Becoming Newroz: Remembering Zekiye and Rahşan

As a day of rebellion and resistance, Newroz has an important meaning for the Kurdish freedom movement. Beginning with the Newroz self-sacrifice action of PKK co-founder Mazlum Dogan, the martyrs of Newroz day are remembered every year that Kurdish revolutionaries light the fire of rebirth and revolution on March 21st.

Among these are Zekiye Alkan and Rahşan Demirel, two Kurdish women, who lit themselves on fire to protest the colonizer’s war in Kurdistan. The following texts on the lives of these women, who found meaning in life through struggle, were written by members of the Kurdish Women’s Students’ Union JXK in 2016.

Zekiye Alkan – “Newroz is celebrated with the Newroz fire”

Zekiye Alkan was born in Kurdistan in 1970. She studied medicine at Dîcle University in Amed, where she became interested in the Kurdish freedom movement. The 1990s were marked both in Kurdistan and in Turkey by the assimilation and annihilation policies of the Turkish state. Kurdish identity, as well as the resistance, was crushed by all means possible. Many people were murdered by the state, others disappeared in custody. In the midst of this reality, Zekiye Alkan burned her body at the historical fortress walls in Amed (Diyarbakir), Northern Kurdistan on 21 March 1990 in protest against the state’s policy of oppression and annihilation. Her protest was a response to the women’s resistance that had been spreading across Kurdistan in the 1990s. Friends of Zekiye describe her as a rebellious and curious person in all areas of her life. The rebellions in Nisêbîn had left a deep impression on her and awakened her spirit of resistance.

“Zekiye always had a reactive attitude towards the existing system and oppression. She was like that at university, too. She was different from the other women. She was full of life. She wasn’t like the people around us. She didn’t fit into the typical image of the Kurds, into the typical image of the Kurdish woman, naive and reserved. She was resisted the system. She was a free woman. She had no connection with the system, but always had an antagonistic attitude towards it. Not even her daily behavior was compatible with it. Her actions suited her.

After her action, she told her friends in the hospital: “This is how Newroz is celebrated”. With her action, Zekiye Alkan carried the wind of resistance from Mazlum Dogan, Ferhat Kurtay, Esref Aynik and other friends. She wanted to give hope to all oppressed women in Kurdistan for their resistance, which was at ist very beginning at the time. Today, millions of women carry her spirit of resistance within them, as they carry her revolution to the front lines.

Rahşan Demirel – The woman who became the Newroz fire

Rahşan Demirel was born on 15 August 1975 in Nisêbîn (Mêrdîn). When she was one year old, her family moved to Izmir due to the repression by the Turkish state, , as did many other Kurdish families at that time. Rahşan nevertheless always felt very attached to her homeland Kurdistan and understood early on what kind of war the Turkish state was waging against Kurdish identity and language. Stories about her say that she always wanted to be dressed in the Kurdish colours, yellow-red-green, as a child. When she once appeared in these colours at school, she was punished and beaten by one of her teachers. But these colours meant freedom for Rahşan. For her they symbolized her hometown Nisêbîn, her existence and her identity.

Already in her childhood, Rahşan felt anger about the oppression and denial of the Kurdish people, as she told her mother with the following words: “Don’t you see it, mum? Every day villages are burned down. Our people are murdered. We are not allowed to live in our own country. We are not allowed to speak our mother tongue or live our culture. I am proud to oppose this denial.” The uprisings in Cizîr, Nisêbîn and Silopî in 1992 had a great impact on Rahşan. At that time, one day before Newroz, the then Minister of Interior Ismet Sezgin announced that all Newroz celebrations would be forbidden. Nevertheless, the Newroz festival was celebrated in the streets of Kurdistan on March 21. The Turkish state responded with the murder of several dozen people. Hundreds more were injured that day.

The morning after, on 22 March 1992, Rahşan Demirel, who had followed the fighting the night before, left a note on a piece of cardboard: “Today in Kadifekale, I will become Newroz. I must answer to Cizîr, Mêrdîn and Nisêbîn. Stand up for me. I will let Ismet Sezgin know that Newroz will be celebrated. We will celebrate Newroz with our lives!” These were her words before she burned her body in Kadifekale at the age of 17… Her mother recounts her thoughts that morning after discovering her daughter’s note:

“My knees went soft. I sought support from the tree nearby. Without much thought I accepted: ‘My daughter has made such a decision and sacrificed herself to the people. Now it is up to us to take responsibility for her memory’. I went to my daughter and shouted my first slogan. Now it was up to us. The whole world had heard Rahşan. Fearing Rahşan’s resistance, security forces wanted to bury her without anyone noticing. The police wanted to take her for the autopsy and bring her to the hospital to exterminate her there. I did not allow it. ‘If you take her, I’ll burn myself too’, I said. Together with thousands of people, we took the body of my daughter, Rahşan. We took her to the mosque in Kadifekale, and then to Nisêbîn. My daughter was in love with the country she was born in.”

Rahşan’s History is a symbol of resistance against the denial and assimilation of Kurdish identity. Rahşan is the revolution in red-yellow-green colours, the woman who became the Newroz fire…


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