Interview:Abdulaziz Ta'ib Ahmed Minister of Education, Kurdistan Regional Government in Irbil, northern Iraq
Michael Rubin, a member of the MEIB editorial board and a visiting fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, interviewed Abdulaziz Ta'ib Ahmad, minister of education for the Kurdistan Regional Government in Irbil, northern Iraq. The interview was conducted online between Washington and Irbil.
Abdulaziz Ta'ib Ahmed was born in 1954, in Dahuk, Iraq. He attended the Teacher Training Institute in Dahuk, graduating in 1976. For ten years, during the prolonged conflict against the Baathist government of Saddam Husayn, Abdulaziz served as a peshmurga (Kurdish militia member) and as a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Iraq. Following the 1991 Kurdish uprising and establishment of the safe-haven, Abdulaziz assumed the governorship of the Dahuk governorate, one of the three governorates which today make-up the Kurdish-controlled region in northern Iraq. Since December 20, 1999, Abdulaziz has served as the Kurdistan Regional Government's Minister of Education.
In most of Iraq, Saddam Hussein's regime maintains authoritarian control over much of society, including the educational system. Education remains one of the most important tools for the transition to democracy, especially in the areas of Kurdish administration in northern Iraq. What is the extent of the education system that you manage?
The school system in Iraqi Kurdistan is quite large. In the Dahuk and Irbil governorates alone, we have 486,974 students in all stages, and 22,225 teachers. There are a number of different levels of schools. I figured that your audience might appreciate the hard data, so here are some charts that show the schools we operate just in the Irbil and Dahuk governorates.
In addition, in the area controlled by the Irbil-based Kurdistan Regional Government (as opposed to the Kurdistan Regional Government headquartered in Sulaymaniyah governorate), there are two universities and several technical institutes. These are regulated though a Higher Education Council in the Council of Ministers, of which I'm only one member.
What have been the greatest challenges facing the education system in Iraqi Kurdistan since the uprising in 1991?
The Iraqi central government's policy of Arabization and depopulation of Kurdish districts between 1975 and 1991 resulted in the destruction of more than 4,000 villages. Immediately after the 1991 uprising, the new Kurdistan Regional Government made reconstruction and repopulation of villages destroyed by Saddam's government a priority. This created quite a challenge for the educational system, since we had to deal with a lack of equipment for existing schools, as well as massive school construction. In the primary schools, we initially had to have two or three shifts of students in each school since we simply did not have enough classrooms. Sometimes there were as many as 60 pupils in a class! Additionally, the standard of living for teachers was very poor, since the cost of pedagogical materials was high, and incentives and salary were so little.
We also had a crisis with textbooks. The printing presses in the region could only provide 20 percent of the schools' requirements. Widespread poverty resulted in the pawning of textbooks at the same time that we were faced with the daunting challenge of revising the curriculum.
We have also faced a challenge because of the lack of training courses for teachers, especially in the sciences, sociology, and languages. This restricted our ability to increase the general quality of our teachers. Many of the secondary schools' teachers were generalists rather than specialists, hampering instruction in some fields. Also, in the beginning, there were shortages of such basic items as desks and blackboards. Some students even had to bring their own boards.
Has the curriculum in Iraqi Kurdistan changed significantly over the last decade?
Yes. There have been some major changes in our curriculum since the uprising, when our schools are compared with those in the rest of Iraq.
While we maintain a common curriculum in Iraqi Kurdistan, we are a diverse region, and so our pupils can choose from among schools where the primary language of instruction is different. We now educate in four different languages: Kurdish, Turkmen, Syriac, and Arabic, while in the rest of Iraq, the only language of instruction is Arabic.
Differences in the curriculums laid down from Baghdad and Irbil have developed with time. There are no joint committees between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi central government in Baghdad. Each has continued to alter its programs, so a discrepancy between curriculums has widened. This is why most of the books printed by Saddam's government and subsidized by UNICEF and UNESCO are worthless for our needs.
Specifically, though, what are some of the widest gulfs that have developed between your curriculum and that of the Iraqi government?
The Iraqi government continues to emphasize indoctrination of students in military matters and about so-called struggles against enemies of the Arabs. Many of the examples and reading passages dealt only with deserts, Bedouin culture, and Arab customs. But Arabs are not the only peoples in either Iraq or the Middle East. In the Kurdistan region, we have augmented the program to both cover human rights and democracy training, as well as provide explanations more relevant to the pupils' culture and environment.
If many of the books printed by the Baghdad government and provided by UN agencies are incompatible with good pedagogy (as opposed to Baath Party political indoctrination), then how to you compensate?
While most of the books that come from Baghdad have little benefit, we often can make use of the science books in fields like mathematics, physics, and chemistry. Regarding the humanities, my ministry has been working hard to renovate our own printing presses, but at present our production capacity is only 50 percent of our region's requirements.
