MESOP PORTRAIT : Leyla Zana: Woman, Kurd, & an Optimist

By Aysegul Sert — The NY Times 

At 51, she is petite yet powerful. Arriving at a cafe in a crowded shopping mall, she sits only after her brother has checked out the locale. Generally reluctant to speak to journalists, Leyla Zana has come by caution the hard way but has lost none of her determination to fight for the rights of Kurds, and of women.

Born in the province of Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey in 1961, she dropped out of elementary school because she could not understand the language of instruction — Turkish — and was forbidden to speak her own. Married at 14 to Mehdi Zana, a political Kurd some 20 years her senior who became mayor of Diyarbakir and spent 16 years in jail after the 1980 military coup, she found herself thesingle mother of two children. Learning Turkish with them as they were schooled, she also found her political voice — and went on to become, in 1991, the first Kurdish woman elected to the Turkish Parliament. There, she famously infuriated nationalists by wearing a headband of yellow, red and green — the Kurdish colors — and, amid loud whistles, recited the formal oath in Turkish, adding at the end a sentence in Kurdish calling for brotherhood between Turks and Kurds. It was the first time that Kurdish had been spoken inside Parliament.

Viewed against that history, today’s Turkey has come a long way. The use of Kurdish in public is legal now and is slowly expanding to some instruction and possibly to courts, along with radio and television broadcasts by TRT, the national public broadcaster.

Last year, Ms. Zana paid a once inconceivable visit — to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Just weeks earlier, she had said that Mr. Erdogan could solve the Kurdish issue, a statement that drew fierce criticism from foes and even friends who saw her as naïve.

“When criticizing, you should offer an alternative, and they haven’t,” is her response to critics. “In Turkey today, the death tolls on both sides hurt society as a whole. The funds of this country, billions of dollars, are spent on this conflict. The necessary condition is set for the Kurdish question to be solved; this opportunity should not be wasted.”

“I always tried to be the voice of the silenced,” she said at another point in a spirited 45-minute conversation. “Yes, the struggle has yielded results. This is good, but not enough. Turks newly begin to understand Kurds. I have faith in Turks and Kurds. We have many more hardships to face. Each system is the mirror of a society. If people are still imprisoned in this country because of their views and identity, it shows the level of development and democracy.”

Indeed, many Kurdish activists are in pretrial detention as part of a continuing terrorism case winding through the courts.

Ms. Zana’s political career was interrupted in 1994 when her party was shut down by the government and her immunity lifted; she was sentenced along with other deputies on several counts, including separatism and collaborating with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK She spent 10 years in jail. While incarcerated, she won the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament in 1995.

“Prison may have captured me physically, but never mentally,” she said. Like many revolutionaries in history, she used it to improve her mind. “I read tremendously while incarcerated; I educated and questioned myself a lot.”

She traces her activism back to the military-ruled Turkey of the 1980s — “I saw oppression. I saw brutality. I had to do something against that injustice,” she said, recalling in particular an old woman hurled to the ground by an officer for speaking Kurdish as prisoners’ wives waited hours for a glimpse of their loved ones.

Demographers estimate that Kurds, who are a sizable minority also in Iraq, Syria and Iran, amount to about 15 million of Turkey’s 75 million people. “Kurds want to have a status,” Ms. Zana said. “What kind of governance and autonomy they choose is up to them, but first and foremost they want to have their identity recognized and their rights respected.”

For 25 years, Ms. Zana knew Sakine Cansiz, one of three Kurdish female activists shot and killed in Paris last month. Ignoring doctors’ orders not to fly because of ear problems, Ms. Zana went to France, lauding Ms. Cansiz, a co-founder of the PKK, as “a pioneer” and an “enlightened Kurdish woman.”

Ms. Zana’s differences over the years with the PKK and its armed struggle are subjects on which she remains reticent during this meeting. The killings of Ms. Cansiz and the two other women have raised questions about divisions amongst Kurds and amongst Turks over the Turkish government’s move to accept the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in talks on ending the Kurdish conflict. In the current Middle East turmoil, can Kurds resolve their fate? “A new process has begun in the Middle East, proving dictatorial regimes can no longer be accepted,” Ms. Zana replied. “I think what we see is an overall resistance to injustice,” a larger struggle that should help, not hinder, the Kurds. “Kurds will be free one day,” she said. “I don’t know if I will get to see it, but I do know that when I leave this world, I will do so with a clear conscience, for I have done my very best.”

And women? She sighed, but noted “a social awakening.”

“Today, women in Turkey rush to the streets and make their voices heard,” she said. “In the past, they were shouting to exist as human beings; now they shout to express their ideas and ideals. We have overcome many difficulties. The view was: If you are a man, you have value; if you are a woman, you don’t. This narrow-mindedness had to be shattered. A woman is equal to a man. However, in this change of balances, men should not be enslaved while women find their freedom. The goal is to walk shoulder to shoulder together.”