Layla Zana (Kurdish: Leyla Zana) was born in 1961 in the small village of Bache in Northern Kurdistan (Eastern Turkey). She grew up in a region marked by a long history of conflict and oppression against the Kurdish people. Leyla’s life took a significant turn when she married Mehdi Zana, a Kurdish activist who later became the Mayor of Diyarbakir, a major city in Northern Kurdistan, in 1977.
The political landscape drastically changed with the 1980 military coup in Turkey, which led to a renewed wave of oppression against the Kurds. Mehdi Zana was among the thousands of activists who were arrested and imprisoned by the military regime, under the pretext of national security and democracy. Leyla stood by her husband’s side, following him from prison to prison across Turkey.
As the number of political prisoners increased, Leyla became increasingly involved in advocating for the rights of women whose husbands were abducted and imprisoned by the military regime. Her empathy and dedication to the cause compelled her to take on an unofficial leadership role. Her personal growth paralleled the development of the Kurdish liberation struggle, culminating in her decision to run for Parliament in the 1991 elections in Turkey.
Leyla Zana’s candidacy resonated with the people, and she enjoyed immense popularity in her district of Diyarbakir. In a remarkable achievement, she became the first Kurdish woman to be elected to the Turkish Parliament, receiving an overwhelming 84 percent of the votes. This victory was seen as a significant milestone in the Kurdish struggle for representation and recognition.
However, Leyla’s political journey took a harsh turn in March 1994 when she, along with her colleagues Hatip Dicle, Orhan Dogan, and Selim Sadak, all Kurdish members of Parliament, were stripped of their parliamentary immunity and arrested. They were charged with separatism and illegal activities for advocating peaceful coexistence between the Turkish and Kurdish peoples. Shockingly, even their expressions of Kurdish identity and the colors of their clothing were used as evidence against them. Leyla Zana, specifically, was accused of wearing clothes and accessories associated with the Kurdish flag during a public address.
In December 1994, Leyla Zana was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, further deepening the injustice and oppression faced by the Kurdish population. Despite international protests and calls for her release, Leyla remained incarcerated, enduring deteriorating prison conditions. Her attempts to communicate with the outside world became increasingly challenging.
Throughout her struggle, Leyla Zana’s courage and resilience garnered international recognition and support. In 1995, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and became a finalist. She received a second nomination in 1998, supported by notable figures such as U.S. Representative John Porter, who hailed her as a symbol of the Kurdish people’s yearning for peaceful coexistence.
Leyla Zana’s health deteriorated while in prison, suffering from a liver condition and advanced osteoporosis. Meanwhile, her husband, son, and daughter sought refuge in Europe, living in exile. Despite the tremendous hardships she faced, Leyla Zana remained a symbol of courage and determination in the face of oppression, inspiring countless individuals around the world with her unwavering commitment to the Kurdish cause and the pursuit of peace.
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