HRS International

The Freedom in The West = Women’s Rights

PART 2: Last week the Turkish-German lawyer Seyran Ates, who has a new book out, sought shelter in New York at the home of the feminist author and psychologist Phyllis Chelser. Ates has been the target of death threats and has been shot in the line of duty while working for the rights of Turkish immigrant women. In conversation, Chesler and Ates agree that Western freedom willl stand or fall on the question of women's rights. Ates cites a German study which shows that 30 percent of Turkish university students support honor killings of women and that 60 percent believe that a woman should not be allowed to leave her home without a man's permission and a male chaperone.

An Interview with Seyran Ates PART TWO (part one here)

Phyllis Chesler (PC): What happened after you published your latest book?

Seyran Ates (SA): After the book went on the market, I got death threats in Turkish. People threatened to come and shoot me in the head. In the book, and in an interview about the book in Der Speigel, I talked about how proud Turkish families are about all the girlfriends their sons have. He’s a Casanova, a sex God. But if their daughters dare have one boyfriend—it’s like she’s a whore, a bitch. Turkish people asked me whether I wanted nice Turkish girls to sleep with every man? Freedom for girls is seen as prostitution.

If a Muslim or Turkish woman is westernized then, by definition, she is a prostitute. If a Muslim man lives like a German, he’s just a man, he’s just a good man. For most immigrant families, and I’m sure for the whole Islamic world, more than 50% of families don’t want to have a foreigner, a westerner, as a son-in-law.

PC: Do you cover homosexuality in your latest book?

SA: I interviewed some Turkish and Arab homosexual boys and men. One of them said that nowhere is it so easy to have sex with a man as in Istanbul. I explained what homosexuality is as an identity. Is it an identity? It is now an identity in Europe, it could be—but is not an identity in the Islamic world. Now, people are starting to talk about homosexuality as an identity, which they didn’t do even 10-20 years ago. But this doesn’t mean the homosexuality is legal. It is not forbidden in Turkey, but it’s not legal as it is in northern countries. There can be no same-sex marriage unless someone becomes transgendered in Turkey. It is still impossible to have a job and be openly homosexual.

But gay parties are more exciting, colorful, exotic, in Istanbul than in Berlin. That’s at night. During the day you will only see transgendered people.

PC: I am not a fan of the movement for same-sex marriage—too hopelessly bourgeois for me — but I am in favor of civil unions that will give all couples, gay and straight, married and unmarried, the same legal and economic rights. Actually, an uncoupled person should be entitled to the same rights too. Why discriminate against someone who is single?

SA: I am against marriage in general.

PC: Why?

SA: We don’t need this institution…we can just live together.

PC: Can we create stable family units?

SA: A small (nuclear) family concept is not good for children. An extended family is better. And, if you are a single mom, it’s a bad situation to grow up with only one person 24 hours a day.

PC: In your book, you say Muslims need to confront sex and issues of sexuality with understanding of what the West has to contribute, without fearing or stereotyping it.

SA: I don’t think Muslims have to copy the west or to look only to the west. By nature, human beings are looking for freedom and also for pleasure, fun, even fun with sex. This is a human right and a human feeling all over the world. In Iran, people want to live independent and free lives that are not controlled by religion. This doesn’t mean they want to copy the west.

PC: Why not copy what’s good in the West?

SA: Turkey is becoming more Islamist, less free. There are two worlds going on in Turkey – one that is copying Iran and the fundamentalist Islamic world, and one that is a modern, Western society. The latter Turkey believes in small families, that it is normal to have sex before marriage, the girls and boys are equal. Both worlds seem strong. We don’t know what’s in the future. The government is Islamic but on the street, people don’t agree with everything. Yes, there are more mosques and more headscarves, but Islam never rejected sexuality as Catholicism did. In fact, Muslims talk more about sexuality because Muhammad had an active sexuality and talked a lot about sex practices and had so many wives.

PC: Yes, but that’s all about male sexuality, male lust, male promiscuity, male entitlement.

SA: True. But Islam is essentially pro-sex—but not outside of marriage. Of course, polygamy and concubinage are permitted.

PC: And temporary marriages, which are so popular in Iran.

SA: I discuss this in my book. Having fun with sex is meant for men, not women, in Islam. And yet, there is a sentence in the hadith: don’t go to women like a dog, and don’t start sleeping with her radically, do it step by step, with foreplay. Al-Ghazali’s 12th book about marriage makes some pro-woman points. But don’t read the last five pages. They are a patriarchal nightmare. He expects women to stay home and obey the man.

PC: Tell me about all your books. Do you deal with sexuality as well as politics?

SA: Yes. In my first book, I describe the situation of women, how the worst night for so many Muslim women is when they are married and lose their virginity.

My second book came out twenty years after my first book. I look at what has and has not changed. I used my real name for this book—in fact, the title, Große Reise ins Feuer. Die Geschichte einer deutschen Türkin, is a translation of what my name means in Turkish: My first name means “big vacation” and my last name means “fire.”

By now I was a lawyer. I promoted the ideas in this book on television and in public forums. I was ready to shout “fire” from the rooftops.

PC: You came to Germany before a massive wave of Turkish immigration, did this allow you to integrate?

