Saturday, 1 October 2011

The elegant dissidence of Leyla Zana

Today the Turkish Parliament began its new legislative season for the 24th term with an opening speech by the President Abdullah Gül. The President covered a wide range of issues in his opening speech, ranging from ‘terror to uhhh terror.’ However attention was centred on the oaths to be taken by Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) MPs who had been boycotting Parliament since the election on June 12th. The boycott had begun because six of the elected MPs supported by the Labour, Freedom & Democracy Bloc were not released from prison, one, Hatip Dicle had his MP mandate revoked and mass arrests of BDP members  were ongoing. The reasons for the BDP’s boycott stand, MPs are still imprisoned and arrests continue; 11 in Istanbul last night. So why did the BDP return to Parliament?

I believe the answer is hidden in the oath read out by the Kurdish MP for Diyarbakir Leyla Zana. How? you ask. The oath is a set text and the same as everybody else’s, the same oath was taken by the MPs of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Justice & Development Party (AKP), so how is the answer for the return hidden in the oath? Let me start from the beginning.

Much can be said about Leyla Zana, many ‘radical’ adjectives have often been used to describe her; courageous, crazy, provocateur, militant and many more, both in a positive and negative sense. An adjective that has never been used however is elegant, and I wish to use it now, for the first time: the elegant Leyla Zana. I use this adjective both because of my experience in her presence, but more so because of her humanity, political style, speech, gait and dissidence during her personal and political history through the Kurdish struggle. Leyla Zana is elegant in a way only a Kurdish woman can be elegant; spare in dress, walking with a purpose, her feet firmly on the ground, her gaze timid yet proud, she speaks piece by piece lucid and clear, when she laughs or cries she can make the whole world laugh or cry.

Leyla Zana’s history is also the history of the Kurdish woman, bound up in thousands years of tradition, but also, the modern Kurdish Freedom Movement of the past 50 years as well, which has changed many things. Married against her will at 14 in accordance with tradition to well known Kurdish politician Mehdi Zana in 1975, the young Leyla learnt how to read and write on her journeys to and from prison. The September 12th military coup had imprisoned thousands of Kurdish revolutionaries, politicians and even religious figures and with them the whole of Kurdish society. Leyla Zana was one of many women who came to the vanguard of the Kurdish movement during this period to continue their imprisoned fathers’, brothers’ and husbands’ struggle and become their comrades. It was one of the darkest times in Kurdish history but the resistance against it pierced the darkness that had enveloped society to set the Kurdish struggle on its way to Kurdish freedom.

The intense struggle, resistance and organisation of the 80s reached its pinnacle in the early 90s and the state could no longer ignore the existence of the Kurds as they entered the Turkish parliament for the first time with their identities intact since the formation of the Turkish Republic. Leyla Zana became the first Kurdish woman MP following the 1991 election and it was in that year that she rose to prominence in Kurdish and Turkish politics. She created a scandal when she marched up to and stood at the pulpit with a headband made up of the Kurdish colours; green, red and yellow and spoke Kurdish on the floor of the parliament after being sworn in. Speaking Kurdish in the public arena was then considered a criminal offence in Turkey. Her remarks ended;
I swear by my honour and my dignity before the great Turkish people to protect the integrity and independence of the State, the indivisible unity of the people and homeland, and the unquestionable and unconditional sovereignty of the people. I swear loyalty to the Constitution. I take this oath for the fraternity between the Turkish and Kurdish people.

Only the final sentence of the oath was spoken in Kurdish: ‘‘I take this oath for the fraternity between the Turkish and Kurdish people.’’ Anyone who has seen the footage of this incident will have seen hundreds of Turkish ‘men’ banging their hands on benches to silence Zana and Zana’s defiant eyes and voice rising against the fascist crescendo of sounds. When I asked her a few years ago how she felt that day, Leyla Zana looked at me intently, her eyes moistened, she smiled and then kissed me on the forehead, like a mother kisses her child. I understood how alive the moment still was and how difficult it had been for her.

On that historical day the Turkish parliament were forced by the dissidence of Leyla Zana to acknowledge the existence of the Kurdish language, colours and also woman. Leyla Zana and her comrades paid the price for this by being stripped of their immunity and were sentenced to 15 years in prison for treason and being members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). At the sentencing Zana continued her resistance, looking directly into the eyes of the judge and speaking piece by piece she declared;
This is a conspiracy. What I am defending is perfectly clear. I don’t accept any of these accusations. And, if they were true I’d assume responsibility for them, even if it cost me my life. I have defended democracy, human rights, and fraternity between peoples. And I’ll keep doing so for as long as I live.

Leyla Zana went to prison in 1994 and was released 10 years later. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 and 1998 and awarded the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament in 1995 during that time.

Now in 2011 Zana is back at the Turkish parliament, in her own words ‘more mature and prepared’ and this time to bring about a lasting peace to the Kurdish issue. But the elegant dissidence of Leyla Zana continues; today when taking her oath, dressed smartly in black with matching headband, rather than saying The Great Turkish People,’ Zana said, ‘The Great People of Turkey,’ thus promising that she will represent not just the Turks but also all the other peoples of Turkey as well. This is a different variation of her 1991 oath and also a sign of the change in the Kurdish Movement’s strategic and ideological stance which aims to be the driving force in the democratisation of Turkey as well as freedom of Kurdistan. This is where the answer to our question at the beginning lies. The BDP are back in parliament to continue the democratic struggle in the legal sphere despite all the attacks and marginalisation but also more importantly to gnaw away at all the inconsistencies, injustices and inequalities from within the ‘monster’s stomach.’ With fearless, intelligent, diligent, beautiful and elegant women like Leyla Zana, Sebahat Tuncel and Gültan Kışanak the Kurdish Movement can maintain its revolutionary fervour and continue being the vanguard for a democratic society.

Memed Boran


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1 comment:

  1. Leyla Zana: "I love life and want to hold onto it. But my passion for justice for my tormented people, for their dignity and freedom, must be greater still. For, of what value is a life of slavery, of humiliation and contempt for that which you hold most dear: Your identity! I will therefore not give in to the Turkish Inquisition.