Kurdish student numbers dwindle as Turkey's crackdown curtails opportunities

Kurdish language departments in Turkey mushroomed with the so-called Kurdish opening but they are now struggling to attract students since the Turkish government reversed its stance and began cracking down on the Kurdish movement.

In the summer of 2009, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) launched the so-called Kurdish opening to address the long-running grievances of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, which is struggling for greater cultural rights and limited regional autonomy. 

The process evolved into the peace process in 2013 to end the decades-long conflict with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which launched an armed separatist insurrection in 1984, and has since changed its objectives to focus on Kurdish rights rather than independence.

The government's efforts comprised a constitutional amendment allowing Kurdish language classes to be taught in schools. The use of Kurdish in public was banned by the military administration following the 1980 coup in Turkey, and it was decriminalised in 1991. 

Five literature and language departments on Kurdish and the Zaza language, spoken by an ethnic group related to Kurds, were opened between 2011 and 2012 in four majority-Kurdish southeastern provinces.

Thousands of young Kurds, who wanted to receive their education in Kurdish and learn their mother tongue in an academic setting, applied to those departments. 

But numbers have now dropped dramatically since the peace process broke down in 2015, because prospective students have realised that their career options have been severely curtailed.

"Our department was opened during the peace process; We were actually the fruits of it,” Hasan Filitoğlu, a Kurdish language and literature graduate from Bingöl University, told Ahval. “[But] when we graduated, the peace process broke down and nobody even looked back at us." 

Another graduate, Sabri Külter, has worked at several jobs but nothing related to his education. Now, he puts food on the table as a construction worker. 

"I wanted to study gastronomy and then I heard that the Kurdish Language and Literature Department had opened. I was young and excited, and I saw this as an opportunity," Külter told Ahval.

"We thought we would live in a freer and more peaceful country and the political pressure would be over and the bans would be lifted. But the process fell victim to politics, and the restrictive mentality still continues," he said.

Since the breakdown of the peace process in 2015, Kurdish art centres, Kurdish language associations and many more institutions have been closed by the government. Kurdish names were removed from public parks and streets, and public billboards have been turned solely to Turkish. 

Almost all Kurdish media outlets – even a Kurdish children’s channel – have been shut down. Kurdish civil society organisations were closed by the government for allegedly supporting terrorist groups.

After young Kurds saw that Kurdish language graduates failed to find employment related to their education, the number of applicants has fallen severely.

When the courses were first launched, classes were at full capacity with an average of 60 students per class. 

But, the number of students per class has typically dwindled to around 10, even though the entrance requirements for those departments were significantly lowered, according to Eylem Süleymanoğlu, a senior student at Bingöl University Kurdish Language and Literature, said.

"When I first began the department, the fourth grades were some 60 people. Forty-five people started during my term, but now there are 20 people. And, there are only 11 freshmen at the department," Süleymanoğlu said.

Yet, she still has hope. 

"Whether I was appointed or not as a teacher when I graduate, I always dreamed of teaching Kurdish in front of the blackboard,” she said. “I still dream of it, I am still hopeful."