HRS International

“I Hope the West Does Not Give In”: An Interview with Seyran Ates

PART ONE: When the publication of her new book, "Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution," caused a spike in death threats, the Turkish-German lawyer Seyran Ates cancelled her German book tour and instead flew to New York to visit the well-known American feminist Phyllis Chesler. Chesler, who is now a regular contributor to, has interviewed Seyran Ates for us. "We come from a tribal culture," Ates says. "We have not learned how to be or live alone. Individualism is not valued. You are nothing without your family. But some very high-profile honor murders in Germany were due to re-establishing contact with a dangerous family. Often, the mothers would give their daughters a sob story to lure the girls home. The girls returned and were murdered."

“I Hope the West Does Not Give In”: An Interview with Seyran Ates

By Phyllis Chesler for HRS

This past week, my home and my life were graced by a very heroic houseguest. I am talking about Seyran Ates, the Turkish-German lawyer, author, and freedom fighter who flew to New York City to spend six days with me, to talk, laugh, dream, strategize, hang out, hide out.

Yes, hide out.

Seyran’s fourth book Islam braucht eine sexuelle Revolution has just appeared in Germany. Its title: “Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution” has, apparently, led to more than the usual number of death threats. Seyran temporarily cancelled her tour to promote the book and came to visit me instead.

Seyran is no stranger to serious trouble.

In 1984, as a 21 year-old law student, Seyran was working at a Women’s Center in Berlin where mainly Turkish and Kurdish girls and women came for counseling. Seyran was sitting with her client, a fifteen year old battered Turkish Muslim girl. All around them, other women were giving and receiving advice, shelter, legal services. A quiet man quietly entered. Politely, but firmly, one of the women said: “Sir, there are no men allowed here.”

Expressionless, the man in the trench coat assured her that “What I have to do will take no time at all.”

Quickly, smoothly, he shot and killed the fifteen year old. He also pumped three bullets into Seyran’s neck and shoulder; she was not expected to live since the shooter had punctured a major artery. Against all odds Seyran recovered but her rehabilitation would take six years.

The shooter calmly walked out of the Women’s Center.

Yes, he was finally found and jailed for six months but no, he was never convicted. Although six Turkish and non-Turkish women identified him, the police made so many procedural errors that the judge felt there was enough reasonable doubt and could not convict him. In Seyran’s expert opinion, the problem was that the victims were women—and Turkish women at that. It was a Turkish-on-Turkish, Muslim-on-Muslim crime—perhaps the fate of Turkish-German women was not yet seen as a priority on the multi-culti German agenda.

A lesser mortal might have given up. Seyran, however, completed law school. She went on to specialize in defending battered, mainly Muslim immigrant girls and women, including those who are the intended targets of honor killing.

However, Seyran was a rebel long before this incident. When she was 18 years old, she ran away from home. She could no longer bear being “treated as her father’s and elder brother’s slave and servant.” She wrote a book about it but under a pseudonym. She titled it: Wo gehören wir hin? (Where Do We Belong?) and it was a cri de coeur about immigrant identity. When I asked her how she found the strength to do this, she told me this:

“My parents, who were farmers, first came to Berlin in 1968 as guest workers. Berlin was undergoing a political and sexual revolution. I have no idea what they made of it all. Anyway, I arrived here in 1969 when I was six years old. I was the only Turkish girl in school. Everyone spoke German. Me too. I became completely integrated. There were no separate or parallel facilities, no parallel universe to impede my integration.”

Seyran wanted the same freedoms that German girls and women had. Now, in retrospect, she realizes that, as the only daughter, her mother really needed her help. (Seyran has reconciled completely with her family. In fact, they all live together in the same building in different apartments and support Seyran’s decision to be a single mother.)

Here, in the West, a non-Muslim divorce lawyer who represents a non-Muslim battered woman client might well be sued by her client’s ex-husband; she might have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend herself. I know many American women lawyers who have faced this. But a lawyer like Seyran risks her life, faces death, each day she defends a battered Muslim woman, each time she helps her flee from an intended honor killing.

