Leyla Qasim: A hero of her people

Almost 37 years after her execution, the name of Leyla Qasim is still a national symbol among Kurdish women’s activists and politicians.

“Leyla is regarded as a national symbol of bravery and heroism. She was like an inspiration to generate new and patriotic thinking for young Kurdish women, and also men, at that time,” said Shirin Amedi, a veteran Kurdish women’s activist and politician.

Qasim was born in 1952 in the Kurdish city of Khanaqin. Her father Dalaho Qasim and her mother, Kani, were patriotic Kurds involved in Kurdish national liberation movement. She was the third of five children and the only girl in the family. When she was 4 years old, her family moved to Erbil. She and her brothers were devoted to education. In 1958, she began primary school and finished secondary school in Khanaqin. Qasim went to Baghdad in 1971 to study sociology at Baghdad University.

She joined Kurdistan Students Union and Kurdistan Democratic Party in 1970, along with one of her elder brothers. It was her first taste of being politically active. Although Qasim was young, she was enthusiastic and determined to work for an independent Kurdistan and always inspired her friends at university. She was dedicated to making a lasting impact among Kurdish students and women and encouraged them to become active in society and to work towards a liberated Kurdistan. Her bravery and heroism were an absolute danger to the Baath regime.

She knew the power young Kurdish women had if they worked alongside men to liberate Kurdistan. “Leyla was a model for working with the men in the Kurdish liberation movement, whether in the mountains or in the political arena of the 70s,” said Amedi.

Qasim met her match in Jawad Hamawandi during her activities in KSU. Like Qasim, he was an activist for an independent Kurdistan.

Qasim and four of her comrades were detained and imprisoned during a sweep by Iraqi troops. She was tortured and treated brutally in jail.

She was sentenced to death after a long, high-profile trial, broadcast throughout Iraq. In the early morning of May 12, 1974, Leyla Qasim and her four companions were hanged.

Before she was executed, in her last meeting with her family, she told her sister, “I am going to be Bride of Kurdistan and embrace it.”

“Many people named their girls Leyla in memory of her,” said Amedi.

She was the first woman to be executed in Baathist Iraq for political crimes. “Leyla was an active woman in a period when nobody dared to play in politics, but she insisted on working toward her mission of a liberated Kurdistan,” Amedi said.

Following the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, a delegation from Kurdistan Women’s Union, led by Amedi, went to Baghdad in May 13, 2003 to mark her anniversary. Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani attended the event in Baghdad, where she was executed. The delegation then went to Khanaqin where 3,000 people welcomed the group, recounts Ameni.

Soon after her death, many people joined the Peshmarga forces, armed Kurdish fighters, to continue the struggle she dedicated her life to.

“By executing Leyla, the former regime hoped to eradicate the Kurdish liberation movement, but it was the beginning of a way to make new Leylas,” said Chinar Saa’d, member of presidency of Kurdistan Democratic Party.

“The new generation of Kurdish women should be aware of what Leyla did and enrich their knowledge by evaluating her history of political and social activity,” said Saa’d.

After her death, Qasim became a national martyr in Kurdistan. Every year, people mark the anniversary of her execution.

Salih Waladbagi

The Kurdish Globe
21 May 2011

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