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Zana, Leyla

Leyla Zana

BORN: May 3, 1961 • Diyarbakir, Turkey

Turkish human rights activist

Leyla Zana is a Turkish citizen of Kurdish ancestry. Leyla grew up in the village of Silvan near Diyarbakir, a city in southeastern Turkey with a large Kurdish population. Kurds descended from Indo-European people who have inhabited the mountainous regions of southeastern Turkey, northern Iran, northeastern Iraq, and northeastern Syria for at least four thousand years.

"Violence has outlived its time…. The language and method of solution of our age is dialogue, compromise and peace. It is not die and kill, but live and let live."

Turkey has long considered recognition of the Kurdish people and their culture a threat to Turkish unity. The Turkish government fears that any form of official recognition that the Kurds are distinct from the Turkish people would encourage the Kurds to push harder to form a new nation out of Turkish territory. Many Kurds living in Turkey wish to unite with Kurds from Iran, Iraq, and Syria and establish their own country, Kurdistan. Kurds that favor separation from Turkey are called separatists.

Supporting separation has long been considered a crime in Turkey and results in harsh consequences, such as imprisonment. For decades, Kurds living in Turkey have been subjected to human rights violations at the hands of the Turkish government. Violations include prejudice (a negative attitude towards others based on a prejudgment about those individuals with no prior knowledge or experience) and discrimination (treating some people differently than others or favoring one social group over another based on prejudices) in employment and education; continued suppression of freedom of expression in personal speech, in writings, and in media broadcasting; and forced displacement when homes belonging to Kurds are purposely destroyed. Worse yet, imprisonment, torture, unexplained disappearances of family members, and even murder are part of the life of Kurds in Turkey.

Zana has worked since the early 1980s for human rights and recognition of the Kurdish minority in Turkey. She has been a tireless advocate of a peaceful solution to Kurdish-Turkish conflict, referred to in Turkey as the "Kurdish problem." In her struggle for Kurdish rights, Zana has served as an elected representative in the Turkish parliament (government), but was also imprisoned in the Ankara Central Prison for nine years. Having experienced prejudice against women within her own family, Zana has also been a strong voice for women's rights.

Zana's Kurdish Muslim home

Zana was one of six children, five sisters and one brother. As with most Kurds, her family members are Muslims, followers of the Islam religion. In Kurdish Muslim homes, women are treated as servants or mere objects with no rights as human beings. While Zana's mother worked, her father slept much of the day, then would go out in the evening to talk with his friends. Zana's mother had no children for her first twelve years of marriage, then four daughters, one after the other. However, the birth of girls was not important in Kurdish society. Zana remembered if one of her sisters cried in the night her father would throw both mother and baby outside, no matter the weather. They would have to sneak back in once the father had fallen back asleep. Zana resisted and rebelled against the position of Kurdish women in Kurdish society from an early age. When only nine years old, she struck out at her uncle while he was beating her aunt.

Zana's father followed traditional Muslim thinking and practice of limiting his daughters' education, choosing instead to prepare them to be wives and mothers. Even though Zana enjoyed schooling and was a very promising student, her father allowed her only one and a half years of formal education. Zana strenuously objected to leaving school, but she could not go against his will.

The Kurdish People

In the early 2000s, there are between twenty-five and thirty million Kurdish people worldwide. The majority of Kurds live in the four countries of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. They populate approximately 230,000 mountainous square miles of southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, northeastern Iraq, and northeastern Syria. The Kurdish people originated from Indo-European tribes that have inhabited this region for as long as four thousand years. Turkey is home to the largest Kurdish population, 13.5 to 15 million. About 6.5 million Kurds live in Iran, 4 to 5 million in Iraq, and about 1 million in Syria. Several million more live in various Asian countries.

In the seventh century, Arabs conquered the Kurdish people and required them to become followers of the Islam religion. Islam followers are known as Muslims and belong to one of two factions, Shiite or Sunni. Like all Muslims, Kurds also are either Shiite or Sunni. Most are Sunni. Unlike other Muslims, hatred between Shiite Kurds and Sunni Kurds does not exist. Whether they are Shiite or Sunni, they are first and most importantly Kurds, one people.

Kurds are one of the largest ethnic groups without their own country. Most Kurds wish for an independent homeland to be carved from Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. It would take the ancient name of Kurdistan, long used to refer to the area. In the 2000s the lack of a Kurdish homeland is known as the Kurdish problem. Periodic revolts of the Kurds in all four countries occurred throughout the twentieth century. The Kurdish revolts are referred to as separatist movements. The separatist movements have been dealt with severely by the governments in all four countries.

