Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Politicians Argue Over Language of Schooling in Kabul

A plan for Pashto-language schools in Kabul reveals deep rifts in Afghan society.
By IWPR Afghanistan
National unity has always been a difficult concept in Afghanistan, a country with a bewildering array of ethnic and tribal groups, and language often serves as the lightening rod for controversy. The issue recently resurfaced with a government plan to dramatically increase the number of Pashto-language schools in Kabul, the predominantly Dari-speaking capital.

While some politicians applauded the education ministry’s initiative, it has prompted a strong backlash from others.

During a roundtable discussion on Tolo TV, Kabul member of parliament Najibullah Kabuli went as far as calling the initiative a “crime”, and accused Education Minister Hanif Atmar of seeking to sow disunity among schoolchildren.

Education ministry spokesman Zahoor Afghan defended the proposal, pointing to Article 43 of the Afghan constitution which requires the state to provide classes in local languages in the areas where they are spoken.

“The real criminals are those who robbed and killed people and then forced their way into parliament using the power of the gun,” he told IWPR, before adding that Pashtun parents in Kabul were asking for opportunities for their children to study in their own tongue.

Another Kabul parliamentarian, Malalai Shinwari, supports the proposal.

“This is the children’s right, and I hope the government will give them this right,” she said. “A child can learn better in its own language than in any other.”

Aqel Khan, a year ten pupil at the Rahman Babahi High School, said he couldn’t agree more. Before transferring to a Pashto-language school, he attended classes where Dari was the teaching medium.

“When lectures were given in Dari, I couldn’t understand them,” he said. “Here I can learn and remember things easily, as I am studying in my native language.”

Shinwari accused opponents of the plan of acting out of political motives.

“They are fanatically opposed to Pashto and want to impose their own language on others,” she claimed.

But Sayed Shafiq, a legislator from Herat, a Dari-speaking area, said he fears separating children according to language will deepen the divisions in Afghan society.

“When one pupil goes to one class and a second to another, it creates disunity,” he said. “And from my point of view, it is a blow to Afghanistan’s image.”

At an October 31 press conference, Education Minister Atmar told reporters that providing classes in different languages is not new to Afghanistan.

“This issue has not resulted in disunity over the past 70 years, so why would it do so now?” he asked.

Dari and Pashto are by far the most widespread languages in Afghanistan, and very roughly speaking prevail in the north and south, respectively. Kabul parliamentary Fawzia Nasiryar pointed out that many other languages are spoken throughout Afghanistan, for instance Uzbek and Turkmen. If Kabul’s Pashtuns have access to education in their language, other linguistic minorities should be granted the same right, she argued.

“This action by the education minister is a tribal action,” she claimed. “If it isn’t tribal, why hasn’t he built schools for other languages? The minister is taking such action only for the sake of his tribe.”

Ministry spokesman Afghan defended the cabinet’s decision to create separate schools for Pashtuns, who are by far the largest group in Kabul using a language other than Dari in daily life.

There are about 200,000 Pashtun students in the city, according to ministry statistics. Of those, only 20,000 actually study in Pashto. Just five out of Kabul’s 175 schools are Pashto-only, while nine more provide classes in both Pashto and Dari.

Herat parliamentarian Ahmad Behzad applauded the initiative. “Both Dari and Pashto are our formal languages,” he pointed out. “People from all over Afghanistan live in the capital. Some pupils are unable to study in Dari, yet education in one’s native language is one of the pillars of the constitution.”

The education ministry’s contentious new plan is not the first time language and ethnicity have sparked controversy. During the 2003 Loya Jirga or national assembly, Pashtun and Dari-speaking Tajik representatives clashed over which language should have primacy in the constitution. Eventually both Dari and Pashto were recognised.

The language used for Afghanistan’s national anthem further inflamed tensions. The words are currently in Pashto, but some politicians have threatened not to stand when it is being played.

Wahidullah Amani is IWPR’s lead trainer and reporter in Kabul.