Belgium’s “Iron Lady” Zuhal Demir given justice brief in new government

A woman of Turkish Kurdish heritage has been given a top job in Belgium’s new federal government.

Zuhal Demir, the third of five children born to Alevi Kurdish parents from Turkey, was one of eight Flemish ministers sworn in during Parliament’s first session on 2 October, following the approval of the new government.

Ms Demir, 39, has taken on responsibility for planning, the environment, energy and tourism. She is also in charge of the country’s justice policy, a new portfolio for a Flemish minister.

Ms Demir, from the N-VA party, previously served as Secretary of State for Equal Opportunities under former Prime Minister Charles Michel.

She studied employment law in Leuven and Brussels, according to a report by Flanders News, and worked as a solicitor in Antwerp. She was elected to Belgium’s Chamber of Representatives in 2010.

In Belgium she has been nicknamed the “Iron Lady”, partly because her surname means the metal “iron” in Turkish, but also because she has advocated in the past cutting the duration of unemployment benefits to encourage people to try harder to find work.

She received death threats after Turkish press reports accused her of supporting terrorism and being a member of the outlawed PKK. In February 2017 a man in Belgium was sentenced to six months in prison after making threats against her. Another was reportedly fined 400 euros in December 2018 for making threats via Facebook.

Ms Demir says she supports rights for Kurdish people in Turkey “but without violence”.

“Just because you have Kurdish roots, doesn’t mean you necessarily support the PKK,” she was quoted as saying in a report by Flanders Today in 2016.

Her father was a miner, who worked in Limburg after arriving in Belgium from Turkey in the 1970s.

While taking the ministerial oath of allegiance when she was appointed to her first role in 2017, Ms Demir wore a red handkerchief around her wrist that her father wore when he worked in the mines.

“It’s our family’s good luck token,” she said at the time. “My father always said we mustn’t forget where we came from.”

Last year, she courted controversy by criticising after-school Turkish language classes in Ghent, where teachers are paid by the Turkish government. Ms Demir described the lessons as “subsidised anti-integration”.


Photo, top: Zuhal Demir © Facebook/Zuhal Demir