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Language Discrimination in Iran

1 July 2023

by AFH Film Production 2023 | 5 min

According to UNESCO, every two weeks one language disappears and at least 43% of the 6,000 spoken languages in the world are in danger of extinction. Language is not only a communication tool, but also an important part of a person’s identity. When a language disappears, traditions, memories, and thus unique ways of thinking and expression also disappear.   

Iran is a culturally diverse country composed of many ethnicities, religions, and languages. Though minorities may account for half of Iran’s population, a homogenous national identity rooted in the Persian language and Shi’a Islam has long been imposed upon Iranian citizens, with the effect of the repression, exclusion and marginalization of minority communities.  

Minority languages in Iran include: KurdishArabic, Azerbaijani and Turkish, Balochi, Lori, Gilki and Mazani. Despite provisions in Iran’s constitution to the contrary, the use of minority languages in the country is repressed in all aspects of public life, from the media to education. Minority-language publishing houses have found their offices sealed off in recent years. Only Persian-speaking children are guaranteed education in their mother tongue, meaning that the rest fall behind in the very first years of school. The issue of mother tongue education has always been one of the most controversial issues among executive and legislative authorities in Iran. 

Even in private life, minority languages are forced into the shadows. Iran’s civil registry office often forces ethnic and linguistic minorities to choose their child’s name from the book of permitted names prepared by the government. Though minorities are a vital part of the Iranian national fabric, even geographic place names in minority languages are being changed into Persian.  

Just as minority languages are thus repressed, so too are those who defend them: the authorities have widely instilled in the minds of Iranians that any civil activity in the field of education in or the preservation of native languages amounts to separatism. Their security forces have arrested many activists in this area and sentenced them to long prison terms and exile.  

The repression of minority languages leads in time to the erosion of language, culture, traditional knowledge, and indeed the very identity of people and peoples. If there is little linguistic diversity in public life, it can have a wide impact on people’s ability to access other rights, including those to freedom of expression, health, political participation, and development. Without the freedom to use their mother tongues fully and freely, Iran’s minorities are without a critical tool to challenge the other forms of discrimination they face.