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Leyla Zana: A Pioneer in the Kurdish Women's Political Struggle

This blog entry is part of the series "Gendered Aspects of Peace and War in Turkey".

Published onOct 25, 2022
Leyla Zana: A Pioneer in the Kurdish Women's Political Struggle
key-enterThis Pub is a Translation of

Leyla Zana: A Pioneer in the Kurdish Women's Political Struggle


 Translated by: Meral Camcı

“There are women in all walks of life. It is the woman who carries the burden and pain of life. Why shouldn't she decide her own future? Why should their will be determined by others? If women don't come here, I won't talk.”[1]

Leyla Zana said this when she saw only men at her rally in Diyarbakır's Dicle district. The men who came to the rally dispersed and called the women, then Zana gave her speech.

After 30 years, today Kurdish women are leading the political and social struggle. Today, women make up the majority of those occupying the rallies.

Zana's is the epitome of a story to understand the social and political mobilization of Kurdish women. This mobilization strengthened in the 1990s and transcended the national cause. In the words of Kışanak, “Leyla Zana, with the green, red and yellow ribbon she wears on her head, represents Kurdish women who have become politicized with her address in Kurdish.” Zana's life symbolizes the struggle for existence of the Kurdish identity on the one hand and the women's struggle for freedom on the other. Today, the Kurdish Women's Movement (KWM) has become both a decisive part of the national cause and a strong women's movement that transcends borders.

Mehdi Zana’s Influence

Gender inequality and injustice were on the agenda of Zana's childhood, like every other Kurdish woman. Her father married her when she was fourteen, and a year later she was a child with a child.[2]

However, Zana's relationship with politics started with her marriage. While she was still in her wedding gown, the police were at their door and they took her husband to the police station..[3] Then, Mehdi Zana was just released from prison four years later. He had been arrested for political reasons in 1971.

Mehdi Zana was one of the founders of the Workers' Party of Turkey in Silvan. In 1967, the first Eastern Meeting was held in Silvan and he was one of the pioneers. He also took part in the establishment of the Revolutionary East Cultural Centers in 1969. Silvan was one of the important centers of mainstream Kurdish politics and the left, and Kurdish identity and language dominated daily life. This affected Leyla Zana like everyone else.[4]

When Mehdi Zana became the mayor of Diyarbakır in 1977, Leyla Zana became more involved in politics. However, after the arrest of her husband in the 1980 coup, she recognized politics and the state at the prison gates, in the corridors of the courthouses and in front of the meeting rooms of the prisons. Mehdi Zana remained in prison until 1991.

“A Sister: Leyla”

Leyla Zana was arrested for the first time in 1988 for leading the revolt of the captive families. She was arrested after seven days of torture and spent two months in prison.[5] What happened in front of the prison doors and in the corridors of the courthouses paved the way for her to become politicized like many Kurdish women [6] and this allowed her to break free from her husband's shadow and become an independent personality. Refusing to run for mayor of Diyarbakır symbolically represents this change. In 1989, leaders of different political views wanted to nominate her. But she did not want to be her husband's caliph.[7]

Zana was a young woman and mother of two when she received her primary school diploma. She learned Turkish in these years. She finished middle school and high through distant education. After seven years spent at the prison gates with two children and poverty, Zana started political and social work at the Human Rights Association (HRA). A year later, she started journalism in Yeni Ülke newspaper alongside her work at HRA. She joined the Patriotic Women's Association, the first women's organization, in 1991.[8] Zana was now popularly known as “Sister Leyla”.[9]


People Labor’s Party (PLP) and The Parliament

The establishment of the People's Labor Party in 1990 marked a new turning point for Zana. She was the only woman on the PLP list in the 1991 elections and was elected first in Diyarbakır. Zana became the first Kurdish woman elected to the Turkish parliament at the age of 30. At that time, the women's movement was not immanent in the PLP and only 2-3 women were working in the party centre.[10] Besides women, she also represented Kurdish peasants and the poor who led the national struggle. In her own words, she was a nontribal, propertyless, non-party woman.[11]

She became the symbol of the Kurdish cause at the oath-taking ceremony. After Hatip Dicle said, “We are reading this article under the pressure of the constitution,” there was a great uproar in the parliament. In such an environment, Zana, with a green, red and yellow ribbon on her head, took the podium and took the oath in her broken Turkish and said the following words in Kurdish: “I read this oath for the Turkish-Kurdish fraternity.” This was the first time a deputy spoke in Kurdish in the color of the Kurds at the parliamentary rostrum. The oath ceremony had an earthquake effect in Turkish politics. As a young woman, Zana became a symbol of resistance to Kurdish language and identity.[12]


