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Turkey Figen Yuksekdag: A woman of substance

The leader of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) faces spending the rest of her life in solitary confinement on trumped-up charges of terrorism, writes STEVE SWEENEY

Born into a Turkish farming family, Figen Yuksekdag is a revolutionary leader who should be revered as an icon across the world as a leading feminist, socialist and Marxist.

Despite leading one of the most inspirational struggles in Europe and beyond, however, her name is barely known outside Turkey or the Kurdish movement.

Figen Yuksekdag is a Marxist and revolutionary, described by some as a “radical feminist”, who was elected as the co-leader of the HDP alongside Selahattin Demirtas in 2014.

She faces aggravated life in prison, meaning the rest of her life spent in solitary confinement, on trumped-up charges of terrorism as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan clamps down on all forms of opposition in the country.

He has branded the HDP a terrorist organisation and accuses it of being linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party. Among the charges faced by its leaders are accusations of “establishing and managing a terrorist organisation.”

There is a heavy price to pay for those fighting oppression and tyranny in the country with the state of emergency that has been in place since the failed coup of July 2016 used against all layers of Turkish society.

Yuksekdag has been singled out for particularly harsh treatment by the Turkish state. In April 2017, while already held on pre-trial detention, she was sentenced to a year in prison for “disseminating the propaganda of a terrorist organisation.”

And she was handed a sentence of 18 months in prison in June 2017 on identical charges for comments she made in an interview with the German media organisation Deutsche Welle.

She had already received received a 10-month sentence for speaking at the 2012 funeral of Yasemin Ciftci, a member of the Marxist Leninist Communist Party (MLKP) which is listed as a terrorist organisation.

It was because of this that in February 2017 she was stripped of her status as an MP and subsequently her position as co-chair of the HDP. The party rejected the decision and branded it political and “against peace.”

HDP spokesman Osman Baydemir told me when we met in Istanbul just before the HDP announced that Serpil Kemalbay would be the party's new co-chair that she was being deliberately targeted because of her status as a Turkish woman. He said the government was determined to “sabotage the solidarity between the Turkish public and the Kurds.”

It is the unity between Turks, Kurds and other minority groups that the country's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan fears and it is this unity that is central to the programme of the HDP which Yuksekdag describes as “a unified movement of the oppressed in these lands.”

The formation of the HDP in 2012 represented a significant step forward for the left and for democracy in Turkey. Its electoral success in June 2015 saw the party break the 10 per cent threshold and enter the Turkish parliament for the first time with 81 MPs.

It ended the ruling AKP parliamentary majority, but as it failed to establish a coalition, fresh elections were called and attacks on the party escalated.

A bomb blast at an HDP rally in the unofficial Kurdish capital of Diyarbakir killed four people and the youth wing of Yuksekdag's ESP were targeted, with 33 people killed in the border town of Suruc as they organised a press statement before a solidarity trip to help rebuild the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane.

While the blasts were attributed to Isis, there has been some suggestion of the involvement of the Turkish state. Yuksekdag herself has accused the government of long-standing support for the jihadist group.

“No force can act in the Suruc area without the knowledge of the state or the MIT (National Intelligence Organisation),” she said after the attack.

The lifting of immunity for lawmakers paved the way for a series of raids in which HDP MPs, including Yuksekdag, and activists were arrested in November 2016.

Yuksekdag knew her arrest was coming. Both her and co-chair Selahattin Demirtas were given the opportunity to leave the country for Brussels. However, she decided to stay and has struck a defiant tone ever since.

She describes her first political act as distributing feminist leaflets while she was at high school and has had a long involvement in the women's rights movement in Turkey, editing the Socialist Woman magazine.

In 2009, while editor of the communist Atılım newspaper, Yuksekdag was arrested and taken into custody. Prosecutors accused the newspaper of conducting “criminal activity.” On her release she co-founded the Socialist Party of the Oppressed (ESP), standing down as its leader in 2014 to join the HDP.

Her leadership of a progressive movement is of huge significance in a country ruled by a party that has been described as “anti-woman” and sees discrimination against women in all walks of life.

She explains that Kurdish women have “paid their dues” in a substantial way with thousands joining the national liberation movement and many being killed in the struggle for freedom for the Kurdish people.

Because of the leading role that they have played, women have a special place in the Kurdish liberation movement. Their struggle was not just national but social as well, against patriarchy in both society and the revolutionary movement.

Women who sacrificed their lives, including Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) members Beritan (Gulnaz Karatas), Zilan (Zeynep Kinaci) and Mizgin (Sema Yuce), became heroic symbols of the movement, influencing all revolutionary progressives in Turkey.

But Yuksekdag dismisses those who accuse her as an ethnic Turk of not being able to fully understand the Kurdish question.

She insists that the Kurdish issue is something that should concern all Turks and internationalists, seeing their struggle bound up with the global fight against patriarchy, fascism and imperialism.

Kurdish women came to the world's attention when they famously played a leading role in the liberation of the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane which had been held under siege by the Isis death cult.

The women's revolution in Rojava in northern Syria has seen them become the most secular, revolutionary face of women in the Middle East, leading the armed struggle against Isis through the YPJ Women's Protection Units and the YPG People's Protection Units.

It is the same people fighting Isis in Syria that are fighting against what they see as the “fascist dictatorship” of President Erdogan in Turkey.

While the People's Democratic Party (HDP) of which she was leader is seen as a pro-Kurdish party, Yuksekdag is keen to stress its plurality and its status as a movement that binds together the oppressed of Turkey.

She has been a steadfast supporter of the YPG and YPJ forces in Syria and stands in solidarity with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Rojava, which like the HDP is branded a terrorist organisation by Erdogan but also, like the HDP, has women at the centre of its political life.

For the HDP, the role of women is not something to merely pay lip service to. Women make up around half of the party and are actively involved in its structure and decision making.

It is unique in Turkish politics in that equality is embedded in the party structures and for each elected male position there is a woman counterpart.

Its Women's Assembly aims “to transform and democratise politics which has been built as a power-oriented and monopolistic male zone, to promote women’s participation in politics and to socialise politics.”

It organises at all levels from local neighbourhood, to districts, cities and within the party, creating autonomous women's only spaces to achieve effective and organised participation in life and struggle.

Despite facing life in jail, Yuksekdag has no regrets. At her first court hearing she said: “They demand one hundred years! If I had more lifetimes, I’d still do the same things. We have a cause of democracy and peace worthy of a century.”

Yuksekdag is a hero of our movement. An attack on her is an attack on all women. It is an attack on progressives and democracy and we demand her immediate and unconditional release.

I will be part of an international delegation attending her next court hearing in Ankara next month (February). We were blocked from entering the court room in December as we were deemed a “security threat.”

The HDP said it was an attempt to intimidate and deter us, calling on us to come back in bigger numbers. We pledged to heed that call and bring a large international solidarity delegation.

The British delegation is being organised and co-ordinated by the Kurdistan Solidarity Campaign who are also raising funds to send as many people as possible to the trial.

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