So many heroic Muslim and ex-Muslim feminists and dissidents have received death threats. Some write under pseudonyms, live in exile, often require bodyguards and/or serious police protection. Here, I am thinking about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Magdi Allam, Lubna Hussein (the brave, trouser-wearing journalist who just fled Sudan), Ibn Warraq, Irshad Manji, Taslima Nasrin, Asra Nomani, Wafa Sultan. Those of us who share their views and who write about them in the West, are usually called “racist Islamophobes.”

Seyran made me laugh when she said, in all sincerity, “Phyllis, they call me a racist and an Islamophobe too—and I am a religious Muslim.” Indeed, Seyran has a plan to open a mosque where no hijab, headscarf, will be allowed, a mosque that will be as friendly to women as to men.

I wonder: Will each truth-teller, beginning with the Danish cartoonist, Kurt Westergaard, require a personal bodyguard? Will we all simply have to get used to living with death threats? Will we each run up enormous legal expenses as well, as Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld did in her influential “libel tourism” (a deceased Saudi billionaire sued her for libel in London) case, which led to Rachel’s Law in New York State [which protects New Yorkers against libel judgments in countries whose laws are inconsistent with the freedom of speech guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution – ed.]? Indeed, both Daniel Pipes and David Horowitz have established legal defense funds to help in such cases.

How much, exactly, will this truth-telling about Islam end up costing the West? What is our alternative to paying this new kind of dhimmi tax?

And now, here is an interview which I conducted with Seyran over a period of many days. Yes, we also took our photos together but agreed it would not be wise to publish any photos at this time.

Phyllis Chesler (PC): When you ran away from home at seventeen, where did you go?

Seyran Ates (SA) I had some friends helping me. A teacher helped me, someone who was one of the 1968 students – I could live there without paying rent. Then, I had a German boyfriend, so I moved in with him. The boyfriend came after I ran away. True, I was in love before but he was not the reason I ran away. I wanted freedom.

PC: Did your family know where you were?

SA: They tried to get me back. The state chased after me because I was not yet 18. For awhile, I lived in a shelter for children. I tried to live at home again, once, for three weeks but then I ran away for good. My father asked me for one last chance. I give it to him, thinking maybe he could change, but after 3 weeks I decided he would take too long for me to wait.

But now we’re all living together, and they’ve changed. They are wonderful and I love them for how they have changed.

A German television program did a documentary about me and my life – also in Turkish –and they interviewed my parents also. On camera, they say, we are guilty, we feel guilty, because we did so many wrong things when Seyran was with us. We should have trusted her more and we shouldn’t have listened to people around us. They cried and asked for my forgiveness.

They love my life, they say they are proud about my strength, about the awards I get, they have no problem with my being a single mother.

PC: What would you tell a girl in your situation to do at this time in history?

SA: I get asked this a lot. I say, if you have ability to change your family from within try to do so because it is much harder to do it after running away. But, if your family is not open to dialogue, your only chance is to go to a place far, far away from your family, let the family go through its crisis. It also depends on their age. I told a 13-year-old girl that she’s too young. As long as she is not facing being raped, being forced into an arranged marriage, being sent back to Turkey, not allowed to go to school, try to stay. Otherwise, the moment they insist on a forced marriage, she has to leave.

PC: Where can she go? Who will substitute for her family? Where will she find an intimate extended adoptive family?

SA: There are places in Germany. There are very good places. Social workers will help her start a new life. She cannot risk any contact with her family. But, we come from tribal culture. We have not learned how to be or live alone. Individualism is not valued. You are nothing without your family. But some very high-profile honor murders in Germany were due to re-establishing contact with a dangerous family. Often, the mothers would give their daughters a sob story to lure the girls home. The girls returned and were murdered. But your question is important. Some shelters offer only a nice place to stay, and that’s not enough, not even if you have the best furniture.