Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Tara Emad, 10, walks home after class, singing a song in her native Kurdish that she recently learnt at school.
The scene would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. During Saddam’s reign, the only language taught and used in Iraqi schools was Arabic, the exception being the autonomous Kurdish region, of which Kirkuk — Tara’s hometown — was not a part.
Thousands of children like Tara were deprived of the right to speak and be educated in their mother tongue, be it Kurdish, Turkoman or Assyrian.
As part of the Baath party’s attempt to eliminate ethnic diversity in Iraq, languages other than Arabic were mostly banned from schools, universities, media and public places.
For instance, in Kirkuk — which has a substantial Kurdish community, as well as smaller minority groups, such as Turkomans and Assyrians — schools delivered only one lesson in Kurdish, but only after 10th grade.
In 1974, the Iraqi government agreed to open several Turkoman schools, but reneged on the move after a year.
Following the fall of the regime in 2003, minorities were granted the constitutional right to be educated in their mother tongues.
It was essential that the likes of Tara attend a Kurdish school. She grew up speaking mainly Kurdish at home. But when she started school aged six, all the lessons were in Arabic — as a result of which she failed her first year.
“My teacher always reproached me for not speaking Arabic well,” she recalled.
Now some of the lessons in her school are conducted in Kurdish, which makes it much easier for her to keep up.
After the fall of the regime, Iraqi provinces were given powers to run local education affairs, with support from central government. But Kurdish officials say the latter provided them with little backing for mother-tongue schooling.
Yousif Saeed, in charge of Kurdish studies at the Kirkuk education office, accuses the ministry in Baghdad of neglecting an important constitutional right of non-Arab nations.
“The ministry does not provide [Kurdish language] schools and departments with the necessary [education materials], nor with the teaching staff,” he said.
The demand for classes in languages other than Arabic in the Kirkuk region is high. In 2007, 305 schools offered classes in Kurdish; 148 in Turkoman; four in Assyrian; while 700 taught only in Arabic.
Saeed pointed out that so far all Kurdish schools in Kirkuk are funded by the Kurdistan region’s education ministry. It has allocated 4.5 billion Iraqi dinars for new schools, and pays the salaries of their staff, who number around 6,000.
The Turkoman schools suffer from the same shortcomings as the Kurdish schools. Farook Fuad Abdul Rahman, manager of Turkoman studies at the Kirkuk education office, stresses how important studying in their mother language is for Turkoman students, but also complains about a lack of support from central government.
He says textbooks and other educational materials used by Turkoman schools are provided by rich Turkoman donors.
For Fawziya Awanees, head of Assyrian studies at the Kirkuk education office, studying in one’s native language is an important means of “reviving the heritage… of Kirkuk’s various nations”.
But not all students from minority groups prefer education in their native language. Some choose to go to Arab-language schools because many of the universities in the region only offer programmes in Arabic.
Ali Talib, an Arab-language teacher in Kirkuk, insists that though studying in your mother tongue is a legitimate right, Arabic remains the core language of education and culture in the Middle East.
So students at schools now making provision for teaching in non-Arabic languages will have at least two weekly lessons a week in Arabic.
Talib believes the situation in higher education will change, with some universities in future providing Kurdish and Turkoman departments.
For the moment, though, concerns are very much about how under-resourced non-Arabic teaching is in the Kirkuk area, with local education officials placing much of the blame on Baghdad.
Kurdish teachers continue to be paid and trained by the Kurdistan Regional Government and there is only half the quota of 400 Turkoman teachers needed to teach their community’s 28,000 students.
An illustration of the tensions between Kirkuk and Baghdad is that the latter wants teachers from the former to come to the capital to mark final-year Kurdish-language exam papers, under the supervision of the education ministry. Because of the poor security situation in the capital, Kirkuk teachers say they would prefer not to travel to Baghdad — but the authorities there are digging in their heels over the matter.
Saeed, the official responsible for Kurdish studies at the Kirkuk education office, distrusts the central authorities and sees a clear strategy behind the education ministry’s slow response to his demands and those of his colleagues. “ People from the former regime have infiltrated the government [and] are opposing those who want freedom and democracy in the new free Iraq,” he said.
IWPR asked the ministry of education to respond to the claims made by Kirkuk officials, but no one was available for comment.
Dr Alaa Makki, a Sunni parliamentary deputy and head of the education committee of the Iraqi parliament, said that so far his committee hasn’t received any complaints from Kurdish, Turkoman or Assyrian education officials from Kirkuk.
Makki added that non-Arabic language education is currently under discussion in the assembly, and Kirkuk officials should get back to the committee, "so that we can determine whether the government is indifferent or not".
Samah Samad is an IWPR trainee in Kirkuk. Hazim al-Shara, also an IWPR trainee, contributed to this story.
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