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Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) MP for Hakkari Leyla Guven shot to international prominence last year after leading a hunger strike which was joined by thousands in Turkish prisons against the isolation of jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan.
She is seen by many as the embodiment of Kurdish women and the symbol of resistance not just in Turkey but across the world.
The Democratic Society Congress (DTK) chair was recently stripped of her parliamentary status by the Turkish state and was only released from prison after mass national and international pressure.
As the HDP democracy march reaches the Turkish capital Ankara today, Leyla speaks to Morning Star international editor Steve Sweeney in an exclusive and wide-ranging interview.
Can you tells us a little about your past? What was it like growing up as a Kurdish woman?
I was born as the seventh child of a family that emigrated approximately 500 years ago from Kurdistan to Cihanbeyli, in the city of Konya in the west. My family was a middle-class farming family. I only managed to complete primary education because in order to attend secondary school students had to leave the village and attend school in the neighbouring town. There was no school other than a primary in the village. Girls were not allowed to be sent anywhere else. It was frowned upon as shameful, sinful.
For this reason, my brothers were sent to the town to continue with their education but us girls had to remain at home and brought up by helping with household chores. When I was 16 years old, my aunt who lived in Germany asked for me to be married off to her son and my family engaged me to my cousin who was five years older than me. We got married in Germany and I was a mother by the age of seventeen.
We lived in Germany for four years and I had two children there, a girl and a boy. In 1984 we decided to return to Turkey. We were a large family and were working as farmers in the village. Life was difficult for the women who had to milk the sheep, make yoghurt and butter from that milk for the family’s needs, make bread, raise the children and look after the men.
Once our children were a little older, my ex husband returned to Germany. I was left behind with my children and both my mother and father-in-law. In 1997 I moved to central Konya where my children attended school and I began living as a housewife. The father of my children told me that in order to get his employment status in Switzerland he had to marry a local woman, we agreed to divorce. He had told me that he would obtain his employment visa and then take me and the children to Switzerland. We would have to wait five years for this to happen.
When the five years were up and I stated that I wanted to join him there with our children, his reply was that he was now married to a Swiss woman. We completely separated following this.
This meant I was now going to bring my children up alone without depending on anyone. And I did that. I went to then our party HADEP and told them that I wanted to get involved in their activities whilst the children were at school.
They were all men and were very surprised at seeing me. They told me that it was the first time that a woman had gone to the party asking to get involved. I told them that the Kurdish people were experiencing large hardship and pain and as a Kurdish woman, I wanted to fight thus took my first steps into the political arena.
Following this was active within various levels of the party. I was elected the mayor of Adana in 2004 and of Viransehir in 2009. While I was a mayor, I spent five years in prison, was arrested countless times but, despite this, I never gave up on my (Kurdish) national fight nor my fight as a woman.
Many of my Kurdish friends are either journalists or activists, they report that they had no other alternative than to enter political activism. Politics found them. Was this the same for you?
When I was aged around 20-25 enormous suffering was being experienced in Kurdistan. Not only in Northern Kurdistan (in Turkey) but in every corner, Kurds were daily subjected to massacres and injustices. They were being murdered in masses and Kurds’ identity, language, beliefs and whole existence was being denied.
The dominants had placed limits for Kurds and were forbidding them from going outside of those limits. As a Kurd, how could I have remained indifferent to this? I was constantly questioning myself on what I could be doing to support my people, to be the response to these problems that were experienced by my people.
On a daily basis we were seeing images of murdered people on our TV screens, villagers who were force fed faeces, guerillas whose bodies were broken into pieces, we were receiving torture news from within prisons and many other inhumane things were being experienced. While all this was going on, I could not sit back quietly and watch everything unfold.
Who are you inspired by both personally and politically?
The people I most respect and value politically are those who put the effort in. Those who struggle for their people without any personal interest.
We have many of those within our struggle. I place huge importance on personalities such as Che Guevara whose philosophy I believe is the correct one and also that of (jailed PKK leader) Abdullah Ocalan who developed the national democratic perspective and the paradigms relating to women’s struggle.
When we look at the rest of the world, I can see that the most democratic and ecological paradigms are those that are women-centred communal ones and I see myself as very lucky for being a part of the struggle, for discovering Mr Ocalan’s philosophy as otherwise, I would have only been a housewife trying to bring her two children up. However, now I am someone who is able to see the developments in the world closely and have gained a perspective in which to analyse them.
This is a direct result of the importance Mr Ocalan places on women, particularly those within the Kurdish community. Once my female consciousness developed, I began taking heed of women on the international arena, such as Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Leyla Kasim, (PKK co-founder) Sakine Cansiz and Arin Mirkan, tried grasping their philosophy and getting to know them more closely. This is something that I base my struggle on.
