to enrich everybody’s lives. What lacks, both in Iraq and Turkey, is political will to let it flourish.
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her acclaimed weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan.