Reclaiming the Mother Tongue: BDP’s School Boycott


Last week, on the first day of scheduled classes in Turkey, thousands of Kurdish schoolchildren did not go to school. In fact, students in primary and secondary school boycotted the first week entirely to demand their right to education in their mother tongue. They were also boycotting Andımız, the Turkish oath ceremony, a nationalistic avowal of loyalty to Turkey and a veneration of “Turkishness”.

“I am Turk, I am honest, I am hard working,” the vow goes, “My principle is to protect the small, to respect the big, to love my country and my people more than I love myself.”

Students in primary school are compelled to recite the oath every day at the top of the morning. It’s meant as an affirmation of identity; an attempt to articulate “Turkishness” under a national selfhood. It’s one of many tools the Turkish government utilizes to further its national project of homogenizing Turkish identity. This homogenization, however, comes at the expense of minorities in Turkey — particularly the Kurdish minority, who read the Andımız not as an embrace of Turkey’s diverse cultural and ethnic landscape but as an erasure of any identity that deviates from mainstream national Turkishness. Reading the Andımız doesn’t just mean claiming their Turkish heritage — it requires they abandon their Kurdish one. For the Turkish government, these two identities are mutually exclusive — loyalty to one means a disavowal of the other.

This attitude is codified in many of Turkey’s laws and de facto conventions. Of particular contentiousness are Turkey’s language laws, which for a long time had banned the Kurdish language completely. Recent years have seen progress — the Ministry of Education, for example, has recently included Kurdish among a list of languages that may be taught in elective courses in national schools. These courses, however, will only be funded if minimum enrollment quotas are fulfilled. Other laws continue to restrict the use of the Kurdish language in public places and Article 42 of Turkey’s constitution expressly and exclusively designates Turkey as a “mother tongue”:

No language other than Turkish shall be taught as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institutions of training or education. Foreign languages to be taught in institutions of training and education and the rules to be followed by schools conducting training and education in a foreign language shall be determined by law.

The full weight of these laws amounts to what many Kurds see as a cultural genocide — they are meant to restrict and prohibit the practice of Kurdish culture. The contention is not with Turkish nationalism itself but its attempts to extinguish all other cultures and nationalisms in its wake. These laws are not just part-and-parcel of Turkey’s national project — they are also engaged in its assimilation goals.

The boycott and the protests that ensued are democratic attempts to resist the chauvinism that underlies Turkey’s legal system. According to Firat News, schools across Turkey were affected by the boycott and thousands of people showed up to marches and protests around the country in support of it:

Plainclothes police officers have visited a number of schools across the city early in the morning and gathered information about the percentages of the participation in the boycott which has highly been supported at the M. Akif Ersoy High School and the Süphan Primary School where only 200 out of 1400 students took the classes yesterday.

The boycott has also been largely supported in the province of Hakkari where almost all the schools were empty on the first day of the education year, with teachers waiting inside empty schools as of early morning hours. The number of students who took to classes at the city center was less then a hundred.

Schools in Şemdinli, Yüksekova, as well as its Esendere and Büyükçiftlik towns were also empty yesterday. It was only staff and some teachers who went to schools.

Children in Şırnak and its Cizre district also joined the boycott which was supported by local people who staged a march and conveyed the signatures collected for mother tongue education to the director of national education.

Kurds compose 15-25% of the Turkish population; they make up a substantial and vital portion of Turkish society. It is diversity that invigorates culture; this diversity should be embraced in favor of Turkish identity, not in opposition to it. Exclusionary policies will only alienate Kurds to Turkey rather than “assimilate” them. Despite the state’s best efforts to erase it, the Kurdish language continues to exists — and it will continue to exist. Its mere existence is a testament to the strength of Kurdish resistance and perseverance.