Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) MP for Hakkari, Leyla Güven, went on a 200-day hunger strike last year in prison against the isolation of jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan.
Güven was jailed for criticising the Turkish invasion of Afrin, a predominantly Kurdish area of northern Syria.
When her health deteriorated, Güven was released, but she continued her hunger strike outside. Many others followed her example. Nine of them died.
One month after her hunger strike ended, the Turkish state stripped Güven of her parliamentary status and arrested her again. She was only released from prison after mass national and international pressure.
Güven is seen by many as the embodiment of Kurdish women and the symbol of resistance in Turkey and across the world.
Güven spoke to Morning Star’s Steve Sweeney in June, following her release. Sweeney started by asking her what it was like growing up as a Kurdish woman in Turkey.
“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,” said Güven. “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.”
Güven got involved in political activity following her divorce, when she was left to raise her children alone and without support.
“I went to [HDP] 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.”
Güven was elected 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,"said Güven.
“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.
“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.”
When asked who inspires her, Güven said “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 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 Öcalan’s philosophy, as otherwise, I would have only been a housewife trying to bring her two children up.”
Women play an important role in the Kurdish struggle and many women have made the ultimate sacrifice — in battle and at the hands of Turkish-backed assassins in Europe. The Turkish regime has also targeted women HDP mayors and MPs, and many are languishing in Turkish jails.
“The dominants all the world over will always say: ‘destroy the woman first’,” said Güven. “This is because if women have awoken in a society the whole society has awoken.
“Women’s struggle is very compelling for them because 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.
“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 Erdoğan’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 [HDP former co-mayor of Diyarbakır] Gultan Kışanak , [Democratic Regions Party MP] Sabahat Tuncel, [former HDP co-chair] Figen Yüksekdağ , [former Dersim co-mayor] Nurhayat Altun and [HDP MP] 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 [Nationalist Movement Party] 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, about 15,000 HDP members have been detained in Turkey and 6000 jailed, including 200 elected officials and seven MPs.
“All institutions and establishments belonging to Kurds have become a constant target of the police, the state and the judiciary,” said Güven. “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 Öcalan 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.”
Turkey's war against the Kurdish people is not confined to its own borders. Turkish armed forces have bombed, invaded and occupied parts of Syria and Iraq inhabited by Kurds.
“Together with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Turkey did all it could to undermine and destroy the efforts of the Kurds,” said Güven.
Turkish forces have occupied parts of northern Syria since 2016. Turkish forces, supported by FSA militia invaded Afrin (in Rojava) in January 2018.
“They occupied Afrin and Serekaniye (in Rojava), they destroyed the homes and properties of many people,” said Guven. “This happened under the watchful eyes of the world.
“Russia, the United States and many other countries simply watched on, because they have their own vested interest.
Güven spoke about the importance of international solidarity to the HDP, including the work of journalists in telling the truth about the regime’s attempts to suppress democracy.
“Despite everything, the HDP has gained a significant place in the heart of peoples of Turkey and cannot be altered,” said Guven. “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.
“We can exist only by solidarity.
“We can breathe because of people like you. Otherwise fascism will suffocate us.”