Leyla Zana matters

Leyla Zana matters

Oath-taking in the Turkish parliament is an event never short of exciting moments and surprises. Female politicians’ dresses and shoes are always under scrutiny. And if you dare to make a political statement, it becomes an issue.

So people were hardly shocked to see Mrs. Leyla Zana changing the words of the constitutional oath by using the phrase “people of Turkey” instead of “Turkish nation.”

A Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) veteran politician and a symbol of the Kurdish cause, Mrs. Leyla Zana wanted to shake her party’s election results and wanted to make sure that everybody knew their place. She lived through the wild 1990s. She has served time in jail and seen suffering firsthand. So it comes as no surprise when Zana stopped the clock and made everyone remember the real challenge of this nation. Can we build a just and fair peace in this land after all?

The constitutional oath is not something written in stone. The reference to “people of Turkey” had been a big discussion topic during the previous legislative sessions’ constitutional amendment talks. And as far as I can remember, three out of four parties were not completely against this. 

Zana’s attempt to change the starting point of peace talks comes at a crucial time. She in fact initiated the discussion about “Turkishness” or being a “nation of Turkey.” According to daily Hurriyet’s reporting, Zana and the HDP had debated the oath-taking issue in-depth. The younger generation had opted not to make a statement, whereas Zana reportedly said, “I have spent my entire life on this. I will not sit idle and do nothing while youngsters are still getting killed on the streets and alleys in the region.”

Zana’s significance comes from the deeds and timing of things she does. I personally witnessed her authority over the Kurdish movement during the recovery efforts after the earthquake in the eastern province of Van. The (Justice and Development Party) AK Party government and HDP-run mayors refused to cooperate. There were tons of relief sent to the region but distribution was not done properly. Some youth from other cities looted trucks, threatened drivers, etc. One morning Zana came to the hotel where the ministers of health, agriculture and construction were staying. She pulled aside the young mayor of Van and asked in that maternal tone that all Kurdish women have: “What the hell is this?” Zana said, “People are suffering, enough, stop this authority bickering and start distributing food, tents, clothing.” Not only did she hear “yes” from the Kurdish politician, but she also earned the respect of the AK Party’s ministers. 

The second time we met in Van again, I remember talking to her about the Kurdish peace talks. She was kept out of the loop and was not too optimistic about their long-term success. “This is going to come back to your hands,” I told her. “I am too tired for this,” she replied. “There is a new generation, more popular…”
Now after three long years in the Kurdish peace talks, with Silvan and Nusaybin still under curfew, the ball is coming back to the court of veterans like Zana. According to sources familiar with the possible new initiative in Ankara, Leyla Zana, Ahmet Turk and possibly more experienced Kurdish figures will become more visible.
So despite all the talk inside the HDP, Zana’s oath-taking meant more than just a plain protest.