#ManoFarsi – Hashtag Activists Addressing Linguistic Marginalization in Iran
Being bilingual is great, but learning fundamental concepts in an unknown language during the first years of school does not bode well for a student’s success in education. Image: Sebastian Castelier/Shutterstock
Social media networks offer people with social causes opportunities to share their stories and connect with others who feel similarly. This is especially important for members of marginalized groups who tend to have disproportionately restricted access to mainstream media platforms. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that in the last few years, social media has allowed the birth of powerful anti-racist and feminist movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too in what has been dubbed “hashtag activism.” Such activism can help inform lived personal experiences across a range of intersectional barriers (language, gender, ethnicity, religion, class, etc.).
However, in countries such as Iran, where the news media is under complete control of the government, the situation is more complicated. Discussions of issues of diversity and difference such as language, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexuality are highly sensitive and often suppressed. Officially, most social media networks in Iran are blocked or filtered. Still, despite such attempts at silencing, the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) means that many networks operate nonetheless and are popularly accessed by those interested in minority issues in Iran.
Twitter, for example, is typically popular for self-expression with Iranian university students and those interested in social and political issues. However, aware that critical or overtly political talk can be risky, many tweet anonymously without a photo or real name.
One of the hot topics is that of education policy.
Monolingual Education as a Political Issue
In Iran, Farsi is the only official language of administration and education. However, more than half of the country’s population consists of other groups who have their own mother tongues, including Azerbaijani-Turks, Kurds, Balochs, Arabs, Turkmens, Lors and Gilaks. Tehran presents the dismissal of this complex issue of language rights as a practical necessity, as if denying mother tongue education is empowering rather than disenfranchising. For example, Iran’s former minister of education, Hamid-Reza Haji Babaee, stated that only “70% of students across the country are bilingual” on entering school. In such a case, “how can [they] compete with students studying in Tehran?” His answer is that the fairest solution is to push a 100% Farsi-based education system. He advocates for the 70% ‘minority-majority’ to speak the language of the 30%.
Official demographic statistics in Iran don’t include self-declared ethnic identity. For this reason, estimates of Iran’s Azerbaijani Turk population range wildly: from 18 million to 40 million, depending on who you might be talking to. A conservative estimate would be that they constitute well around 23% of the entire population of Iran, concentrated most significantly in the six northwestern provinces, although the area also has a large Kurdish population. This map is adapted from SIL's 1997 ethnologue. However, the former foreign minister of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, has said 40% of Iranians speak Turkish. Until there is more information, The Caspian Post suggests this map is a fair estimate of numbers.
It is not hard to see that from the point of view of non-Farsi-speakers, monolingual education feels like a mechanism of assimilation, causing them to be linguistically and ethnically marginalized. That marginalization can all too easily lead to forms of racism towards non-Farsi speakers or even to those speaking Farsi with minority accents. This is a politically-charged struggle present in the multilingual and multiethnic society that is Iran has ever since the formation of the modern nation-state in 1925.
This issue of language discrimination is the subject of a new viral campaign associated with the hashtag منوفارسی# (#ManoFarsi, meaning “Me and Farsi”). Though by definition, it’s impossible to get exact metrics about the usage of officially blocked networks, it appears that the campaign quickly caught people’s attention, snowballing into one of Twitter’s trending topics in Iran. Within hours, hundreds of individuals, primarily women from the country’s Turk, Arab, Kurd, Turkmen, Gilak, Baloch, Lor, and other minoritized groups, joined in with others in the diaspora to share their stories of what it means to be a linguistically minoritized person in Iran.
The hashtag campaign was initiated by Sevil Suleymani, an Azerbaijani-Turk queer feminist activist, and Mohsen Rasouli, a language rights activist. They are co-founders of the End of Monolingualism, an anti-racist platform engaged in promoting multilingual-based mother tongue education in Iran.
#ManoFarsi’s stated goal is to raise awareness about what the organizers deem “ongoing systematic language-based oppression in Iran.” By revealing the unequal distribution of power between the country’s linguistically minoritized peoples and the majoritized Persian population, they hope to empower the former and create solidarity.
What Are These Stories?
The first step is simply providing a forum to share stories. This example was posted by Lida Sarafraz, now studying away from her native lands in Utah: “Non-Persians in Iran are raising their voices and finally speaking up about their oppression in that country. As a Turk, I could write a book about my experience of microaggressions.”
“As a college student at SBMU in Tehran, we had a professor…She was teaching classic Persian literature. She repeatedly was telling us Turks in the history of Iran were non-civilized invaders. We were a few Turk students in the class and complained about her racist statements. She treated us worse and reported us to the university’s [intelligence and security service] as nationalist Turks.”