Suppression of Kurds has led to repression in employment, education, politics, and in speaking the Kurdish language. Kurdish political parties are frequently banned and Kurdish leaders imprisoned and tortured. However, the ultimate discrimination and suppression of Kurds occurred in Iraq. During the 1980s, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (1937–2006; see entry) directed genocide against Iraqi Kurds. Genocide is the deliberate destruction, or killing off, of a racial, religious, or cultural group. Entire Kurdish villages were destroyed where Iraqi military were commanded to kill any living thing, human and animal alike. In 1988, lethal chemicals, such as mustard gas and nerve agents that would instantly destroy their lungs by blistering them internally or leaving the person paralyzed, were unleashed on the Kurdish town of Halabja. About twelve thousand people died in three days.

As recalled by Zana in "About Leyla Zana" on the website, she continued to be precocious and rebellious as she grew. As a preteen, she refused to wear the traditional Muslim head scarf. Zana resented strict Muslim rules. At the age of fourteen, Zana's father demanded she marry her cousin, thirty-five-year-old Mehdi. Zana resisted the prospect of marrying, and tells the story of beating her fists against her father when told she must marry Mehdi. However, Muslim daughters must obey their fathers, and Mehdi and Zana were married in 1975.

Marriage to Mehdi

Although Mehdi had little formal education, as a young adult he quickly rose to leadership roles in his community of Silvan and later in nearby Diyarbakir. He joined political groups fighting for the rights of workers. The rebels of that day in Turkey were promoting communism (a political and economic system in which a single political party controls all aspects of citizens' lives and private ownership of property is banned). There was not yet an organized Kurdish rights movement. By the time Mehdi married Zana, he had already served four years in prison, one in 1967 and three from 1971 to 1974, for his rebellious Communist stands against the Turkish government.

Zana's politically conservative family always supported the Turkish government. When she married Mehdi, he introduced her to new ideas. Mehdi became not only Zana's husband and father of her children, but within a few years, her teacher and mentor in political activism. Between 1975 and 1980, Zana's life was controlled by Mehdi though she learned a lot from him during that time. She gave birth to their son Ronay in 1976.

In 1977, by an overwhelming majority, Mehdi was elected mayor of Diyarbakir, a city of 225,000 people. In 1980, after a military coup (takeover) and change of government in the Turkish capital of Ankara, a harsh time of discrimination and oppression of Kurds began. Mehdi, along with thousands of men speaking out for Kurdish rights, was arrested and imprisoned. He was sentenced to thirty-five years and spent the next eleven years in prison. His only crime was standing up for the Kurdish people and for speaking the Kurdish language in public. Speaking Kurdish was banned in Turkey until 2002.

Wife of a political prisoner

With Mehdi's sentencing, Zana, pregnant with their daughter Ruken, felt powerless. She had little idea how to support her young family. Ronay was just five years old. Each week of that first year without Mehdi, Zana went to the prison to visit him. Many days when she went to visit Mehdi, she was not allowed to see him. She realized that he and other prisoners were being brutally tortured.

At the prison she met a wide array of people—relatives and friends of other prisoners—and learned more and more about the political turmoil building in her region. It was apparent to her that many, like her husband, were political prisoners held because of their activism rather than any wrongdoing. Zana learned more of the prejudice and discrimination against her Kurdish people. She recalled as a child going into Diyarbakir with her mother and being poorly treated because their Kurdish peasant clothing marked them as Kurds.

With Mehdi's encouragement, Zana began to read and study. Reading was difficult because the books she chose were written in the Turkish language and she spoke Kurdish. Zana recalled struggling through many books, but little by little she became proficient in Turkish. One book she read was about the history of the Chinese Communist Party. The Communists were fighting against the traditional Chinese leaders and were often imprisoned. Zana compared the situation of the imprisoned Kurdish leaders to the situations she read about in books. Zana received a secondary school (a school equivalent to high school) diploma in Diyarbakir without ever attending classes.

Political activist

By 1984, Zana had become a political activist like her husband. She was confident enough to not only think, but act, on her own. The movement for Kurdish civil rights and, more radically, Kurdish separation from Turkey was growing. Zana participated in demonstrations for Kurdish rights outside the prison where Mehdi was held. For the first time, Zana experienced the feeling of power and self-worth as a person. As Zana grew in her knowledge of Kurdish issues, the Kurdish separatist or liberation movement intensified.

