Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Moral Courage of an Ahwazi Arab Boy

It was not a normal school day for Ahwazi Arab schoolboy Abbas Haidari. Dressed in traditional Arab clothing, common throughout the Arabian Gulf, seven year old Abbas made his way to school in Ahwaz and stepped into a controversy that challenged endemic anti-Arab racism in Iran.

Wearing traditional Arabic clothing at school or in the office is effectively banned in Iran, a country where racial hatred of Arabs runs deep. For an Arab to "assimilate", even though they are indigenous to Ahwaz, he or she has to deny their traditions and heritage, although this is often insufficient to counter discrimination.

But a schoolboy decided to take a stand, proudly wearing the Arabic dishdasha and keffiyeh that made him stand out in a sea of blue uniforms as he queued for his class at Shahrak-Ahwaz. The brave yet peaceful act of defiance against a racist regime prompted the authorities to ban him from school.

As a result, Abbas has become a folk hero for many Ahwazi Arabs, prompting many to question and openly challenge social customs that effectively ban traditional costume. He takes inspiration from his mother, whose Arabic poem "Silent Divan" was published earlier in the year to wide acclaim within the Ahwazi Arab community.

While Article 15 of the Iranian constitution guarantees education in the mother tongue, there are no Arabic language schools in the Ahwaz region, ensuring that Arabs are second-class citizens in their own land. Arab students are often humiliated and abused at school, including being whipped in front of their schoolmates. Successive administrations have courted Ahwazi Arab support by pledging to implement the constitution, but there has been no effort to address the issue. This failure means that Arabs are often illiterate in their native tongue, yet struggle to learn in Persian, a language that is not their own.

Some educated Ahwazi Arabs have attempted to help impoverished youths learn Arabic through informal study groups, but this has proven dangerous with several Arabic teachers facing imprisonment and even execution. They includemembers of the Arabic civic group, Al-Hewar (Dialogue), who face imminent execution (click for more information). Independent organisations seeking to celebrate Arabic culture are deemed "separatist" by the regime and banned.

Resulting low educational attainment is reinforcing discrimination and contributing to high levels of unemployment and poverty among the indigenous Ahwazi Arabs. Acts of defiance and civil disobedience, such as Abbas' decision to wear Arabic dress to school, are increasingly seen as the only means to assert ethnic rights and challenge racial discrimination..

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