Leyla Zana is known for facing extreme adversity in her life. She was born in 1961, and at 14, she was married to a man 20 years her senior — the mayor of Diyarbakir. In 1980, there was a military coup in Turkey, and Leyla Zana was taken prisoner for her affiliation with the government.
Zana, a single mother of two children, was sentenced and held as a political prisoner for a 16 year jail term. Zana was not able understand Turkish when she was younger (and was forbidden by law to speak the Kurdish language), however, Leyla Zana learned Turkish with her children while held prisoner. It was during this time that she found her political spirit and voice.
First Female Kurdish Politician in Turkey
In 1991, after she had been freed, Leyla Zana was the first Kurdish woman elected to the Turkish parliament. In what may be her most famous act, Leyla Zana swore into the Turkish parliament, reciting the necessary words in Turkish, and adding a Kurdish sentence at the end of the oath. While the Kurdish language had been recently legalized to be spoken in private, it was still illegal in public, and many Turkish parliamentarians were outraged.
In the aftermath, Leyla Zana joined the Democracy Party, a Kurdish political party, which was quickly disbanded and Zana was again jailed, this time on trumped up connections to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which she vehemently denied. This 10 year jail stint lasted from 1994 to 2004, during which she was awarded several prizes and recognized as a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International.
Leyla Zana’s Return to Activism
After her discharge in 2004, Leyla Zana returned to human rights activism, speaking up for the voiceless Kurds in Turkey. In 2011, Leyla Zana was reelected to parliament, and made headlines in 2012, when she met Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss the Kurdish-Turkish peace process.
Leyla Zana has remained vocal on Kurdish women’s rights issues, saying “Today, women in Turkey rush to the streets and make their voices heard. 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.”