In 1991, iconic Kurdish activist Leyla Zana became the first Kurdish woman elected to Turkey’s parliament. While taking the oath, she uttered a few Kurdish words that were to alter her life. In the ensuing chain of events, Zana and several fellow Kurdish lawmakers were expelled from the legislature. She had her parliamentary immunity revoked and found herself in prison for a decade.
The nationalistic uproar Zana caused in parliament was frequently evoked last week, when another remarkable Kurdish woman took her parliamentary oath. Dilek Ocalan — the niece of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) — was among 80 members of the Kurdish-dominated Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) who assumed their seats in the new parliament. Ocalan’s sheer presence in the legislature comes as a striking illustration of how far the Kurdish struggle has progressed and transformed Turkey since the days Zana was booed for simply speaking in Kurdish.
Dilek Ocalan is the daughter of Fatma Ocalan, the sister of the PKK leader who's serving a life sentence on the prison island of Imrali. A 27-year-old university graduate, she has been forced to shoulder the burden of her surname since her childhood. With politics omnipresent in her life, she served in the party assembly of the HDP’s predecessor, the Peace and Democracy Party, focusing closely on women’s rights. She has been active also in nongovernmental groups and the HDP’s women's branch, which nominated her for parliament from her native province of Sanliurfa.
In the 2011 elections, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won 10 seats in Sanliurfa, while the Kurdish movement had only two. The HDP’s historic showing in the June 7 polls altered the balance. The HDP won five seats, and the AKP seven.
The outcome in Sanliurfa, where Dilek Ocalan ran second on the HDP list, speaks of deep local sympathy for Ocalan’s niece, unlike the widespread hatred and aversion her surname provokes across much of Turkey. By fielding the young woman as a candidate, the HDP had taken a serious risk, as it campaigned on an inclusive platform and sought to lure support not only from Kurdish but also Turkish and other ethnic constituencies, within which the name “Ocalan” could have had a repellant effect.
Yet, the HDP’s vote both in Sanliurfa and nationwide proved that Dilek Ocalan’s candidacy had no damaging impact. Her election to parliament comes as a watershed in overcoming concerns and prejudices among Turks against Kurdish activism in national politics. With her mere presence in the legislature, she has set the ball rolling in breaking taboos.
Not long ago, even calling the PKK leader “Mr. Ocalan” was deemed a criminal offence and landed many in court for praising terrorists, a charge that carries up to two years in jail. Despite efforts at reconciliation, the PKK remains on Ankara’s terrorist list over its three-decade armed campaign in southeast Turkey.
In Turkish, the honorific “sayin,” often translated as “mister,” means "esteemed" or "honorable." Referring to Ocalan as “sayin” became a gesture of Kurdish defiance, and many Kurds, among them veteran politician Ahmet Turk, ended up with jail terms of at least six months. In 2012, the appeals court finally put an end to the prosecutions, ruling that calling Ocalan “sayin” fell within the scope of freedom of expression under the European Convention of Human Rights. Yet, pressure against calling Ocalan “sayin” has remained in place.
At the June 23 swearing-in ceremony in parliament, Dilek Ocalan was announced as “Sayin Ocalan” as she took to the rostrum to be sworn in. The two words, which had landed many in court for years, were now uttered in the highest echelons of the Turkish state.
Dilek Ocalan’s parliamentary debut was also a striking illustration of how Turkish political culture has matured since the days when the “others” — Kurdish nationalists like Zana or hijabi women like Merve Kavakci — were booed and kicked out. In 1999, Kavakci could not even take her oath when her arrival in the house triggered a secularist fury. She was forced out of the general assembly and subsequently stripped of her seat.
In sharp contrast, calm and respect prevailed in the house for Dilek Ocalan’s arrival. Under parliamentary traditions tasking the youngest members with certain duties, she even served on the temporary secretarial board, announcing the lawmakers as they were sworn in. In one memorable episode, former Labor Minister Faruk Celik shook her hand without looking in her face, to which she responded with a gracious smile.
Dilek Ocalan’s incident-free debut is remarkable in terms of breaking prejudices, endorsing pluralism and, most importantly, stamping out the notorious lynching culture in Turkey.
To better grasp its significance, let's recall the level of loathing for Ocalan. Routinely called a “baby murderer” in the Turkish media, Ocalan was nabbed in 1999 while on the run in Kenya. His capture triggered a nationalist frenzy as many called for his execution, demonstrating with ropes or burning his picture in the streets. The hate speech went beyond Ocalan and grew into a wave targeting all Kurds. The Nationalist Action Party, the main supporter of the demonstrations, now shares the parliamentary benches with the HDP and another, younger Ocalan.
Ironically, the most vocal objections to Dilek Ocalan’s parliamentary bid came from her family. In remarks in April, Mehmet Ocalan, her uncle and Abdullah Ocalan’s brother, had argued that she was too young for politics and that the PKK leader would have also disapproved of her candidacy.
Despite the good start in parliament, politics for Dilek Ocalan is far from being a bed of roses. On social media, she was targeted not only as a Kurd but also as a woman with irreverent sexist comments about her distinct facial features — thick eyebrows, black eyes and a mole above her upper lip. Yet, many social media users rallied in support with a message in response: “We are all Dilek Ocalan’s mole.”
Dilek Ocalan has so far stayed away from the fuss. After the oath-taking ceremony, she rushed to her home province of Sanliurfa on the Syrian border, where dozens of Syrian Kurds were hospitalized after the Islamic State’s June 25 attack on Kobani across the border. While she worked to help meet the needs of the wounded, fellow activists crossed to Kobani as Turkish Kurds mobilized at the border to offer support.
Dilek Ocalan’s election to parliament is a striking illustration of how Turkey’s Kurds are able to integrate into parliamentary politics after decades of denial, assimilation policies and political banishment. The HDP’s breakthrough means that a major psychological threshold has been passed on the way to the PKK laying down arms and ultimate peace. The HDP demands freedom and a political role for Abdullah Ocalan. It believes he could make a bigger contribution to peace between Ankara and the PKK with direct participation in politics rather than exerting influence via relatives, deputies or representatives.
The possibility of Ocalan making it to parliament one day seems highly unlikely. Still, one should not forget that the possibility of an Ocalan niece in parliament seemed equally unlikely a decade ago.