Semra Güzel has become the next in a long line of Kurdish women who have been jailed by the Turkish state for their involvement in the Kurdish political struggle for justice and equality. Leyla Zana was the first, in the early 1990s, jailed after she spoke Kurdish when she took her parliamentary oath, wearing a hairband in the Kurdish colours: green, red and yellow. While she was deservedly awarded the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament in 1995, the women who followed in her footsteps receive nothing but a deafening silence from Europe.
The Kurdish women who spend time in Turkish jails as political prisoners are rarely charged with actual crimes, and instead are held for months and even years in pre-trial detention and eventually hit with political charges such as ‘making terrorist propaganda’. Also in that regard, Zana serves as a prime example. She spoke her mother tongue in what is supposed to be the assembly of the people. Other parliamentarians exploded with anger before she even started taking her oath, because when she bowed her head to read, her hairband became visible – for those who don’t know Turkish and Kurdish: she takes the full oath in Turkish here, only adding a sentence in Kurdish about the brotherhood of Kurds and Turks.
At the time, there were only seven women in the Turkish parliament. Zana was the first Kurdish woman ever to become an MP in Turkey. She had been married off at a young age having only gone to school for two years, and completed her education as an adult. Surely this background played a role in her being awarded the Sakharov Prize, together with her bravery and the fact that the state locked her up for a non-crime. When she was sentenced, she said: “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 brotherhood between peoples and I’ll keep doing so for as long as I live.”
Currently, 101 women are elected members of the Turkish parliament. Semra Güzel is one of them. She was robbed of her parliamentary immunity earlier this year after a photo emerged of her with a PKK fighter. The photo had been taken in 2014, long before she became an MP and during the peace process between the PKK and the state, when visits by family and friends of fighters in the mountains were tolerated. Read a previous column about that here.
Güzel, born in 1984, is of a different generation than Leyla Zana, who was born in 1961. She was a medical doctor before she was elected to the HDP. You could say that she reaped the fruit of the activist politics of Leyla Zana, and of other female politicians who were born in the 1960s and who have meant so incredibly much for the liberation of Kurdish women. Gültan Kışanak (1961) for example, a journalist, a former co-chair of the HDP, a former MP and co-mayor of Diyarbakır, who is in jail. Or Leyla Güven (1964), also an MP robbed of her parliamentary immunity and thrown in jail, where she currently still is. Or Aysel Tuğluk (1965), who has been jailed for years and was diagnosed with dementia last year but who has still not been released.
The position of Kurdish women in society has changed tremendously since the early and mid 1990s. This is due to these active women (and let’s not rule out the male contribution either), and due to ideology. In Zana’s early days as a politician, women were not yet on the forefront of the struggle, and the struggle wasn’t yet feminist to the core, as it is now. What Zana said when she was convicted rings even more true today, and any of the women I just mentioned could say exactly the same words now: “I have defended democracy, human rights and brotherhood between peoples and I’ll keep doing so for as long as I live.”
In 1995, Leyla Zana couldn’t collect the Sakharov Prize because Turkey kept her behind bars. She eventually collected it in Brussels in 2004, after her release. At the time, there was optimism in the European Parliament about progress towards democracy in Turkey. This optimism has not materialized in any way. In the years since, Europe has maneuvered itself into a Turkish chokehold though, not daring to stand up to Erdoğan’s particular kind of fascism out of fear that Turkey will open the border for refugees to cross into Europe and block NATO accession of Sweden and Finland. On top of that is the fear that Europe is supporting terrorism: Turkey is, after all, using the terrorism legislation against Kurdish MPs, accusing them of PKK membership, and the EU has put the PKK on its list of terrorist organisations.
Kurdish women have, despite all the repression against them, stuck to their humanitarian and non-violent values. Would Europe dare to award a collective Sakharov Prize to them now?
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her acclaimed weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan.