Zara Mohammadi, a Kurdish language teacher and linguistic advocate in Iran who was sentenced to ten years in prison for her work, has recently had her sentence reduced to five years. According to Rudaw, a Kurdish news network, Mohammadi’s sentence reduction comes as Iran faces mounting pressure from the international community over suppression of the Kurdish people in the country.
Mohammadi is the director of the Nojin Socio-Cultural Association, an organization dedicated to preserving and promoting Kurdish culture and language. At the time of her arrest in May 2019, she was teaching Kurdish to hundreds of children in Sanandaj, the capital of Iran’s Kurdistan province, according to Rudaw. Mohammadi was arrested along with two other Kurdish teachers at the Nojin Socio-Cultural Association for alleged connections to armed Kurdish groups, but those charges were later dropped. Instead, Mohammadi was charged with “establishing a committee… that is against the stability and security of [Iran],” in reference to her efforts to teach the Kurdish language.
Numerous international groups condemned Iran for Mohammadi’s arrest—less than a month after Mohammadi was first detained, PEN International published a letter calling for her release from prison. Then, about a year later, in August 2020, a group of academics led by Noam Chomsky signed a letter condemning Iran’s discrimination against non-Persian languages like Kurdish and called on the state to release Mohammadi. “State authorities in Iran and elsewhere must understand that diversity of cultures and languages is an asset for any country and that the repression of the linguistic rights of minorities is a sign of the weakness of the state concerned and an attempt to stifle freedom and basic human rights,” wrote Simona Škrabec, PEN International’s chair of the Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee. Kurdish is an Indo-European language spoken by about 20 million people, largely in Kurdistan, a geographical region that spans across parts of Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. Throughout its history, Kurdish has largely been overshadowed by other languages in the region, namely Persian, Arabic, and Turkish. In spite of its large population of speakers (it ranks as the 40th most widely spoken language in the world, according to a 2012 report in the International Journal of the Sociology of Language), the language’s status has largely been undermined by the fact that it is spoken across a politically and culturally divided geographic area.
In Turkey, the language is banned as a language of instruction, even in regions of the country with a large Kurdish population. In Syria, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria is led by a Kurdish government, which imposed Kurdish language education in 2016.
However, the region’s Education Department has struggled to create a high-quality Kurdish language curriculum that is officially recognized in other parts of Syria, and as a result many residents—even Kurdish families—have chosen to forego the curriculum altogether by sending their children to private institutions that teach in Arabic.