Kerim Yildiz discusses how Turkey’s easing of restrictions on the use of Kurdish remains far from complete
Turkish national theatre is stageing a play partly in Kurdish for the first time. By allowing the performance of a play with dialogue in a once-banned language, Turkey has taken a step toward fulfilling its international obligations towards minorities and ensuring the linguistic rights of its citizens.
Despite such measures, concerns remain about whether such changes represent long-term reforms or reflect fleeing political decisions made in the heat of government’s current easing of restrictions, known as the “Kurdish initiative”.
Turkey’s denial of the Kurdish language in almost all public forms is embedded in the country’s constitution as well as its political and social spheres. Until the Turkish authorities make fundamental changes at a constitutional and judicial level, discrimination against minority languages sadly look set to continue.
The right to speak and write in your mother tongue is a fundamental human right, and it is one that most countries respect. For the Kurdish people in Turkey, however, it is a right that has long been violated. For decades Turkey’s Kurds have been persecuted simply for using their mother tongue.
Prodded by the European Union, Turkey only recently granted its citizens the right to speak in Kurdish. In practice, however, this right is still significantly limited. The Turkish government’s rationale for preventing the full use of Kurdish is embedded in a series of laws, decrees and policies entrenching a Turkish national identity which allows for no dissenting minority voices.
A case in point is the play, staged at the Diyarbakir State Theatre in the country’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. Called Living Death, the play explores the issue of honour killings of women. However, the play is only partly in Kurdish. There is much scepticism over whether the authorities would have permitted a play entirely in Kurdish, or much less one about a Kurdish cultural or social issue. Moreover, the title of the play (Ölümü yaşamak) is Turkish, not Kurdish.
A play with a Kurdish title could face government restrictions on the alphabet itself. Turkey’s 1928 Law on the Adoption and Application of the Turkish Alphabet still obliges all companies, private associations and state-run establishments to conduct all written correspondence using the Turkish alphabet. Under this law, all notices, proclamations, advertisements, newspapers and publications must be printed in Turkish.
This law has had the effect of making the use of written Kurdish illegal. Kurdish requires the use of the letters q, w and x, which are not present in the Turkish alphabet. But the government has made no progress in repealing the 1928 law or lifting the restriction on using letters of the Kurdish alphabet.
In 2001, an amendment was made to Turkey’s constitution to allow publishing in Kurdish, and amendments in 2002 reiterated this right and allowed for limited broadcasts in Kurdish. However, using Kurdish still remains subject to prosecution. For example; municipalities in the southeast of Turkey often face prosecution for using Kurdish in their official documents, and for issuing invitations or holiday greeting cards in Kurdish.
Kurdish language courses were allowed to be opened in 2003. As a result, some private courses opened in several provinces in the southeast of Turkey. But they soon closed due to bureaucratic restrictions regarding the curriculum, appointment of teachers and the criteria for enrolment — including a minimum age restriction which prevented children from attending such schools. Another factor was people’s reluctance to pay simply to learn their mother tongue.
Education in Kurdish in public schools is still prohibited. Article 42 of Turkey’s constitution provides “No language other than Turkish shall be taught as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institutions of training or education”. This provision remains in force today.
Despite some constitutional reforms since 2001, restrictions on the use of Kurdish remain in force in education, media, and a host of official institutions including law enforcement and health care facilities. Turkey has made slow progress in ensuring the rights of its all citizens to learn, use and develop their mother tongue. Until this complete recognition has been established, Turkey will continue to fall short of its obligations in international and European human rights law.
Nonetheless, for a country where the use of Kurdish and other minority languages was completely banned less than 15 years ago, Turkey has made great strides. Turkey has been responsive to EU recommendations, and the EU should continue to urge Turkey to take steps to ensure the rights of minority groups and linguistic rights. In order for there to be true linguistic freedom for all Turkish citizens, the Turkish state must embrace its multi-linguistic composition, rather than view it as a threat to be silenced.
Kerim Yildiz is chief executive of the Kurdish Human Rights Project