Non-Persians in Iran are raising their voices and finally speaking up about their oppression in that country. As a Turk, I can write a book about my experience of microaggressions. #منوفارسی— LIDA SARAFRAZ (@LSarafraz) January 31, 2022
It’s a common theme. Mina Ajalli is one of many to tweet about the psychological effects of such racism, pointing out that if one is regularly shamed about one’s identity, consciously or subconsciously, it can lead to a “feeling that tells you are low, worthless, ignorant, a Turk…”
داشتن شرم نسبت به بدن،زبان،رنگ پوست و... از مخربترین احساساتیست که مشکلات عدیده روانشناختی در فرد ایجاد میکنه.عامل اصلی این حس،عیبها و نقصهای واقعی فرد نیست بلکه در احساسیست که هژمونی حاکم در او ایجاد کرده است.همان حسی که میگوید تو حقیری، بی ارزشی، کمدرکی، ترکی...#منوفارسی— Mina Ajalli (@mina_ajalli) February 1, 2022
Some fight back with humour. Atife Karimi, in retweeting Lida’s original, adds her own twist to a similar story during her days at Tehran University. There, rather than succumb to teasing about their Turkish accents, the three or four Azerbaijanis in the class decided to deliberately thicken them to make themselves doubly noticeable.
So Let's rise our voices!— Atife Karimi.D| عاطفه (@AtifeKd) February 1, 2022
All we have such experiences of racism and offensive issues.
In Tehran Uni. our Turkish accent were joked by others. So all Turk students (3-4 students) decided to speak thick Turkish accent to make it much more noticeable than before! #منوفارسی https://t.co/zhm9WFNUvY
But not everyone was so robust. Indeed for many, the pressure and worry of stigmatization has led to families deliberately trying to ‘save’ their children from difficulties by steering them away from their mother tongues. For example, a Gilaki using an activist account named Xaxuran posted: “As a child, I wanted to speak Gilaki, like adults, but my family strictly forbade it. So, I never understood Gilaki correctly… It was under the influence of this upbringing that I tried not to have an accent [when speaking Persian] as a teenager.” Her parents were attempting to prevent an embarrassment that they too had suffered, but it didn’t work, and every time she went on family trips to Tehran, she still felt that she was being laughed at for her accent.
۲. بنابراین گیلکی رو هیچوقت درست نفهمیدم و در محیط خانواده "اجازه" نداشتم از اصطلاحات گیلکی استفاده کنم. تحت تاثیر این تربیت بود که در نوجوانی تلاش میکردم لهجه نداشته باشم. با اینحال هربار در سفر خانوادگی به تهران بابت لهجهای که خواهناخواه با من بود مسخره میشدم.— Xaxuran خواخوران (@xaxuran) February 4, 2022
A user with the pseudonym Haifa, from the country’s Arab community, remembered a more pointed feeling of childhood stigmatization:
“I was in the first grade…Our teacher praised [a Persian girl called] Nazanin in [front] the whole class. I also wanted to be friends with this good girl. I went and asked her; ‘would you play with me in the break?’ She said: ‘My mother told me not to be friends with Arabs.’ I was only 6 years old. I did not know what Arabs and Persians meant. But Nazanin seemed to know.”
کلاس اول بودم. مدرسه گلستان، معلممون سر کلاس کلی از «نازنین کریمی» تعریف کرد. من هم دوست داشتم با این دختر خوب دوست بشم. رفتم بهش گفتم زنگ تفریح با من بازی می کنی؟ گفت: مامانم گفته با عربا دوست نشم. فقط ۶ سالم بود. نمیدونستم عرب و فارس چیه، ولی نازنین انگار میدونست. #منوفارسی— 🌍Haifa🌎 (@sr1ty) February 1, 2022
It’s clear that such childhood traumas have caused an intense reaction. In a different thread, the same user cautions readers to see such attitudes as “the result of a century of planning and implementation of … a one-dimensional, Persian-oriented nation-state of Iran which systematically targets, suppress, and eliminates its non-Persian and non-Shia others…”
Worryingly, some even report that an ingrained sense of Farsi superiority extends into the Iranian diaspora community. For example, Nika Jabiyeva says, “I’m an Azerbaijani. I’ve never been to Iran, but have experienced racism from Iranian kids in my Canadian middle school. Laughing at the word “Torki” or saying “you’re basically from Iran, since Azerbaijan’s not a real country” was a normal occurrence. I was 13 years old.”
I’m an Azerbaijani, I’ve never been to Iran, but have experienced racism from Iranian kids in my Canadian middle school. Laughing at the word “Torki” or saying “you’re basically from Iran, since Azerbaijan’s not a real country” were a normal occurrence. I was 13 years old.— Nika Jabiyeva (@NikaJabi) February 2, 2022
The outpouring of emotion amongst fellow minoritized Iranians is palpable. One user tweets: “I literally get goosebumps every time I read tweets with #ManoFarsi. It is so amazing that it has given voice to the voiceless, the people who may have never realized how loud they could shout.”
I literally get goosebumps every time I read tweets with #منوفارسی .— Sajjad (@Sajjadmhd1) February 2, 2022
It is so amazing that it has given voice to the voiceless, the people who may have never realized how load they could shout.