Zana championed increased rights for women in the Kurdish community. She organized women's activist groups that established offices not only in Diyarbakir, but also in Istanbul. She became a spokeswoman for women whose Kurdish husbands were wrongfully imprisoned. Zana worked for human rights groups in Diyarbakir and also became an editor of a Diyarbakir newspaper, Yeni Ulke.

A 1988 arrest

In 1988, Zana was arrested and spent fifty-seven days imprisoned. She had come to visit Mehdi on a hot July day. Many other women and mothers with small babies were waiting to visit their husbands. When the women could hear their husbands being beaten on the other side of the wall, they revolted, shouting and throwing rocks at prison guards. Eighty-three were arrested, including Zana, who was accused of inciting (starting) the riot. As Zana relates in "Turkey: Leyla Zana, the only Kurdish Woman MP" at website, during her nearly two months of imprisonment, a period she has continuing nightmares of, she was interrogated and tortured with beatings and electric shock. She was also stripped of her clothes and paraded in front of guards and male prisoners.

Zana's experiences only reinforced her commitment to the struggle for Kurdish rights and the search for peaceful solutions. By 1990, the troubles between the Turkish government and Kurds had turned violent. Upwards of thirty thousand people would be killed by fighting between Turkish forces and Kurds in the early 1990s.

Member of parliament

Young and highly intelligent, Zana soon rose to political leadership roles in Diyarbakir. On October 20, 1991, at the age of thirty she was elected to the Turkish parliament; she was one of eight other elected women serving. Receiving 84 percent of the votes in her Diyarbakir district, Zana was the first Kurdish woman representative. The year of Zana's election, Mehdi was released from prison.

In parliament, Zana hoped to encourage Kurdish-Turkish relations and recognition of Kurdish identity. When taking the oath for parliament, Zana spoke in Kurdish and wore the colors representing the Kurdish flag, yellow, green, and red. Her language and clothing outraged members of parliament. Her strong Kurdish presence caused denouncements from other parliamentarians that she was a separatist and statements that she was not welcome in the government legislative body. Some called for her arrest, but members of parliament are immune from arrest for their actions on the parliament floor. Rather than a separatist, Zana was actually a voice for peace and cooperation between Kurds and the Turkish people. She called for an end to Turkish government oppression and violence against Kurds and the end to imprisonment and torture of Kurdish political prisoners.

In May 1993, Zana traveled to Washington, D.C., where she spoke at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and briefed U.S. Congress members on the plight of the Kurdish people within Turkey. She explained that Turkish and Kurdish political leaders had been unable to openly and honestly address the so-called Kurdish problem. The Turkish government continued to suppress calls for Kurdish rights by destroying Kurdish villages and throwing Kurdish leaders into prison where they were interrogated and tortured in hopes of breaking their spirit. She urged the United States to side with more moderate Turkish leaders who hoped a peaceful resolution could be negotiated.

Parliamentary immunity had protected Zana from arrest for three years since her controversial oath-taking in October 1991. When in 1994 she joined the newly formed Democracy Party, her immunity was revoked. The Turkish government long had a practice of closing down parties that worked on Kurdish rights issues. They banned the Democracy Partly, lifted Zana's immunity, and arrested her and three other Kurdish parliamentarians.

Fifteen-year sentence

In December 1994, State Security Court No. 1 in Ankara, made up of Turkish civil and military judges, convicted Zana and the three other Kurdish parliamentarians on charges of separatism and illegal activities. The court identified Zana's call for peaceful resolutions between Kurds and the Turkish people as advocating separatism. Her illegal activities included wearing the Kurdish colors of yellow, green, and red in front of parliament in October 1991 and ties to the armed Kudistan Worker's Party. Known as the PKK for Patiya Karker Kurdistan, the party is a militant group working for Kurdish independence. Zana denied any association with PKK. Turkey, the United States, and the European Union (EU) list the PKK as a terrorist organization. (The EU is a governmental body composed in 2005 of twenty-five member European states including Britain, France, Germany, and The Netherlands.) The court sentenced Zana to fifteen years in prison.

