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kurdish students in kirkuk: a language dilemma

Niqash – Tareq Karizi (Kirkuk) – 17 April 2008:

Kurdish students in Kirkuk are struggling to complete their university education as the central Iraqi government has ended the use of the Kurdish language outside the Kurdish administrative zone claiming they do not have enough Kurdish speaking professors.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Kurdish students at Kirkuk University had been allowed to study in their mother tongue, but now the Ministry of Education has reversed its decision and Kurdish students are being required to complete their studies in Arabic.

Some, having lived in the Kurdistan region, speak no Arabic and are unable to meet this requirement.

“The Kurdish language was the language in which we studied. We only want to continue our education in our own mother language tongue,” said Daban, one student. Another, Hawnaz, commented that “most of the Kurdish students do not understand the lectures given by professors. They only attend classes to show respect for their professors”.

Qays Jalal Jaf, assistant to the dean of law, told Niqash that “the law college and other colleges in Kirkuk do not have enough Kurdish professors, so it is not easy to use the Kurdish language in education.” He added that the college is ready to open language classes to teach students Arabic. “We have some Kurdish students who have perfected the Arabic language more than Arabs themselves,” he added.

Nonetheless, with exams approaching, many students are extremely worried by the new regulation and the threat that they will be unable to complete their education because of the new language requirement.

The issue of language has long been a controversial issue in Iraq. In a country of multiple ethnicities and races, the language of the ruling class has always been the official language imposed by force over other local languages.

During the days of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish language was the official language taught in the Kirkuk. This switched to Arabic under the British mandate. In 1970 the Iraqi government signed an autonomy agreement with the Kurds allowing for the Kurdish majority areas to teach their children their mother language. However, the project was short-lived as fighting broke out with Kurdish parties in 1974 and the accord collapsed.

From that date, the Iraqi government banned the use of languages other than Arabic in Kirkuk, going so far as to outlaw the use of non-Arabic names for newborn children.

The toppling of Saddam’s regime in 2003 was a turning point. Educational curricula in Kurdish, Turkmen and Assyrian languages became freely available and the Kurdish Ministry of Education from the Northern Zone provided schools with a Kurdish curriculum resulting in the establishment of over 300 Kurdish schools (55 Turkmen and 4 Assyrian schools were also established as non-Arabic speaking schools).

Today, college students in Kirkuk who see their fellow students in Kurdistan universities using the Kurdish language, are demanding the same privilege especially as article four of the Iraqi constitution guarantees the rights of ethnic minorities to study in their native language. But the educational authority in Baghdad has now rejected this argument saying that there are not enough Kurdish teachers to make this possible.

Within the same context, other educational complexities await the Ministry of Education. Many Turkmen students are now finishing their pre-university education in Turkish and will shortly begin university. They will suffer the same dilemma and will most probably demand that the government educate them in a language they understand.