Behrouz Boochani, a prominent Kurdish writer and refugee rights activist, now living in New Zealand, described #ManoFarsi as “one of the most important [recent] events in the field of public culture” and urged people to “[f]ollow this hashtag if you want to know where the real Iran is.”
#منوفارسی یکی از مهمترین اتفاق ها در عرصه فرهنگ عمومی است. طی چند ساعت اخیر صدها داستان و خاطره دردناک از تحقیر,توهین و برخوردهای نژادپرستانه نسبت به انسان گیلک, ترک,عرب و دیگران به واسطه این هشتگ ثبت شد.اگر میخواهید بدانید که ایران واقعی کجاست این هشتگ را دنبال کنید.— Behrouz Boochani (@BehrouzBoochani) February 1, 2022
Saeed Katibzadeh, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson. Image: Azertag
However, seen from the ‘other side,’ such claims of racism in Iran are exaggerated. Some go further than dismissing the hashtag, to vilify the movement. Vahid Basereh, whose Twitter handle describes him as a Conservative patriot, posted:
“Liars and traitors have created a hashtag to violate the national language of us Iranians. They have created fictional stories to provoke the emotions of those who do not know the truth. This is abuse. Dirty lying. We do not have racism in Iran. We are one nation with all the differences we have. A historical nation with a national, historical, and glorious Persian language.”
This view was echoed in statements by Iranian officials and state media. They too, have reacted strongly against the campaign, calling it a conspiracy against Iran and its “national language.”
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh went so far as to characterize campaign participants as “demons” and accused them of “starting a war against Iranian identity and Persian language.”
Tehran-based newspapers such as Sazandegi, Jam-e Jam (affiliated with Iran’s Radio and Television Corporation), and Javan made the "Me and Farsi" campaign the main headline of their front pages. The headlines claimed that the campaign was "an assassination attempt against the Persian language."
The cover of Sazandegi Daily Newspaper, Feb 07, 2022. Headline: The Conspiracy Against the Farsi language, Subline: BBC, Iran International, and the Voice of America seek to create conflict among Iranians by hiding behind the issue of mother tongue of ethnicities.
Decoupling Educational Rights from Separatism
Basereh’s use of the term “traitor” and Khatibzadeh’s use of the term “demon” are important in understanding just how controversial and sensitive this topic is perceived in Iran. Amongst many supporters of monolingualism, there’s a common belief that any campaign for mother-tongue rights will lead directly to the perils of nationalist separatism and fears that such forces could be manipulated by the country’s numerous enemies.
Azam Ahmadi’s observant tweet sums up this position: “When "they" [i.e. Persians] defend their language, it becomes patriotism, when "others" defend their language, they become separatists!”
The Iranian government does imprison language rights activists on charges of promoting separatism, as in the cases of Alireza Farshi and Zahra Mohammadi.
However, #ManoFarsi hashtaggers are not happy about the depiction of their activism as separatism. They see themselves as people just wanting to use their own language. Rahoosh3 makes a simple but powerful comparison between feminism and the fight for language rights: “When it comes to feminism, one is quick to say that being anti-male is not the answer. When one speaks of mother tongue, one is quick to say that division is not the answer.”
دو نوع واکنش همیشه کلافه کنندهس برام!— رَحوش (@Rahoosh3) February 4, 2022
یکی موقعی که از فمنیسم بحث میشه، سریعا یکی میگه ضد مرد بودن چارهی کار نیست.
یکی موقعی که از زبانِ مادری بحث میشه، سریعا یکی میگه تفرقه انداختن چارهی کار نیست.
این بیحوصله و دیکته شده رفتار کردن، تمومی نداره.#منوفارسی
Yet by maintaining a rigid policy against mother tongue education, Tehran threatens to cause discontent that could just have the self-fulfilling effect of causing separatism if no other alternative appears.
Describing himself as a ‘libertarian anthropologist,’ Mehrpouya Ala, from Iran’s dominant Persian community, understands this and tweets supportively:
“When you label anyone who speaks of their mother tongue ‘anti-Iranian,’ you are automatically making them an anti-Iranian. You associate the name of Iran with repression, prejudice, and imposition…You are a real anti-Iranian. We want Iran to be a country of freedom.”
وقتی به هر که از زبان مادریاش گفت برچسب «ضد ایرانی» میزنید به خودی خود از او یک ضد ایرانی میسازید. نام ایران را تداعیگر سرکوب و تعصب و تحمیل میکنید. این چه کشور تاریخی است که موجودیتش به تار مویی بند است؟ ضد ایرانی واقعی شمایید. ما میخواهیم ایران کشور آزادی باشد.#منوفارسی— مهرپویا علا (@Mehrpouya_Ala) February 3, 2022
Where Next for the Hashtag?
Mina Khani, a queer feminist and one of the active participants of the #ManoFarsi campaign, discussed the issue in an interview with BBC Persian. For Khani, the acts of sharing personal stories and experiences are only the first step in an awareness-raising project of public education. The issues must be accepted as a legitimate and important socio-political matter within Iran’s political discourse, especially within the country’s mainstream opposition groups.