The United Nations’ World Mother Language Day falls a little over two weeks from now on February 21. In advance of this, close to a thousand Iranians who grew up speaking a minority language have already taken to Twitter to express their sense of loss and frustration at the marginalization of their mother tongue.
The #Manofarsi (Me and Farsi) hashtag spread like wildfire over the past few days. Speakers of minority languages across Iran, from Azeri to Arabic, have been united anew by their discontent at the structural discrimination and humiliation they experience in their home country for being born into a language other than Persian.
Sevil Suleymani, a Turkish-Azerbaijani civil rights activist and co-founder of the End of Monolingualism campaign, told IranWire the campaign aimed to spread awareness of the systemic relegation of non-native Persian speakers espoused by the Islamic Republic. She herself grew up in Parsabad in Ardebil province, northwestern Iran, where not one of her 35-strong cohort in the first grade spoke Persian at home.
“Our first grade teacher was a young woman from Tabriz,” she recalled, “who had come to Parsabad immediately after finishing vocational school. She had come to do what she’d been instructed to do there: to teach us Persian. She thought we could all speak fluent Persian already, and the reality was the opposite. In the early days, when she was brandishing her cane, she called out my name and I wet myself with fear, because I did not know any Persian."
Years later Suleymani, now a sociology PhD student based in Virginia, would write a short article about her memories of school, which she posted on Facebook. “It was republished many times over by people from different ethnic groups: Kurds, Lors, Baluchis and Arabs. I received many messages telling me they were familiar with my experience: because Persian was not their first language, they had experienced that same terror on the first day of school.
"The Iranian education system is not designed for language-learning. The system is geared toward high literacy, assuming that all children know Persian. About 50 percent have no idea.”
“I Carry That Weight With Me”
The CIA World Factbook holds that 53 percent of Iranians speak Persian as a main language. The 2001 Iranian census, meanwhile, put the figure at 68 percent, but that was including several highly distinctive dialects such as Lor and Bakhtiari. Other widely-spoken mother tongues in Iran are Azerbaijani and Turkic, Kurdish, Arabic and Balochi, but at least 10 other dialects that differ from standard Persian are spoken at the provincial level too.
Non-speakers of Persian have to grapple with a variety of challenges even after their often-tortuous compulsory education finishes. Those using the #Manofarsi hashtag relate painful tales of public ridicule, stereotyping at work and in their social lives, being passed up for job and higher education opportunities, and difficulty accessing public services simply because their strongest language is other than Persian.
Behrouz Bouchani, a well-known Kurdish writer currently teaching in exile at the University of Sydney, wrote of the campaign on Twitter: "#Manofarsi is one of our most important events in the field of public culture. In the last few hours, hundreds of excruciating stories of the degradation, insulting and racist treatment of Gilaks, Turks, Arabs and other minorities have been recorded via this hashtag. If you want to know where the real Iran is, follow it."
“"When I went to primary school in Tabriz, I did not know any Persian!” an Iranian Twitter user under the name Tara said. “I was good at math and science, but struggled in writing, spelling, and Persian literature. In the fourth grade, when we had to write essays, I failed. Even though I now have a doctorate and am a university professor in the United States, I carry with me the negative weight of that period."
Another user named Barish wrote about being subjected to racism during military service: “During my service in Baneh city, when I entered the barracks, they asked me where I was from. When I said I was from Tabriz, one of them said, ‘Silence! I want to sing a Turkish song to you.’ Then he put his hands in front of his mouth and imitated the braying of a donkey. I couldn’t not answer back to him. So I was exiled and given three months of additional service."
"This shows how serious the issue of racism is in Iran,” Sevil Suleymani told IranWire. “They haven’t taught people [otherwise]. They don’t know that when they make a joke about one of these ethnic groups, it is not just a simple joke but has an entire architecture of discrimination behind it. The narratives also show the dysfunctionality of Iran's political and administrative system, which doesn’t meet the needs of half its population. One group has poisoned the lives of all the others.”
Linguistic Stereotypes Give Way to Overt Racism
Iranian-Malaysian anti-racism activist Mohsen Rasooli, the other co-founder of End of Monolingualiam, has also noticed the large number of posts by linguistic minorities under #Manofarsi that spill over into the topic of racism. “Many of the stories are about a person being discriminated against because of the accent they have when speaking Persian. These things often happen in the course of life in Iran, especially when applying for a job, and prevent a person from making the most of their talents.
"Another dimension is intersectional insults and humiliation. For example, if a person has a Gilaki accent and is a woman, she is immediately confronted with the both sexual and ethnic stereotype of being immoral, and if it’s a man, he is called a sissy. This structural racism and monolingual repression has created fixed slurs for each group, tied to the language, dialect and even names of its children."
Some Iranian social media users have spoken about coming under fire when their family names become known. Others wrote that even though they did not speak Persian with an accent, they were asked pointed questions about their religion and whether or not their kind beheaded people: a fallacy the Islamic Republic, and especially the IRGC, notably deployed against Kurdish citizens in a bid to dehumanize Kurdistan-based resistance groups in the 1980s.
What is the Goal?
The End of Monolingualism campaign has widely promoted use of the #Manofarsi hashtag in the past few days. "Iran is a country of differences,” Suleymani told IranWire. “We want to see an acceptance of pluralism, and of ethnic, linguistic, religious and gender diversity.”
Rasouoi agrees. “We want to raise awareness about the suffering of living in a monolingual system, within a multilingual society. Many try to deny the discrimination against non-Persian peoples. That is why we wanted to document their experiences. We are now collecting the content published on Twitter so as to have a bank of these encounters. We hope to be able to present this data for research and other work in the future.”
Some of those who shared the #Monofarsi hashtag have faced a backlash online, generally from internet users who support the Islamic Republic. “There’s an allegation of separatism that comes with it, both online and in the real world. I think it’s a bid to suppress people. [Use of] a mother tongue, being able to teach it, is a human right, recognized by numerous international treaties. Even in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic, under Article 15, the teaching of literature in one’s mother tongue is explicitly emphasized. We are dealing with a totalitarian, centralist group that has based its ‘nation-state’ on one language, one religion, one ethnicity. Anything that seeks to challenge this hegemony is seen as opposition.”