You showed unbelievable courage and shouted ‘Resistance is Life’ when you were arrested recently. What did you mean by that?
Sakine Cansiz had written a book called “My Whole Life Was a Struggle” because, as women, we have to continuously struggle as soon as we’re born. Struggling/fighting with family, with society, with men, with the state. We are continuously fighting. Therefore, we knew all the difficulites that we would face when entering this struggle.
Sakine Cansiz is a woman that spat in the face of Esat Oktay, the torturer of the time when she was in Diyarbakir prison, so Kurdish women have always remained brave in the face of all these atrocities.
Because we always knew there was nothing beyond dying and if we had to die, that death should be an honourable death. We will not surrender we said. We would not surrender to men, to state nor to the dominants.
Even if we are arrested, tortured, we will stand upright. (Journalist) Musa Anter said, struggle is a Kurd’s reality, meaning we experience so much persecution, we may not have the power to stop this, but we will fight back and they will not have the power to stop our fight.
For this reason, the first thing that came to my mind was ‘Bexwedan Jiyane – Resistance is Life’ so that’s what I said.
Women play an important role in the Kurdish struggle. Sakin Cansiz, Leyla Zana, Gultan Kisanak, Sebahat Tuncel and Figen Yuksekdag immediately spring to mind.
The dominants all world over will always say destroy the woman first. This is because if women have awoken in a society the whole society has awoken. If women are defending their own rights, the whole society will support them in this.
Because women are role models. They are role models for men, children, young people and society in general. Therefore women are very important. Women become nightmares of despotic men because those men are not pluralist, they’re power hungry and are not democratic, therefore see women as a threat and will always try to destroy the women first. They see how women work with complete devotion to our struggle.
Women’s struggle is very compelling for them becasue they fear the women in the HDP will become an example and all women will take to the streets, demand their rights and enter the fight.
They want to stop this awakening and therefore attack the HDP women. They attack Kurdish women an immense amount, however women all over the world and in western Turkey are rebelling. They see the fight that is waged by Kurdish women and respect it.
The Kurdish women in Rojava wrote stories of epic proportion, they led the revolution and Kurdish women are bravely fighting in front of the eyes of the world.
For this reason, we have become a target for (Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party) the AKP, hundreds of Kurdish women were unlawfuly arrested. These are women are co-mayors, MPs, politicians, in short women from all walks of life are being prevented from politics and struggle by way of jurisdiction. But women such as Gultan Kışanak , Sabahat Tuncel, Figen Yüksekdağ ,Nurhayat Altun and Leyla Zana and many more are refusing to surrender.
The messages they are sending out of prisons is a clear sign of this, they are saying we will continue to be the nightmares of the AKP and MHP fascism because we believe, if there is to be liberation in the world it will be led by women. With this in mind, we will continue to struggle no matter where we are, in or out of prison.
Since 2015, the HDP has seen 15,000 detained and 6,000 jailed including 200 elected officials and seven MPs. What does this say about the state of democracy inTurkey?
We continually say that the biggest problem facing Turkey is the Kurdish issue. It is exactly because there is a Kurdish problem that all political parties set up by Kurds have been shut down.
All institutions and establishments belonging to Kurds have become a constant target of the police, the state and the judiciary.
This has been going on for around 50 years. We continue to say that this approach is not a solution to the problem and insist on engaging in democratic politics.
Just as Mr Ocalan said there is no need for any other country to come and intervene in order to solve the Kurdish problem, we can do this within the unity of Turkey.
As nations that have lived together for thousands of years, we have the means to solve our own problems however, the more we voice this the more the Turkish state and those that lead it apply pressures on us and continue to persecute us.
For this reason, they are imprisoning thousands of Kurds. There is no need for any legal reason for a Kurd to be arrested, simply being Kurdish is enough for arrest.
First they arrest us then they create crimes for us. We are aware of all of these but, despite that, we continue to insist on democratic politics, our MPs, co-chairs and thousands of imprisoned comrades are insisting on the same.
We will do everything in our power to solve the Kurdish problem democratically.
International institutions have always prioritised their own interest in the international arena. For example, the murder of (Swedish PM) Olof Palme 34 years ago, was used to place the PKK on the terror organisation list, thus making all Kurds living in Europe a target. (The PKK was wrongly accused of his shooting).
However it was recently discovered that murder was not the work of PKK but that of the Gladio. Europe tells Kurds, yes you are victims and yes they do oppress you but, at the same time telling the Turkish Republic, you are right to do what you are doing.
A lot of inconsistent and pro-state politics have been practised on this topic and these politics did not give anything to the Kurds.