SA: There were some children in our neighborhood who were not integrated. They went to another school with special classes for Turkish-speaking children. We were lucky. We went to a German school for Germans. At the time, Germans thought that the Turkish guest workers would be there only temporarily and did not envision integration. They assumed that the Turks would return home. In Germany, only after 9/11, did Germany wake up to the fact that Germany is an immigrant country.

PC: And your third book?

SA: This is about a multicultural society. The title is The Multicultural Error.

I condemn political correctness and the idea that it is OK to live side by side but not to live together. It is a plea for integration. And, if you really want to integrate immigrants, you have to look at situation of women, otherwise integration will never work. Many imported brides never learn to speak German and never leave the house. The Turkish Germans women who do want to integrate are punished, sometimes even honor murdered.

PC: Now I understand why you were so happy to hear me [at a recent Rome conference – ed.] reject multicultural relativism as essentially racist and anti-feminist, not at all in keeping with our original feminist vision of universal human rights.

SA: I am attacked by left wing feminists in the West and by Muslim fundamentalists in Europe and in Muslim countries. For example, in one left-wing newspaper, a Turkish woman reviewer presented me as someone who has psychological problems, who has an identity problem, or who is depressed. Women reviewers psycho-analyze me, but do not deal with the issues I raise. German people who are in favor of the headscarf hate me for what I write. Germans, not Turks, are fighting for the right to wear the headscarf.

Then there are the native-born left-wing German feminists who say that arranged marriages are actually very happy unions. Coming from the left wing – this is crazy! This undermines my morale. Some people say: Why call it an “honor killing” when a Muslim does it but call it “domestic violence” when a non-Muslim German does it. They do not understand. And when I explain that an honor killing is not the same as domestic violence, they do not answer. They are silent.

PC: Give them my study on this very subject. Translate it into German. It might be useful. These feminists sound like those who also say that wearing a headscarf is a form of resistance to colonialist oppression. Meanwhile, Muslim men walk around dressed as westerners, with cell phones, i-phones, computers, girlfriends, etc.

SA: They just don’t think that human rights are universal. They believe in cultural relativism. This way of thinking became worse and worse and made it harder for me to do my work. I don’t just have to fight against Muslim fanatics but against left-wing Germans who explain to me what I have to do, explain that who I am is sick.

PC: How do the radical or fundamentalist Muslims sound?

SA: Yesterday, I read an article about a study which found that 60% of Turkish men did not believe a woman should go out of the house without her man and more than 60% of Turkish men said the should ask permission. I also read a study in which 30% of Turkish university students believe that honor killings should be allowed. Imagine what less educated Turkish men might say.

PC: I agree with you. The fight for women’s rights is a symbol for all the important battles of the 21st century. The fight for real democracy as opposed to totalitarianism, for human rights and individual freedom will be won or lost on the battlefield of woman’s rights.

SA: I hope the West does not give in. But I am worried. There seems to be some confusion in America.

I don’t know why the West is only taking baby steps against fundamentalist Islam. Why not be strong like the Islamic world and say, this is how we want to live.

PC: The West is in major apology mode – for racism, colonialism – so therefore we refuse to call barbarism by its own name.

What a triumph of the human spirit that you went back to defending battered Muslim girls and women. I know you could not return to work at that same location, but what happened next?

SA: I didn’t stop my political work. My left arm was paralyzed for 6 months. I had to take care of my body first. I needed six years of rehabilitation. I also suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. But, I finished my studies and, in 1997, opened my own law office. I also helped some girls who needed refuge, who would otherwise have been honor murdered. In 2006, I and my client were again attacked in my office. Then, I stopped practicing law. I never knew when someone else might try to kill me or my clients. It is not possible to do this work without living with the fear of being beaten, wounded, maimed or murdered. I became very vigilant about who was entering the office.

PC: You don’t seem like the kind of woman who would back down.

SA: Then I didn’t have a child. Now I do. So I say: Now I don’t have the right to risk my life anymore. It’s different once you have a child. So, I closed my law office when I became a mother.

PC: Why do you want to found a different kind of mosque?

SA: At the end of my book, I describe my personal relationship to religion. It is our responsibility to redefine Islam, to use Islam to end the oppression of women. I want to pray without wearing a headscarf, a place where both women and men feel welcome. Maybe it is too dangerous to do this in Berlin. Maybe it can be done in New York. Having a woman-friendly mosque is not enough for me. I want a mosque where Sunni and Shii’a can pray together, where we can invite Jews and Christians for interfaith dialogues and for prayer. Why do I need a headscarf? When I’m praying, I am not thinking about sex. I am thinking about God. A headscarf should definitely not be required at this time.

PC: How do other Muslims react to your ideas?

SA: Some agree with me. Many don’t. It hurts me to hear all the time “you are not a Muslim.” They don’t have the right to say that. Only God does. I had a special experience in my life when I was 21, when they shot me.

PC: Seyran, my dearest guest: And now, you can’t appear in public without risking your life or the life of your precious family members. What lesson must we learn from this? That once a hero speaks out and is truly heard, that she then has to hide so that she can continue her work more quietly? How paradoxical, how maddening!

SA: We learn that at this time it’s not easy to have an open discussion with the Islamic world. They say we want to destroy Islam. This does not mean we should stop our work.