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TURKEY : Leyla Zana, the only Kurdish woman MP

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Leyla Zana in her MP flatI was born in May 1961 in the village of Silvan near Diyarbakir. My father was a minor employee with the water distribution authority who had six children, five daughters and a son. I started primary school at an early age but my father, a traditional and conservative man, later forced me to give up my studies and although I didn’t want to stop I could not go against his will. When I was 14 years old my father decided to marry me off to my 35 year old cousin Mehdi. I did not remember Mehdi although I was told I had met him earlier when he visited my village campaigning for his party (the Communist Party of Turkey). Mehdi had been arrested in 1971 and spent three years in prison. On his release his mother asked for my hand for her son, and my father agreesd.

I was distressed but despite my objections he gave me to Mehdi. I did not choose my husband and I knew that my life from then on would be a difficult one. We were so different, I was a child, he was a mature man, working as a tailor, even so at the beginning of 1975 we were married.

Q: Your husband became the leader of one of Turkey’s Kurdish nationalist organisations, what did you think of his political activities?

At the time we were married there was no Kurdish nationalist movement. The militants of that generation were communist. All my family were very traditional therefore I was anti-communist, as they were.

Q: So what happened?

Mehdi Zana with childrenA: I began to change gradually. I had been living in a small world, suddenly I was transported to a far bigger one. When I married Mehdi I was full of contradictions; until then I had no say in choosing my own life, somebody else had done the choosing for me. For the next five years it was the same, it was still not my own life, it was controlled by Mehdi. I was somebody to please Mehdi.

In 1980 Mehdi was arrested and sentenced to 35 years in prison, where he eventually spent the next ten years. I was just 20 years old, I had a small son and I was pregnant. For the first year after his arrest I didn’t stop crying, I didn’t know how I was going to survive, my family was not rich, I was not financially independent, the situation seemed hopeless.

When I went to visit Mehdi, at the gate of the prison I met many very different people. Little by little I began to change, to question my own identity and to wonder exactly who I was. Until then I had no interest in the fact that I was a Kurd. The ideal was to be a Turk. The Turks were openly saying “the Kurds are bullshit” or “the Kurds have tails” (like the animals), and we put up with it, it was the official ideology, to be a Kurd was a disgrace. I remember being taken to Diyarbakir’s by my mother when I was just a small girl. She was wearing her Kurdish peasant clothes and I was aware that because of who we were we were badly taken care of. It is one of my earliest memories.

Q: Were you influenced politically by Mehdi?

A: Not directly. Until 1980 the politicians of Mehdi’s generation did not mix their family life with their political life; afterwards that changed.

A gradual change

Q: You say you began to change gradually, in what way?

A: Well, for example the issue of torture. I had known it was going on since 1979 but when Mehdi was imprisoned they began to torture him and his friends, I saw it as a personal thing then. I began reading political books... I didn’t understand all the words. For six months I was not allowed to see Mehdi, during this time they were torturing him and beating him. Every week I would go to the prison to see him to be told “no visit”. About that time I began reading the books.

The first one, I remember, was “The Partisan’s daughter”. In those days I did not speak Turkish well and could not understand all the words, it was difficult reading. After that I read “The Red Stones”, a book on the history of the Chinese communist party. It told the story of communists against the system, there were fascists and there were heroes who were thrown into jail, I compared it to pour own, the Kurdish, situation. By 1984 I had begun taking part in political activities. I went on various demonstrations and took strike action in front of the prison.

Q: How did it feel to be activly involved?

A: It was tremendous. I had changed, become different, I had an identity. It was terrific. in 1984 I was able to tell  myself, “Here I am. I do exist”. There continued to be conflict between Mehdi and myself. He wanted me to be politically involved, to do things but for him. He was not happy when I did something for me.

Q: Was this sort of behaviour typical?

A: Everywhere in the world women are ill treated by men but amongst the Kurds it is esoecially bad. A woman is not even treated as a servant, she is a thing, almost an animal. At home, for example, my father slept from the morning through to the evening when he would wake, eat and go out to see his friends to chat with them. Meanwhile, my mother spent the whole day working, taking care of the animals. When she returned home in the evening to prepare food and take care of the family he would regularly beat her. He believed she should do everything he wanted, just like a slave.

For the first 12 years of their married life my mother did not bear children. Then she had four daughters, in quick succession. Nobody talked to her, especially my father’s family. If one of my little sisters would awake and cry in the night and disturb my father, he would take my mother and the child and throw them outside, whatever the weather. She would stay there until she felt he was asleep and it was safe to creep back inside.