Kurds were made victims of international profit and interests. These countries claimed to be defenders of democracy however, in practice, they showed that they weren’t siding with the rightful, the oppressed but always on the side of the powerful, we saw this time and time again for years.
We never expected any pity from anyone, didn’t ask anyone to come and fight in our place, we waged our own struggles. However, we did expect the European and the rest of the world to side with the rightful people but, I am afraid to say, this never happened.
They sold arms to both the PKK and the Turkish state almost telling them, you can go kill each other. We wanted Europe and the rest of the world to side with the rightful. This is still our desire.
I often say the HDP is the key to unlocking democracy in Turkey and ending Erdogan's war on Kurds, not just in Turkey but also Syria and Iraq. Would you agree with this?
Yes, the AKP and the MHP don’t only churn out politics relating to Northern Kurdistan (in Turkey), they tend to try and extend to every corner where Kurds are residing.
There was a referendum about to take place in Southern Kurdistan (in Iraq), the whole world saw very clearly what Turkey’s attitude was. They not only opposed this, they insulted the process and made threats. A revolution took place in Rojava. The Kurds who escaped Assad’s brutality formed their own state.
Together with the Free Syrian Army, Turkey did all it could to undermine and destroy the efforts of the Kurds over there.
They occupied Afrin and Serekaniye (in Rojava), they destroyed the homes and properties of many people. This happened under the watchful eyes of the world.
Russia, the US and many other countries simply watched on because they have their own vested interest. Turkey even shows hostility towards those Kurds living in Europe.
When they develop their relationships with European countries, they do so with the aim of destroying the Kurds residing there. They try to set up spies in every country, with their MIT personnel try to track every Kurd.
They have placed their spies and National Intelligence Agency (MIT) personnel in every country and every corner of Kurdistan and are trying to make spies out of everyone by paying them money.
These kind of policies will not benefit the peoples of Turkey nor the Middle East. Delaying the issues instead of solving the problems will not solve anything and we know that the AKP will go. They have been in power for 18 years and will lose the next election but currently there are people in the east of the country who are losing their lives and homes, their children.
I wish they hadn’t waged such a hateful Kurdish policy, I wished that they had continued talks with Mr Ocalan and opted to solve the Kurdish issue with peaceful means.
Turkey would have become the most important country in the Middle East. And no other country would come and interfere in the Middle East because, by solving its own internal Kurdish issues, Turkey would have become the force to solving all the other issues facing the Middle East. But it chose not to do this. They chose to be hostile towards the Kurds and this will bring the end of the AKP.
You famously led a hunger strike in prison last year in protest at the conditions placed on Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan – can you explain why you did this and the importance of Ocalan?
Mr Ocalan is a leader who has dedicated his whole life to the Kurdish issue. When asked, thousands of Kurds say that Mr Ocalan represents their will. For years Kurds have been put on trial and received tens of years of sentencing for speaking out about Mr Ocalan, for calling him their political will and chanting his name.
They are imprisoned in the most horrific circumstances for years and despite this, do not lose their dedication to Mr Ocalan. When Mr Ocalan was handed over to Turkey in 1999 following an international conspiracy, hundreds of people set themselves alight demanding that their sun wasn’t blacked out. The sun metaphor is extremely important because Kurds see him as the sun that has shone on the people that have been left in the darkness. I also think that way, therefore if ever there will be a solution to the problem it can only happen with the involvement of Mr Ocalan.
The Kurdish issue will be resolved democratically only when Ocalan is the lead negotiator, both I and the Kurdish people believe this wholeheartedly. We knew they (the government) were not interested in solving the issue when they placed Mr Ocalan into isolation, for if they really wanted to solve the Kurdish issue, they would go to Imrali prison, meet with Mr Ocalan and solve the issues.
There was one attempt but it quickly became clear that the AKP were not sincere int their dealings. I was arrested for opposing the siege of Afrin (Turkey’s 2018 invasion of northern Syria/Rojava).
While in prison, I thought about this issue so many times, there was a need for a way out and I thought the only way to exit from this chaos is with what Mr Ocalan has to say on the subject.
I went on hunger strike for this very reason but, I wanted to do this alone, you know as a Kurdish woman if I was going to die, I wanted to die alone. I did not want any young people to die alongside me. But unfortunately, again during this hunger strike, nine of our friends, two in Europe and seven in prisons, put their lives on the line by sacrificing their own lives in order to break the silence and the isolation.
My opinion and that of many of my friends is that I am ready to die if it means the Kurdish issue will be resolved. Mr Ocalan’s contribution in this process is extremely important and it was also very important that his isolation is lifted.
