The most talked about woman and political prisoner this International Women’s Day is Leyla Guven who has been on hunger strike for 121 days– over 17 weeks without eating food. Guven is a democratically elected member of the Turkish parliament representing the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) protesting against the total isolation of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been incarcerated for 20 years on Imrali island.
Iconic women around the world are speaking out in support of Guven, including African-American writer Angela Davis who has written a letter to the New York Times, and Palestinian freedom fighter Leila Khaled. Fifty Nobel Laureates have signed a letter calling for the immediate end to Ocalan’s solitary confinement by which is prohibited under the “Mandela rules” – the UN’s minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners. Former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jose Ramos-Horta of East Timor, and the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka are among those Nobel Laureates calling for an immediate end to Ocalan’s solitary confinement.”
The Turkish authorities have been keeping Ocalan in complete isolation – he has not been allowed to meet with his lawyers since July 2011, and has only been allowed one family visit since 2016. Letters, faxes and phone calls to Ocalan have been banned indefinitely. South Africa’s spokesperson of the National Parliament Lechesa Tsenoli has called for an international campaign for Ocalan’s release, similar to the international campaign that was waged for Mandela’s release. “The Kurds are going through much of what we went through,” Tsenoli has said.
Mandela himself had rejected the Ataturk Award which Turkey wanted to bestow on him which he said “is not consistent with our principles.” Madiba had rejected the award as a sign of protest against the continued incarceration of Ocalan, whom he had promised to give asylum in 1999 if he managed to get to South Africa. It was when Ocalan was en route to South Africa that he was abducted by Turkish intelligence in cahoots with other intelligence agencies in the Nairobi airport.
Ever since Guven started her hunger strike on November 8th last year, hunger strikes in solidarity have spread across Turkey, Kurdistan, France, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands. Fifteen people have gone on a solidarity hunger strike outside the European Council. On March 1st a mass movement began in Turkey’s prisons as thousands of political prisoners announced they would begin an indefinite hunger strike. As of last month 331 prisoners in Turkey had officially gone on hunger strike in 67 prisons.
The use of a hunger strike as a method of passive resistance has been used by political prisoners, and Mahatma Gandhi used it to fight against racism and to fight for equal rights for Indians at the end of British colonial rule in India. This hunger strike is particularly justified considering that isolation is a crime against humanity, which is why Guven has accepted that her protest may very well lead to her death.
The struggle of the Kurds for autonomy in Turkey has been a long one, and they were subjected to genocide in the 20th century. While the Kurds are the largest non-Turkish ethnic group in Turkey, they have been targets of assimilation and ethnic cleansing policies. After the 1980 coup in Turkey, the authoritarian nationalism failed to recognise ethnic identities, which is what led to the Kurdish uprisings and the formation of the PKK.
Ocalan’s struggle has been one for democratic autonomy for the Kurds, and a system which ensures cultural diversity, gender equality, and the coexistence of ethnic and religious components. The Kurds are in need of constitutional recognition, and the right to use and study in their language needs to be protected.
There are Kurds living here in South Africa who grew up in the Kurdish areas of Eastern Turkey who were forced into boarding schools at a young age by the Turkish government, literally dragged away from their parents by force. For years they were beaten at school on a weekly basis for having the audacity to speak the Kurdish language. For one prominent Kurdish South African, the beatings became a weekly occurrence in his school years, and the discrimination continued into his adult life, in that being Kurdish was a constant impediment to upward mobility and getting a good job in mainstream Turkish society.
It is all a continuing machievellian attempt to destroy the Kurdish culture and language, and to indoctrinate the very young with a strong sense of Turkish nationalism which is intolerant of minority cultures, particularly Kurdish culture.
Just as South Africans, including some of our government ministers, had engaged in a solidarity hunger strike with the Palestinian political prisoners a few years ago, perhaps it is time to express solidarity with Leyla Guven and the struggle of the Kurds for equal rights, and most particularly call for the release of Abdullah Ocalan from incarceration. Madiba would have expected nothing less, particularly this Women’s Day.
Shannon Ebrahim is the Group Foreign Editor for Independent Media.