The 1990s was a new era for Kurdish politics. The Kurdish opposition turned into a mass movement and demands for a political solution to the Kurdish question increased. “We recognize the Kurdish reality,” Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel said in Diyarbakır. Some linguistic and cultural reforms were also made. In these years, the Istanbul Kurdish Institute and the Mesopotamia Cultural Center were opened, and the Kurdish newspaper Welat was published. On the one hand, while wars and conflicts were increasing, on the other hand, the legalization of the Kurdish objection was strengthened. The establishment of Kurdish legal parties became accomplishable through this wave. There has also been a fundamental change in the geopolitical conditions of the Kurdish issue. After the Gulf War, the Iraqi Kurds de facto established an autonomous administration, and the Kurdish cause resonated internationally.

Zana was arrested on March 3, 1993, along with Hatip Dicle, Orhan Doğan, Ahmet Türk, Mahmut Alinak, and Sırrı Sakık. Following People’s Labor Party (PLP), its successor Democracy Party (DEP) was also shut down after for months, deputies Selim Sadak and Sedat Yurttaş were also arrested.

In the 1990s, wars and clashes between the PKK and the Turkish army escalated and thousands of people lost their lives each year. 4,105 people died in 1994 alone.[13] Activists, journalists, intellectuals and Kurdish businessmen, including PLP-DEP executives and deputies, were killed. In Diyarbakir, Musa Anter and in Batman Deputy Mehmet Sincar were killed in the middle of the street. During Mehmet Sincar's mourning, Zana's house was bombed.

On the one hand, Zana served as a parliamentarian as an activist, on the other hand, she became the voice of the Kurds in the international arena through diplomatic work. European countries, America and Canada were the main areas of diplomatic activity. Segolene Royal, as the representative of Danielle Mitterrand, was with her until the last hours when she was arrested. She had spoken to D. Mitterrand on the phone that very same day.[14]


Ten Years in Prison: An International Symbol of the Kurdish Cause

Zana's arrest increased her reputation both among the Kurds and internationally. She continued her work in prison. With her writings and letters, she carried on her efforts to raise the voice of the Kurdish cause in the international arena. Her article titled “Judgement for Kurdishness” was published in the Washington Post and later in other countries..[15] Before Turkey was accepted as a candidate country in 1999, she sent a letter to all European heads of state, calling for them to pave the way for Turkey's membership to the European Union (EU).[16] She sent letters addressed to heads of parliament and states or international organizations until her release.[17]

Zana's work has influenced foreign politicians and lawmakers, as well as institutions and organizations. Ulucanlar Prison has been a frequent destination for deputies, politicians and international delegations. The Council of Europe and the EU were calling on Turkey to release Zana and her friends. These calls were made by figures such as Danielle Mitterrand, Claduia Roth and Nobel Peace Prize laurate Shirin Ebadi. One of Leyla Zana's lawyers at the European Court of Human Rights was the former foreign minister of France, Roland Dumas.[18]

Zana was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times in 1995, 1998 and 2009. In addition, she has received many international awards.[19] The European Parliament awarded her the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Expression in 1995. Zana received her award after her release. With her speech, Kurdish language was used for the first time in the European Parliament.[20] In addition, the municipalities of Paris and Rome recognized her as an honorary citizen.[21]

Zana's diplomatic work also affected domestic politics, and she was more well-known both among the Kurdish people and throughout Turkey. Among the Kurds, it was now accepted as a symbol of the Kurdish cause. In addition to her diplomatic work, she also participated in political discussions with her articles published in Özgür Gündem newspaper..



