Leyla Zana – 1995, Turkey

The first Kurdish woman to be elected to the Turkish Parliament in 1991, Leyla Zana’s fight for democracy symbolises her people’s struggle for dignity and human rights.

In June 2015, Zana again made history as a member of the first pro-Kurdish political party to win representation in the Turkish Assembly, with an agenda of peace and inclusion of minorities.

Born in 1961, her traditionalist father only allowed her to attend elementary school for a year and a half. At the age of 14 she was married to Mehdi Zana, a man 20 years her senior, who became the mayor of Diyarbakir and later became a political prisoner during the military rule in the 1980s. Leyla Zana was imprisoned for two months after leading a protest of families who were prohibited from visiting their relatives in prison. She learnt Turkish as a result of her visits to her husband in prison, as security forces were violent towards anyone speaking Kurdish. Starting school at the age of 23, Zana earned her primary and secondary school diplomas in three years and eventually took on an unsolicited leadership role.

Overwhelmingly elected to the Turkish assembly in 1991, she took her oath in Kurdish during her swearing-in ceremony, at a time when speaking Kurdish in the public arena was still a criminal offence: 'I take this oath for the brotherhood between the Turkish people and the Kurdish people.' For this she was stripped of parliamentary immunity, and in 1994 she was sentenced to 15 years of incarceration for treason and membership of the armed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). At her sentencing, Zana stated that '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.' In 1995, the European Parliament awarded her the Sakharov Prize as a symbol of her peaceful struggle for human rights and the dignity of the Kurdish people.

In 2004, Zana was finally able to address the European Parliament upon her release from prison on a technicality following a European Court of Human Rights ruling and international pressure.

Zana has since had various court cases brought against her, but has not served further prison time. In 2014, the Supreme Court of Appeals found that evidence of Zana's alleged membership of the PKK was not credible.

In 2009, she was handed a five-year ban from joining any political party, but was nevertheless re-elected as an independent in 2011. Once her ban expired in 2014, she joined the Peoples' Democratic Party, which in the June 2015 elections became the first pro-Kurdish party to surpass the 10 % threshold for parliamentary representation. She was elected to a seat in the Turkish Parliament, but in 2016 she was prevented from attending parliamentary sessions, again because she swore her oath of office in Kurdish and included a call for peace in the wording of the oath. In 2018, she was removed from office by a majority vote due to her failure to carry out her daily parliamentary work.

Zana was actively involved in the peace negotiations that led PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan to make his historic call in 2013 for the party to move from armed resistance to a democratic political struggle after three decades of conflict.