Kurdish education in Turkey: A half-step
By Anna Wood for SES Türkiye in Istanbul
Hailed by some as a new
landmark in relations between Turkey and its Kurdish
citizens, proposed native language elective classes
fall far short of some Kurds’ educational demands.
Kurdish protesters hold signs written in Kurdish,
that reads "Don't ban my language" and "We want
education in our language".
Turkey which still denies the constitutional
existence of Kurds, refuses to recognize its Kurdish
population as a distinct minority. Kurds ask for
more cultural rights for ethnic Kurds who constitute
the greatest minority in Turkey, numbering more than
20 million. Kurds call for lifting the ban on
education in Kurdish, paving the way for an
autonomous democrat Kurdish system within Turkey. Photo: Reuters
Optional Kurdish language courses could start as
earlier as next year in some schools.
The Kurdish alphabet is still not recognized
in Turkey, and use of the Kurdish letters X, W, Q
which do not exist in the Turkish alphabet has led
to judicial persecution in 2000 and 2003.
June 28, 2012
ISTANBUL, — In the 1990s, a single
sentence uttered in the Kurdish language was enough
to land newly elected parliamentarian Leyla Zana in
prison for ten years.
Today, Zana is once again serving in parliament and
is taking part in a national debate regarding native
language education for the country’s more than 13
Ekurd comments. [Kurds who constitute the
greatest minority in Turkey, numbering more than 20
million]. On May 24, 2012 A Turkish court
sentenced prominent outspoken Kurdish
rights advocate and lawmaker Leyla Zana to 10 years
in prison in absentia for membership of an outlawed
separatist group and spreading its propaganda.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the
proposal as "a historic step," and would like the
proposed changes to the educational system viewed as
a symbol of his continued commitment to the Kurdish
Opening, whose auspicious debut has since fizzled
into widespread disappointment as conflict between
the state and Kurds continues.
The plan is part of a larger blueprint of
educational reform, known as the 4+4+4 programme,
which will increase mandatory education in Turkey
from eight to 12 years. As part of this plan,
optional elective courses in Kurdish and other
languages will be available to students for two
hours per week beginning in the fifth grade.
What the Kurdish population is demanding, however,
is something far greater: complete native-language
education, with courses being taught in Kurdish from
primary school onwards.
Ozgur Dogan is an award-winning Kurdish filmmaker
best known for the documentary "On the way to
school", which tells the story of a Turkish teacher
sent to work in a village where his young students
don’t know any Turkish. The film paints a poignant
picture of the real-life isolation experienced both
by the children and the teacher, neither of whom can
The problems with the Turkish educational system are
a crucial issue for Dogan, who recalls going to
primary school just after the 1980 military coup,
when just being Kurdish was a risk, and both
cultural repression and physical violence were an
"The essence of the system hasn’t changed at all
since that time -- in fact, since the founding of
the republic," Dogan told SES Türkiye. "This is an
educational system built on denial and
Though the system itself has yet to change, Dogan
says that because of the ongoing Kurdish struggle
Turkey has arrived at a point where these demands
can no longer be ignored.
This is, in itself, a victory, if a limited one.
The reasons for native language education go beyond
a sense of national pride and a demand for cultural
recognition. Leaving no space for Kurdish education
in the classroom when students are just entering
school can harm their academic potential for the
rest of their lives.
"If the language spoken at home isn’t Turkish, it’s
certain that the child will experience serious
educational problems," said Caner Uguz, a history
teacher currently earning a doctorate in educational
technology. A child whose Kurdish parents are unable
help with Turkish-language homework assignments --
far from a rare occurrence -- will struggle to
achieve from the outset.
"Reading and writing are the fundamentals of
education, and for a child who falls behind in these
subjects, each subsequent phase in school is now a
big problem," Uguz said.
Two hours per week beginning in fifth grade will do
little to solve this issue, which ultimately leads
to a national achievement gap, a problem that
reaches beyond the classroom and affects the
"You could recommend [such elective courses] for
Turks, and that would even be meaningful," Dogan
said, "but unfortunately, this is far from meeting
A truly multilingual educational system would be
beneficial for all of Turkey, argued Uguz, who
highlighted the fact that until the 20th century,
Anatolia was a cultural melting pot.
"If people who call themselves Turks were to
investigate their racial and linguistic backgrounds
a little, they would see that the matter is much
more complicated than that," he explained.
"The ideological problem is the culture of fear
regarding alternative identities, which is a product
of Turkey’s years and years of nationalistic
education," Uguz said.
According to proponents, multilingual education
would allow for more cultural integration,
co-operation, and work opportunities, as issues of
communication and discrimination would decline.
Detractors argue that it would create a larger gap
between Kurds and Turks and ill-prepare Kurdish
children for jobs in the national and global
And though multilingual education is still a distant
dream, the fact that such discussions are taking
place shows how far Turkey has come in recent years
in terms of state-Kurd relations.
"I see this proposal as the first step in the
bargaining process," Henri Barkey, a professor of
international relations who specialises in Turkish
politics at Lehigh University, told SES Türkiye.
Despite the dissatisfaction felt by Kurds regarding
the proposal, Barkey holds that it is a small step
in a larger trajectory of positive improvements for
"The Kurdish Opening is an ongoing process. It is
irrevocable," Barkey said, admitting that progress
may be halting. "You may go one step forward and two
steps backward, only to go forward three steps."
Ultimately, Barkey noted, when it comes to granting
Kurds more rights over time, "Turkey does not have a
choice if it wants domestic peace."
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