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Linguistic freedom

Nalan Sipar / ewOctober 26, 2013

For Turkey's Kurdish minority, the official recognition of their language is a key issue. While the country's government has taken some steps in this direction, many claim that the reforms are only symbolic.

A Kurdish lesson at Kurdi-Der in Diyarbakir
Image: DW/N. Sipar

"Roj bas" means "Good day" in Kurdish. The greeting marks the start of a language lesson at the premises of the Kurdi-Der association in Diyarbakir, a city with a large population of ethnic Kurds. The participants seated at the desks are all Kurdish, aged between 24 and 30. One of them is Derya Can, a student of medicine, who is doing an internship at a local hospital.

"Working there I noticed how limited my knowledge of Kurdish was," said Can, adding that this made communication with patients more difficult and created larger problems in the patient-care system. "This is why I decided to learn Kurdish really well and become a doctor who can communicate properly with her patients."

When Can was a child, people in Turkey were forbidden from speaking Kurdish. This is why she was not able to learn her ancestors' language properly, and grew up speaking Turkish instead.

Hasanpasa Hani fountain in Diyarbakir (Photo: Nalan Sipar)
Diyarbakir is a stronghold of Kurdish culture in TurkeyImage: Nalan Sipar

Constitutional discrimination

Apart from the language, using Kurdish names containing the letters Q, W or X - which do not exist in the Turkish alphabet - was also forbidden. It was only a few weeks ago that the Turkish government embarked on reforms aimed at abolishing these regulations.

Officially, the "Kurdish mother tongue" lessons at Kurdi-Der may not be described as "language classes," because the education ministry, which is responsible for allowing the lessons to go ahead and approving their execution, does not recognize any mother tongue in Turkey other than Turkish. This is based on Article 42 of the Turkish constitution, which includes the clause, "No language other than Turkish shall be taught as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institutions of training or education."

The recent reforms have so far done little to change this ruling. Although private schools may now offer lessons in Kurdish, the reforms have been heavily criticized by the Kurdish authorities. They point out that the majority of Kurds cannot afford private schooling.

In order to comply with Article 42, the lessons at Kurdi-Der are offered not as "classes" but as a "workshop." However, according to Kurdi-Der board member Serhat Boz, even this classification has had negative consequences.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Photo: ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made only limited progress with reformsImage: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

"We experienced many problems when the institute was being established," said Boz. "Investigations were launched against our employees, and some were even formally charged."

Boz says that their involvement with Kurdi-Der attracted the attention of the police, and that even their most innocuous press statement about recognizing Kurdish as a native language became a reason to harass them under the country's anti-terror legislation.

'Symbolic concessions'

All this is despite the fact that the Turkish government took initial steps to recognize the Turkish language four years ago, as part of its "democratization efforts." This was when the first Kurdish television channel, TRT 6, was set up. At the same time it also became possible to offer Kurdish as an extra subject in schools.

Yet the shows broadcast on TRT 6 are not protected by the constitution, which means the Turkish government has the power to take them off air at any time. In schools, Kurdish is only offered as a foreign language, alongside English or German. If a student is going to study just one foreign language they will probably choose English, which is regarded as the most useful in terms of getting work.

Mehmet Kaya from the Tigris Center for Social Research has little faith in the government's intentions. He sees a lot of contradictions, such as public authorities not offering their services in Kurdish.

Titel: Gesuche an das Gericht werden vom Kurdischen ins Türkische übersetzt. Schlagworte: Kurdisch-Kurs, Diyarbakır, Muttersprache, Anerkennung, Türkei, Demokratisierung, Gericht. Wer hat das Bild gemacht?: DW/Nalan Şipar Wann wurde das Bild gemacht?: 27.08.2013 Wo wurde das Bild aufgenommen?: Diyarbakır / Türkei Bildbeschreibung: Ein ehemaliger Mitarbeiter des Gerichts in Diyarbakır verfasst gegenüber vom Gericht u.a. Gesuche der kein türkisch sprechender Bürger und hat somit ein Zusatzverdienst. Bei welcher Gelegenheit / in welcher Situation wurde das Bild aufgenommen? Dienstreise Wer oder was ist auf dem Bild zu sehen? Ein ehemaliger Mitarbeiter des Gerichts In welchem Zusammenhang soll das Bild/sollen die Bilder verwendet werden?: Artikelbild für „Kurdisch lernen“ auf Türkisch
Petitions to the court must be translated, as Turkish courts do not hear cases in KurdishImage: DW/N. Sipar

"If the government only makes symbolic concessions, such as allowing language lessons and saying, 'Learn the language if you like,' what do we actually need to learn the language for?" said Kaya. "The reforms have to be taken seriously."

Cultural significance of language

Looking towards the future of the reconciliation process, Turkey's Kurds are demanding four fundamental changes from the government: Kurdish identity should be officially recognized; Kurdish should be taught as a native language in schools; political prisoners should be released; and the rights of minorities should be strengthened at constitutional level.

For Derya Can, the reasons for learning Kurdish extend beyond the professional realm. When she was a child her parents spoke Kurdish with her, but when she started school she had to learn Turkish, and gradually stopped using her mother tongue.

"I can't chat with my grandparents," said Can. "I was forced to forget my own language." She adds that language is the most important connection to one's own past: "It helps you understand where you come from."