Isolation is a human rights abuse and it should be everyone’s duty to oppose such abuses. Neither the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) or many other institutions undertook their duties in this. Our resistance hunger strike was due to this. Our action continued in prison with thousands of people taking part and the AKP had to step back. Mr Ocalan’s lawyers, who had not been allowed to see him for eight years, were allowed onto Imrali island. This was a very important development for us.
One photograph posted on social media by your daughter Sabiha saying ‘Mum, don't leave me’ was so heart wrenching. It affected a lot of people. How did this affect you, as Leyla the mother?
When I began the hunger strike I had a visit from my son who lives in Switzerland, my daughter who lives in Istanbul, my brother who lives in Denmark and another brother who lives in Konya. I think it was on the 25th day, they asked me how I was. I told them I was fine. I explained my reasons for starting this action, gave them an explanation of my experiences as a Kurdish woman in politics, what Mr Ocalan’s isolation was important to me and asked them to understand my reasons.
I explained that thousands of children in Kurdistan were having to live life without their parents, thousands are having to live in prisons and experiencing many other difficulties. I told them that I didn’t want to be a mother that only thought about her own children and that we were trying to create a system in which all children are happy. I told them they needed to be stronger.
My family have always been my biggest supporters, they heartened me and told me that they would do everything in their power. My daughter Sabiha told me not to worry, she would always be strong and will never surrender and will do eveything in her power to support me. They tried hiding their tears when they left me but I saw how much they cried.
At the end, during that time my daughter waged one of the most meaningful campaigns of the time. She did so well in her social media posts, in her dialogues with national and international committees, at the same time her being a a journalist was an advantage as well.
Now you are released – but not cleared of the trumped up charges against you. What happens next for HDP?
Yes, I am free for now because I had already spent my sentence in advance. I was arrested in 2009 and released in 2014. There was only 2 months remaining of that sentence that was 6 years and 3 months.
However, during my last Afrin statement, I was sentenced to 1.5 years in prison and they had to deduct the 2 months from that sentence. So, I shouldn’t have been arrested but the AKP government wanted to show the population that we are guilty and therefore placed me in prison.
Musa Farisoglullari (who remains in jail) had 2 years left of his sentence. They put him in prison too. My lawyers deducted the remainder of my sentence and thus I was released. I have a 10-month sentence to reclaim back from this government. I have tens of lawsuits and fines against me.
Their content is so tragically funny that we are finding it very difficult to explain the stage the Turkish judicial system has arrived at. I have been released for now as I have served my sentence however I can see this is not a good trend. This means they can at anytime sentence me in one of the lawsuits and I could be taken into custody again.
Because they do not want a Kurd who can think, speak and criticise to be free. They want to place all such Kurds into prisons, therefore I would not be surprised if they arrest me again.
About four years ago I was placed under a travel ban which continues today but, I can say with complete honesty I have no intentions of leaving my country even if I had no travel ban.
Even if they place me in prison, I will not go anywhere, I will remain and fight here. Our party, the HDP began a democracy march. It was started in order to raise awareness, to make the public aware of how our MP statuses are being taken away unlawfully. However, every level of the state is trying to stop the march. So they are trying not to allow Kurds to take action, trying to place obstacles in HDP’s path but this is futile.
Despite everything, the HDP has gained a significant place in the heart of peoples of Turkey and cannot be altered. We want the international community to hear the voice of HDP, see how the HDP MPs are being stopped and know that there is a real need for international solidarity and that we expect this solidarity from them.
Of course we had objections and solidarity messages from all over the world and these were very important. I place a huge importance on solidarity messages that are received both during the hunger strikes and the time when MP statuses are being taken away. I find them very valuable and thank everyone for them. We can exist only by solidarity.
How important is international solidarity and how can people best support those fighting for freedom and democracy in Turkey?
I place huge importance on what our comrades in Britain are doing for the Kurdish people and the HDP. Thank you for being there, for being our friends, our comrades because our experiences can only be halved by sharing and you are sharing them with us, for that I thank you so much.
I am sure you have made many plans about what can be done but I place a lot of importance on Gandhi-style action, in other words civil disobedience actions. I recommend you develop such actions, they’re symbolic actions however have a huge impact. I believe we can succeed together.
What message would you like to send to the British people and the readers of the Morning Star?
The British people have a responsibility towards the Kurdish people. Britain played a role in Kurds being seperated into four different pieces (Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran) through the Sykes-Picot agreement.
This will mean a self-criticism of its history on one hand and, is in the 21st century, a humanitarian requirement.
Your newspaper is an extremely important publication and we thank you for being our voice over there.
Comrade Steve, you being there is the most important because you are a very conscientious person. I can see this very clearly from the messages I have received from you, your posts and your general approach.
For this reason I want to say I am glad there are people like you, democrats and human rights activists like you. We can breathe because of people like you. Otherwise fascism will suffocate us.
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