TODAY, International Women’s Day, Kurdish MP Leyla Guven will have gone without food for 121 days. Her indefinite hunger strike began a wave of hunger strikes that now include more than 300 Kurds across the world, many of them prisoners in Turkish jails. They are united in their simple demand that the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who is in his 21st year in a Turkish prison, be allowed his basic human rights of visits from his family and his lawyer. This is seen as a critical first step in Kurdish hopes for peace and dignity.

International Women’s Day is an important date for the Kurdish movement, as women’s rights are central to their philosophy. And no-one has done more to ensure women that central place than Ocalan. It seems a good time, then, to ask what could bring a dynamic activist and MP to resort to such a desperate measure as a hunger strike.

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Guven was born in 1964 in a small town in the province of Konya in Turkey under a political system that denies Kurdish identity and women’s rights. As her daughter, Sabiha Temizkhan, tells it: “My mother is the youngest daughter of a family with seven children. She was married to a relative when she was 16 ... She was in her 30s when she got divorced. She was a woman who had only primary school education and she had never worked in her life, but nevertheless, she did not accept the submissive femininity role that was imposed on her. She found a job, and she worked. She endeavoured to raise us in the best possible way. I think it would not be wrong to say that her life was also a resistance before she got involved in politics.”

Guven’s active role in Kurdish politics began when Temizkhan was in secondary school. In 1994 she established the Konya branch of the new People’s Democracy Party, then known as the HADEP. Turkish repression has meant that Kurdish political parties have been repeatedly closed down and refounded under a new guise. The names of the parties she has been involved with have varied, but her commitment to Kurdish democratic politics has remained constant.

The National: Leyla Guven continues to protest for human rightsLeyla Guven continues to protest for human rights

The modern Turkish state was founded on the basis of Turkish ethnic nationalism, and the majority parties have all espoused a policy of forced Turkification, backed up by economic deprivation of Kurdish regions, and the legal and extra-legal repression of the Kurdish population. It was hard being a Kurdish activist, and Guven and her comrades became accustomed to police interference and arrests. But this couldn’t prevent her from being elected mayor of Kucukdikili in 2004 and mayor of Viransehir in 2009. In the latter role she became a member of the European Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, and in a speech to the congress in Strasbourg she emphasised the importance of democratic self-governance and decentralisation.

Two months after her return, she was arrested in a mass round-up of Kurdish local politicians and detained in prison pending a trial that went on without end. She was only released in 2014, during a brief period of hope when the Turkish government seemed at last to be responding to Ocalan’s repeated attempts to make a peaceful settlement.

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In June 2015, she was elected as an MP in an election that saw a breakthrough by the HDP, her progressive pro-Kurdish party. However, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his majority AKP reacted by ending peace negotiations and letting loose a violent campaign against the HDP. Another election was called for November, when Guven lost her seat.

In 2016 Guven was elected co-chair of the Democratic Society Congress, an umbrella organisation for Kurdish political parties and other organisations. In January 2018, after she spoke up against Turkey’s unprovoked invasion of Afrin, in predominantly Kurdish northern Syria, she was again arrested and detained. In the elections that June she won a parliamentary seat, but although Turkish law grants MPs immunity, she was not released. Indeed, in the current political climate, election as a Kurdish politician almost guarantees a prison sentence.

Guven announced her hunger strike during her trial hearing. For the first 79 days she carried it out in her prison cell, then, for their own political reasons, the Turkish government allowed her home. But she continues her strike as her demand has not been met. She has received messages of solidarity from women in struggle throughout the world.

Although I have not met Guven, I have visited the 14 Kurdish hunger strikers in Strasbourg, where they are trying to push the Council of Europe into action. Their bodies may be growing weaker, and they may have caused irreversible damage to vital organs, but their integrity and commitment is undimmed. To see the selflessness that human beings are capable of is extraordinarily inspiring. If all of us had a fraction of their dedication this world would be a better place. The least we can do is help them to get their voices heard.