Zana was released ten years later. Her and other MPs release was featured in international journals such as the New York Times, Financial Times, The Guardian, Independent, Le Monde, Le Figaro and the Berliner Zeitung. The Independentpublished Zana's release with the headline: “Turkey releases Kurdish candidate for Nobel Prize for EU Membership.” The headline of Le Monde was: “The Symbolic Personality of the Kurdish Cause Leyla Zana and her friends have been released.”[22]

With the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP), as the successor of the DEP, the mobilization of Kurdish women has become very strong. With the labor and efforts of Kurdish women, which Zana started as a pioneer, the women's wing was established in 2000 and a 25% women's quota was accepted for the first time in the party.[23] This quota was later increased to 35%, and with the establishment of the Democratic Society Party (DSP) in 2005, the co-presidency system was adopted.[24] Within 15 years, the political and social mobilization of Kurdish women has created a powerful and effective movement. In addition to the party, the representation of women in local administrations has increased and with the 2014 elections, a co-presidency system has been introduced in local administrations.[25]

After Zana and her friends were released, she quickly joined politics. Additionally, she got involved in diplomatic efforts. There was already international interest in her. She especially tried to support Turkey's EU membership. On the other hand, she pioneered the establishment of the DSP and struggled for peace.[26] However, after the establishment of the party, Zana moved away from politics and did not run for the 2007 elections. She had reamed of a larger party with the Turkish social democrats, but according to her, the DSP did not bring anything new..[27]


Return and Silence

Zana re-entered parliament in the 2011 elections. Her work was again aimed at peace both at home and abroad. After the end of the peace process in 2011, despite all objections, she took the initiative and met with then Prime Minister Erdogan.[28] She also worked for internal peace during the 2013-2015 resolution process. She mediated between Öcalan and Barzani and tried to hold the Kurdish National Congress.[29] After the resolution process was terminated, Zana fell into silence again.

When Zana was re-elected in 2015, she started her swearing-in ceremony by saying “hope for an honorable and lasting peace” and after these Kurdish words she said “People of Turkey” instead of “Turkish People” when she took the oath. Therefore, her oath was not accepted. However, Zana refused to take the oath again. For this reason, she was excluded from the parliament and her parliamentary seat was canceled in 2018.

Zana was an independent personality and her relationship with both the mainstream Kurdish movement (MKM) and the Kurdish women's movement (KWM) was always distant. This distance started when she was still in prison..[30] After her release, she did not want to enter politics again. With Öcalan's arrest, international attention disturbed MKM in the first years.[31] In addition, Öcalan also harshly criticized her during the resolution process, and after a long struggle Zana participated in the works, but limited this to the National Congress.[32] This distance and autonomy continued after the termination of the peace process.[33]


Last word

Like most Kurdish women, Zana became politicized in the waves of the social and national cause. She paved a path different from the predecessors and the others and was one of the pioneers of the formation and strengthening of the KWM. Her lead is mainly due to being a role model. In addition to her various representations, she became a role model for uneducated, peasant and poor Kurdish women who both lifted the burden of the national cause and demanded equality and freedom against social oppression.

Her efforts to internationalize the Kurdish issue also strengthened her role-model. However, the context of the 1990s, which paved the way for a political solution to the Kurdish question, facilitated her leadership. Zana played a major role in the massification of the MKM and the mobilization of Kurdish women. Especially thousands of Kurdish women participated in the national and social mobilization under her influence.

Zana was the only Kurdish woman in the parliament in 1991. Today, however, the KWM has transcended the boundaries of national litigation and has become a collective/institutional role model both in Turkey and abroad.


 Faruk Bildirici, Yemin Gecesi: Leyla Zana’nın Yaşam Öyküsü (Oath Night: The Life Story of Leyla Zana ) (İstanbul: Doğan Kitap, 2008), 107.

[2] Yılmaz, “Siyaset ve Kadın Kimliği: Leyla Zana,” (“Politics and Female Identity: Leyla Zana”), 11–12.

[3] Bildirici, Yemin Gecesi: Leyla Zana’nın Yaşam Öyküsü, (Oath Night: The Life Story of Leyla Zana ), 37–38.

[4] Yılmaz, “Siyaset ve Kadın Kimliği: Leyla Zana,” (“Politics and Female Identity: Leyla Zana”), 12–13.

[5] Bildirici, Yemin Gecesi: Leyla Zana’nın Yaşam Öyküsü, (Oath Night: The Life Story of Leyla Zana ), 79–81.

[6] Yılmaz, “Siyaset ve Kadın Kimliği: Leyla Zana,” (“Politics and Female Identity: Leyla Zana”), 14.

[7] Bildirici, Yemin Gecesi: Leyla Zana’nın Yaşam Öyküsü, (Oath Night: The Life Story of Leyla Zana ), 83–84.

