Rezan Zuğurli, born to a family of well known Kurdish activists in the southeast of Turkey, is soft-spoken college student and the recently elected mayor of the Lice district of the Diyarbakir Province in Turkey. One look at her and you'd more likely peg her for a young woman more interested in fashion or music, than being someone fighting for Kurdish rights.
But a fighter is just exactly what she is. Her early years in southeastern Turkey were in the midst of an armed struggle for autonomy and political freedom for the Kurds. A minority group in Turkey that makes up about one fifth of the country's population, the Kurds have been involved in this conflict that has claimed more than 40,000 lives over the past 30 years.
At the age of 22 she followed in her families footsteps by protesting in solidarity with Kurdish political prisoners in Diyarbakir. It landed her in prison for 13 months on a trumped up charge of stone throwing. Just last month she ran in local elections for the mayor of the Lice district, only two years after she was released from prison and just a year into a fragile ceasefire between the Kurds and the Turkish government.
Having won the election at the age of 25, she is now the youngest mayor in Turkish history.
A Diyarbakır court sentenced Rezan Zuğurli on May 7th to four years and two months in prison for participating in illegal rallies and promoting outlawed terrorist organization - The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). After the Diyarbakır 2nd High Criminal Court's recent ruling sentencing her to five years in prison, Zuğurli's lawyer claimed there is no evidence that she was ordered to attend the demonstrations.
But the Diyarbakır 2nd High Criminal Court found Zuğurli guilty of committing a crime on behalf of the PKK. The court reduced Zuğurli's original sentence of five years to four years and two months for her good behavior during the trial. She is currently appealing this verdict and the sentence.
Zugurli, who is part of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, split her mayoral post with her male running mate Harun Erkuş. The Peace and Democracy Party mandates that all top positions must be shared by men and women in an effort to increase female political participation. She sees her new role as more important than ever - not only as a Kurd but as a woman in a male-dominated political system.
Zuğurli, an ardent feminist, hopes her new position as mayor will help elevate the status of women in her district, as well as in the rest of Turkey. In many of the districts public positions, there is practically no female participation. The businesses are mainly run by men and the tea shops are full of men smoking cigarettes while in rapt conversations. The women are left at home to cook and take care of the children.
“Women are active in politics, but in the home, they always rate second. There is no equality between the men and women.” states Zugurli.
She finds a great sense of solidarity with the other female politicians in Turkey. Women like Berivan Elif Kilic, a mayor nearby who was forced by her mother to get married at the age of only 15 and suffered frequent beatings from her husband. But when she turned 28, Kilic got a divorce and began a career in politics. Now, five years later, she is mayor of the agricultural town of Kocakoy.
Also there is Gultan Kisanak, the female mayor of Diyarbakir, who is among a small group of women serving as the first female mayors of larger metropolitan cities.
Even though some male residents of Lice say they are worried about women serving in important leadership roles, it is Zugurli’s age that seems to be the issue that causes them concern, and not a lack of experience or savvy. Much of the general consensus between the men in the district is that even though she is young, they expect her to succeed due to her experience with issues facing people in the district.
She is the first to admit that she's still learning to maneuver the political scene. She spends her days on everything from endless meetings in Lice and the greater southeast region to working on new community projects, such as an initiative to establish a niche market in which impoverished women can sell their crops.
After putting in a full day's work, she drives an hour to Diyarbakir where she attends night classes in radio and television broadcasting. She is devoted to her job as mayor, but says her school studies are also crucial to her future.
"I'm a student and a mayor at the same time," she says with cheerful laughter masking any exhaustion.
Zuğurli's family name is synonymous with the Kurdish struggle among the Kurds in the area and has gained her much support. But it also means she has a lot to live up to, especially in the Lice district, where the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the militant group that has led the fighting against the government, was founded.
Zuğurli says that in the 1990s, at the height of the bloody Kurdish-Turkish conflict, the local cigarette factory in Lice became an army base and the hospital turned into a police base. Even now, when driving into Lice, heavily armed Turkish forces man checkpoints, stopping and searching cars that drive past. For the young mayor, being a role model for young Kurds is just as important as her being a role model for woman.
Zuğurli says she first dreamed of going into politics when she was in prison. She spent eight months of her prison sentence in the Diyarbakir Prison, infamous for widespread torture in the 1980s and 1990s.
“At least when you get arrested now, compared to back in the 1990s, they don't torture you anymore,” Zugurli says.
Incarcerated in a prison cell that at times held about 45 other women, she says she met many young, disenchanted Kurds, some who were only in their teens. According to Zugurli, many of them were there after being charged with stone throwing, just as she had been.
With a ceasefire established in March of last year and calls for the PKK to withdraw to neighboring Iraq, violence in the area has largely subsided. But many Kurds like Zugurli still lack faith in the Turkish government's promise to move forward with a peace plan.
They say time is running out until fighting will resume again. PKK fighters stopped pulling out of Turkey in September, demanding the government take more concrete steps to form a peace plan.
While Zuğurli knows the fate of the plan is largely out of her hands, she hopes she can bring a fresh approach to helping her people at a local level. I am a voice for the Kurdish people.
I am here to represent them.” She also is a feminist and hopes her position as mayor would help better the lives of women in the Lice District. Zuğurli attributes most of her success to her endlessly supportive family, and to the people of Lice for taking a chance with her.
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