The sentence was viewed by human rights groups worldwide as unjust. With her confinement in Ankara Central Prison in 1994, Zana became the symbol of the Kurdish struggle for peace and social justice, for an end to prejudice, discrimination, and oppression of Kurds. Amnesty International (AI), a worldwide organization working for peace and justice, named Zana and her three imprisoned colleagues prisoners of conscience. Prisoners of conscience are people who have been imprisoned because of their race, religion, beliefs, sexual orientation, or color of skin and have not advocated violence. AI considered the imprisonments unjust and merely punishment for involvement, even though nonviolent, in the Kurdish problem.

International honors

Throughout the second half of the 1990s and while imprisoned, Zana received constant recognition and awards. She was praised as an individual willing to lose her freedom in the struggle for justice for her people. International peace and human rights awards in chronological order include: the Rafto Prize for Human Rights from Norway (1994); the Bruno Kreisky Peace Prize from Austria (1995); the Aix-la-Chapelle International Peace Prize from Germany (1995); the highly prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament (1995) (The European Parliament together with the Council of Ministers makes up the legislative branch of the EU representing about 450 million people); the Rose Prize from Denmark (1996); nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize three times between 1995 and 1998; and Woman of the Year Prize from Northern Italy (1998).

Imprisoned but not silenced

Although Zana's imprisonment was widely protested, she remained confined at the Ankara Central Prison. Her voice, though, was not silenced. She wrote continuously and was published in various magazines, newspapers, and organization publications. Zana wrote about Kurdish identity and traditions, and the Kurdish people's struggle for recognition and civil rights. She completed an entire book, Writings From Prison and had it published in 1999.

Zana stated in her book she did not really expect to be released from prison. Her words proved correct when on September 26, 1998, the Ankara State Security Court added to her sentence for her article published in the People's Democracy Party newsletter about the Kurdish New Year called Nevruz. The court said she violated the law against inciting racial hatred because she wrote about the Kurdish longing for life free of oppression.

Zana found yet another cause to speak out about—the harassing treatment of political prisoners, and lack of medical care. Although ailing at times, she refused hospital visits to protest the harsh treatment of political prisoners.

Courts review case

In July 2001, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) reviewed Zana's and the three other parliamentarians' trial and ruled against the Turkish court's decision. However, Turkey did not recognize this finding and Zana remained confined. The ECHR hears human rights complaints from the Council of Europe made up of forty-six member states. Although not associated with the EU, the ECHR hands down decisions that are closely monitored by the EU.

Turkey, hopeful of becoming a candidate for EU membership, adopted a number of legal reforms. In February 2003, a new Turkish law allowed for new trials of individuals where the ECHR found Turkish court proceedings unjust. In a new trial in April 2004, the convictions and sentences of Zana and her colleagues were reaffirmed by the State Security Court. AI reported the retrial was full of practices that did not measure up to international fair trial practices. AI called for Turkish authorities to eliminate State Security Courts so as to allow Turkey to better conform to EU standards of justice. In June 2004, the Turkish Supreme Court of Appeals overruled Zana's verdict on a legal technicality. Zana and the others were at last set free.

Zana traveled to Brussels, Belgium, to receive the European Parliament's Sakharov prize, an award she had waited nine years to accept. In a speech before the EU assembly gathered to honor her, Zana, speaking at times in Turkish and others in Kurdish, called for greater rights for Turkey's Kurds and for improved communication to work out issues. According to the Internet Web site Qantara: Dialogue with the Islamic World, she told those assembled that "violence has outlived its time … The language and method of solution of our age is dialogue, compromise and peace. It is not die and kill, but live and let live." She received a standing ovation. While in Brussels, Zana was reunited with Medhi and her two children, the first time since her imprisonment.

Ruling their rights of free expression had been violated, the ECHR in January 2005 awarded Zana and the other three freed parliamentarians a monetary sum from the Turkish government. Planning to establish a new political party, Zana sought to reenter politics.

For More Information


Meiselas, Susan. Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History. New York: Random House, 1997.

Zana, Leyla. Writings From Prison. Watertown, MA: Blue Crane Books, 1999.


"EU Sakharov Prize: Leyla Zana Waits Nine Years to Accept Award.", Dialogue with the Islamic World. (accessed on December 11, 2006).

Kurdish Human Rights Project. (accessed on December 11, 2006).

Kurdish Women's Action Against Honour Killings. (accessed on December 11, 2006).

"Special Focus Cases: Leyla Zana, Prisoner of Conscience." Amnesty International USA. (accessed on December 11, 2006).

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