In what other ways has the UN assisted education in northern Iraq?
The UN agencies do very much collaborate with the Ministry of Education, and they also encourage school shows and other activities. However, the most important contribution of the UN agencies toward our educational system is in the construction of schools and the procurement of materials.
What do the schools in the Kurdistan Region still need most?
We've come a long way, but nevertheless, still have far to go. We have serious shortages of materials for science laboratories, which diminishes the quality of education in biology, physics, and chemistry. We could also use English language materials for language labs.
We have a serious shortage of spare parts, especially for the Ministry's printing press. We are constantly looking for basic material such as paper, film, and developer.
We have planned for computer procurement with the eventual goal that each secondary school should have a computer unit, but we are still far from this goal.
Libraries are of critical importance. We can use more books for all our school libraries, but children's books are in especially short supply. Many of our school libraries do not have suitable places for children to sit and read.
Many of our teaching aides are very old, uninteresting and, frankly, useless.
There are few art and sport materials. Most schools do not have a studio or even an open playground.
Television and movie projectors are still used primitively, since there are few children's programs. It is important for our children to learn about other cultures and countries, both to broaden their horizons, and also reinforce lessons about human rights, children's rights, equality between men and women, and democracy. We hope to establish linkages between our schools and schools in other countries, especially those in Europe, the United States, and Japan. Unfortunately, the United Nations agencies do not help with this aim.
You mentioned that instruction is now carried out, at least in part, in Kurdish. Half of Iraq's Kurds still live in areas under Baghdad's control, like the cities of Kirkuk, Khanaqin, and Mosul. Is there any Kurdish language instruction there?
For a brief period following the 1970 autonomy accords, there were many Kurdish schools in Iraq. However, once Baghdad abrogated the autonomy accords and following the 1975 Algiers Accords, the Iraqi government systematically sought to weaken the Kurdish language and prevent the operation of Kurdish language schools. The language was effectively forgotten in educational system of Iraq. Kurdish books, which are printed in Baghdad, are not distributed in the areas that are under the authority of Iraqi Government because no Kurdish schools remain there.
The Kurdish language is one of many dialects, some are not mutually intelligible by speakers, even within Iraqi Kurdistan. How does your ministry address this problem in the educational system?
There are two main dialects used in the Kurdistan region of Iraq: Bahdinani is a northern Kurdish dialect (along with Botani, Hakari, and Bayazidi), while Sorani is a southern Kurdish dialect (along with Garmiani, Sulaymani, and Mukriani). Sorani predominates in Sulaymaniyah (which is under Patriotic Union of Kurdistan administration) and Irbil, which is under ours. In Dahuk, Bahdinani is the major dialect.
All our study programs are in Sorani, with the exception of the first through fourth primary school levels in Dahuk. This is because we feel it is the child's right to use their mother tongue in their study and for expressing their ideas. Those who study in both dialects, Sorani and Bahdinani, tend to mix the terms, and merge the syntax to form a single literal language. The aim of the Kurdish people is to reach this goal, but this will have to be implemented and developed more fully in a Kurdistani scientific and academic conference.
How do parents decide to which language school they should send their children?
The study language in Kurdistan Region is Kurdish, according to the rule item no.4 of the Ministry of Education, which was accepted by the Kurdistan Regional Parliament. However, all nations have the right to request that the study language of a school in an area should be the language that is used by most of the people who live in that area. For this purpose there are Turkmen schools and Syriac schools, which the Kurdistan Regional Government fully supplies, just as with the Kurdish-language schools. For this purpose there are two General Directorates in the Ministry to supervise and manage these schools. Ms.Suham Anwar Wali supervises Turkmen education, while Mr. Nazar Hinna is director-general of Syriac education.
The Kurdistan region is not only linguistically diverse, but is religiously diverse as well. Accordingly, our ministry also supplies texts about Christianity in the Syriac language, and books about the Yezidi religion in Kurdish. This supplementary curriculum are studied across the region and at all educational levels up to the fourth preparatory class year. This encouragement of diversity happens only in the Kurdistan Region, not in the rest of Iraq.
I'd imagine that one of the greatest challenges for education in post-Saddam Iraq will be teaching people how to think freely after years where independent thought has been discouraged and suppressed. How has your ministry dealt with the problem?
Our Ministry of Education takes seriously that no one should be oppressed, and that freedom is a common human goal. We believe that everyone has the right to express their ideas and criticize freely. A democratic system will begin in the schools. We have given teachers and students training in the workings of democracy, and we have banned the beating of students by their teachers, something which is still permitted by Baghdad.
We also take very seriously the implementation of compulsory education and the eradication of illiteracy, as insurance for the future of democracy in Iraq. We insist that boys and girls be treated equally in our schools. In addition to summer school training courses, we have also sought to increase the general health and well-roundedness of our students, so we have implemented physical education, scouting camps for both boys and girls, and arts and sports festivals.