For a Kurd the birth of a girl is nothing. Not long ago my father visited me and said: “I want your brother to marry”. When I asked him why he told me it was because he wanted a grandson in case one day we succeed and there is a free Kurdistan. I replied: “But you already have a grandson, my son”. “No”, my father replied, “your son is not interesting he does not carry my name”. I am fond of my father, even though when he comes back home he brings with him the violence he sees outside, the violence of the gendarmes and of the policemen.

Q: Have you ever discussed these things with your mother?

A: No, we saw her very little. When we were younger she was working all day and now she is in very poor physical condition. My mother is like a very old woman.

Q: Did your feelings of personal change continue?

A: Yes, gradually until in 1988 I was arrested. The change had been little by little until then when everything became clear. I was kept in custody for seven days during which time I was interrogated and after that I spent a further 50 days in jail.

Q: Why were you arrested?

A: I had gone to visit Mehdi. There were a lot of people in front of the jail. It was July and quite hot. Many of the women there were with babies and young children, there were also old women. There was no water and everybody was very uncomfortable, especially the young and the elderly. They took us in a garden where it was announced that we would not be allowed to see the prisoners. Then, on the other side of the wall we heard them beating the men we had come to see. We just revolted, we began shouting and throwing stones. I was arrested with another 83 people. A soldier said that I had tried to take his gun and finally I was accused of inciting people to revolt.

The issue of torture

Q: What was the experience of prison like?

The first seven days in custody were terrible. They subjected me to all kinds of torture. I was blindfolded and led to the interrogation room where I was stripped completely naked by a number of interrogators, all men. They hit me, I collapsed and they splashed me with cold water to bring me round. After that they gave me back my clothes and took me back to my cells. They also tortured me with electricity.

Q: Where?

A: On the sexual... (Leyla Zana, who until this point had remained smiling through the interview, became distressed and was obviously about to burst into tears. Although she did not say it, friends of her revealed that she had been stripped and paraded nake in front of male prisoners held in the same jail. For the young peasant woman from Silwan, it was too much). Still today I have nightmares about those days.

Q: Who were you with in prison?

A: I was sharing a cell with common prisoners, thieves, prostitutes and drug addicts but eventually they became friends. We cooked together, we ate and slept together, all kinds of people in the same situation. It was about that time that I began to be a political activist, and when I learned there were Kurdish women fighting with guns I was moved to action. This changes everything, I told myseld, a woman is also a human being.

Q: Why did you decide to become a member of parliament?

A: It was not me who decided. All through my life it has not been me who has decided. It was the people who wanted it.

Q: You could have refused, couldn’t you?

A: Not really when people were telling me that doing so would be to run away from my responsabilities. I have never accepted the idea that I should be a slave, be passive. When I was only nine years old I attacked my 45 year old uncle for beating my aunt. I have always been a combatant.

Q: It did not show when you were following your husband quite obediently in the late 1970s, did it?

A: I was in the middle of those contradictions I spoke about. When I was a young married woman I felt I ought to please Mehdi. I was not brave enough to scream and shout, the age difference was too big. But inside myself I was screaming and shouting as I have always been.

Q: Despite or perhaps because of your earlier struggles you became a member of the Turkish parliament. How many women deputies are there in the parliament?

A: There are eight of which I am the only Kurd and the first even Kurdish woman deputy. I was elected on 20 October 1991 with 45.000 votes.

Q: How did you feel when you knew you had been elected?

A: I never imagined I could lose.

Q: Which solution do you advocate for the Kurdish problem?

With 20 friends from the SHP (social democratic party) I prepared a report, a statement that we submitted to the leader of parliament, Erdal Inonu. In short the statement said the State should accept our Kurdish identity. The State gave us a lot of hope but at the same time began massacring the Kurdish people they had implied they would try to help.

The first day, when taking the oath, I spoke a sentence in the Kurdish language, translated it means: “Myself, I accept this constitutional ceremony in the name of the fraternity between the Turkish and Kurdish peoples”. It created a scandal. The ceremony was broadcast live by television.  All the deputies yelled out comments like: “We have a terrorist in the parliament”. “Dirty Kurd”, and “Get out, this is not your place”. The next day they forced me to resign from the SHP. Since then I have not spoken in the parliament.

I tried to give press interviews about the situation. Although the Turks had spoken of achieving fraternity, clearly it was not what they really wanted. As a result I was treated as a second rate citizen. I said that if we were brothers we should be equals. I was threatened and I was also told that unless I worked within the system and did as I was told then I would have no future in the Turkish parliament.

Q: Will you run for the next parliament?

A: I no longer believe in the Turkish parliament. Its role is to cover up the action of the State, to conceal the misdeeds of the army and the police. The people who take the decisions in Turkey are the members of the national security council. Members of parliament are like notaries, they merely register the decisions. In fact, it is against everything I believe in, I do not have a voice. No, I will not run again.

(The Middle East magazine, October 1993;  L’Evènement, 24 mars 1994)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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