Spotlight on Leyla Zana

Leyla Zana, the first Kurdish woman ever elected to the Turkish National Assembly.

Leyla Zana is the first Kurdish woman to be elected to the Turkish National Assembly. Born a Kurdish peasant and married at 15, she became an activist for Kurdish rights and women's rights. Later, as political prisoner, Zana was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize and her cause was adopted by human rights organizations. 

Guest blogger Heidi Basch-Harod writes about Leyla Zana's incredible life and her continuing efforts to expand women's rights and Kurdish rights in Turkey. More after the jump. 

When Leyla Zana turned 15, her father married her off to a cousin twenty years her senior. Like most rural Kurdish women in the 1970s, Leyla Zana was illiterate: after a year and a half of formal education at the age of seven, her father decided his daughter’s education was not worthwhile. When she married her cousin Mehdi Zana, she knew that her life would be defined by the needs of her husband and the children she was expected to bring into the world.

But from a young age, Leyla Zana — the first Kurdish woman elected to the Turkish National Assembly (TBMM) — possessed a strong sense of self, concepts of right and wrong, and justice. She could never fully accept the fate that Turkish society determined for her as a Kurd, or that conservative Kurdish society imposed on her as a woman. Her life’s work would be to fight for basic human rights for her people, and against patriarchal and misogynistic practices inherent in Turkish and Kurdish society.  

Leyla and Mehdi relocated to Diyarbakir, Turkey, where Mehdi pursued his political career and a platform for equal rights for the Kurdish citizens of Turkey. Removed from her family and familiar surroundings, uneducated and unable to speak Turkish (the only officially recognized language in Turkey), Leyla had to adapt to a new urban environment. The first five years of her marriage were exactly as she expected: she was controlled by her husband, whose every whim she was meant to anticipate and carry out. At 16, Leyla gave birth to her son; one year later in 1976, Mehdi became the mayor of Diyarbakir.

In 1980, a military coup rocked the Turkish state, ushering in an era of severe repression of all dissenting factions — particularly the proponents of the nascent Kurdish ethno-national movement. Mehdi Zana was accused of treason and separatism and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Leyla could either return home or fight for her husband's freedom; in choosing the latter, she changed the course of her life.

Leyla Zana says, for the first two decades of her life she understood that her Kurdish identity was not something to be proud of and that, as a Kurdish woman, her place in society and in her home, was one of unquestioning subservience. She followed her husband from prison to prison, joining and later leading a campaign for his freedom and that of dozens of other Kurdish political prisoners. She learned to read, write and speak Turkish, she gave speeches, and began to organize Kurds for their political cause. By the mid-1980s, she became active in promoting Kurdish linguistic, civil and political rights, and edited a leftist Kurdish newspaper, Yeni Ulke. She also campaigned for women's rights and co-established a women's group with branches in Diyarbakir and Istanbul.

By 1988, the Turkish authorities viewed Leyla Zana as an enemy of the state. After a demonstration outside Mehdi’s prison, she was arrested, tortured and sexually abused while in custody. Between 1988 and 1991, she received death threats and numerous attempts on her life. Yet, the more the Turkish government tried to stifle her activities, the more Leyla resolved to pursue her political goals. By 1991, Leyla Zana successfully ran for a seat in the Turkish Parliament, receiving 84 percent of her constituency's vote.

From her first day in office, Leyla Zana continued to defy status quo, as a Kurd and as a woman. When she took her oath to office, she concluded the ceremony with a sentence in Kurdish, which had been illegal in Turkey until April 1991 — only six months before her election. Outraged by the fact that she spoke Kurdish and wore the Kurdish colors (red, green and yellow) in her hair, her opponents began a three-year campaign to push her out of parliament and have her imprisoned.

During those years — at the height of the conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — Leyla Zana toured Europe and the US, raising awareness of human rights violations perpetrated by the Turkish state against Kurds, such as extra-judicial killings, political imprisonment, and detentions without trial. She campaigned for Kurdish linguistic rights to speak and educate children in Kurdish. At the same time, she fought for the basic human rights of women and girls in Turkey, campaigning against honor killings, child marriages and bride exchanges.

By 1994, Leyla Zana had become an international champion of Kurdish rights, and a role model to the thousands of Kurdish women who were also beginning to find their voice through the burgeoning Kurdish ethnonationalist movement in Turkey. In the same year, her enemies succeeded in removing her from parliament, which rescinded her immunity, and made it possible for the Turkish Constitutional Court to sentence her to fifteen years in prison.

While in prison, Leyla Zana received numerous human rights awards, three nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize, and Amnesty International adopted her cause. She was released early, in 2004. Wasting no time, she quickly helped to found another pro-Kurdish political party in Turkey, and has remained active in the Kurdish struggle since her release. In the 2011 Turkish national elections, Leyla Zana was elected to the TBMM as an independent candidate. She continues her campaign for Kurdish rights, and insists that only a democratic society in which men and women are equal can be truly strong and free.  

Heidi Basch-Harod is on the Editorial Board of Diwaniyya. She is also a graduate student in Middle Eastern history at Tel Aviv University, and the Project Development Manager at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. She is the author of "The Right to Choose: The Women of Al-Qa'ida," which appeared in Tel Aviv Notes (Feb. 9, 2012).

Shoshi Shmuluvitz

Diwaniyya Contributor