[8] Rojda Yıldız, “Legal Kürt Siyasetinin İki ‘Yemini’ (1991-2015) Arasında Bir Kürt Kadın; Leyla Zana,” Kürt Araştırmaları Dergisi, (“A Kurdish Woman Between Two 'Oaths' of Legal Kurdish Politics (1991-2015); Leyla Zana,” Journal of Kurdish Studies), 2020,

[9] Kışanak, Kürt Siyasetinin Mor Rengi, (The Purple Color of Kurdish Politics), 19.

[10] Kışanak, 19–20.

[11] Yılmaz, “Siyaset ve Kadın Kimliği: Leyla Zana,” (“Politics and Female Identity: Leyla Zana”), 59.

[12] See a documentation for the swearing-in ceremony:

[13] Uppsala Universitet, “Turkey: Kurdistan,” Uppsala Conflict Data Program, September 30, 2021,

[14] Bildirici, Yemin Gecesi: Leyla Zana’nın Yaşam Öyküsü, (Oath Night: The Life Story of Leyla Zana ), 123–201.

[15] Cüneyt Arcayürek, Çankaya Muhalefeti (Çankaya Opposition), (Ankara: Bilgi Yayınevi, 2002), 80.

[16] Bildirici, Yemin Gecesi: Leyla Zana’nın Yaşam Öyküsü, (Oath Night: The Life Story of Leyla Zana ), 123–201. 264–66.

[17] Bildirici, 395–430.

[18] Bildirici, 236–37.

[19] T24, “Leyla Zana Ikinci Kez Nobel’e Aday Gösterildi,” (“Leyla Zana Nominated for the Second Time Nobel”), T24, January 19, 2009,,25328.

[20] Evrensel, “Zana’dan Kardeşlik Çağrısı,” ("Fraternity Call from Zana"),  Evrensel, October 14, 2004,

[21] Aljazeera Turk, “Portre: Leyla Zana,” ("Portrait: Leyla Zana"), Aljazeera Turk, May 8, 2014,

[22] NTV/MSNBC, “DEP’lilerin Tahliyesi Batı Basınında,”(" DEP Deputies' Release in the Western Press"), NTV/MSNBC, June 10, 2004,

[23] Kışanak, Kürt Siyasetinin Mor Rengi, (The Purple Color of Kurdish Politics), 20–22.

[24] Handan Çağlayan, Analar, Yoldaşlar, Tanrıçalar: Kürt Kadın Hareketinde Kadınlar ve Kadın Kimliğinin Oluşumu,( Mothers, Comrades, Goddesses: Women in the Kurdish Women's Movement and the Formation of Female Identity), 3rd ed. (İstanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 2012); Kışanak, Kürt Siyasetinin Mor Rengi, (The Purple Color of Kurdish Politics), 17–61.

[25] HDP Kadın Meclisi, Eşit Temsiliyet ve Eşit Katılım Için Eşbaşkanlık (Ankara: Halkların Demokratik Partisi, 2020), 20, (PDP Women's Assembly, Co-Presidency for Equal Representation and Equal Participation (Ankara: Peoples' Democratic Party, 2020), 20,

[26] Gonca Şenay, “1991’den Bugüne: Leyla Zana,” (“From 1991 to Today: Leyla Zana”), Al Jazeera Turk, June 25, 2015,

[27] Bildirici, Yemin Gecesi: Leyla Zana’nın Yaşam Öyküsü, (Oath Night: The Life Story of Leyla Zana), 330–40.

[28] HaberTurk, “Başbakanlık’ta 1.5 Saatlik Görüşme,” (“1.5 Hour Meeting at the Prime Ministry”) HaberTurk, June 30, 2012,

[29] Abdullah Öcalan, Demokratik Kurtuluş ve Özgür Yaşamı İnşa (İmralı Notları) (Democratic Liberation and Building a Free Life (Imrali Notes)), (Düsseldorf: Weşanen Mezopotamya, 2015).

[30] Yılmaz, “Siyaset ve Kadın Kimliği: Leyla Zana,” (“Politics and Female Identity: Leyla Zana”), 32–35.

[31] Bildirici, Yemin Gecesi: Leyla Zana’nın Yaşam Öyküsü, (Oath Night: The Life Story of Leyla Zana ), 292–94.

[32] Öcalan, Demokratik Kurtuluş ve Özgür Yaşamı İnşa (İmralı Notları (Democratic Liberation and Building a Free Life (Imrali Notes)).

[33] Milliyet, “Demirtaş’tan Leyla Zana Açıklaması,” (“Leyla Zana Statement by Demirtaş"), Milliyet, January 22, 2016,

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