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

This interview with Turkish-German lawyer, Seyran Ates, first appeared in the land of the fjords, the land of oil, the home of the political correctniks who choose and bestow the Nobel Peace Prize. I am talking about Norway, where my friend and colleague, the American author Bruce Bawer, also lives. Bruce has written a number of important books such as While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying The West From Within and Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity.


Bruce (who currently has a piece featured on Pajamas) is the one who translates my work into Norwegian. Two far-sighted women, Rita Karlsen and Helge Storhaug, publish Human Rights Service as an online journal in both English and Norwegian.

I first “met” Seyran Ates when I was researching my book about Islamic gender apartheid and its penetration of the West. Thus, I quoted her twice in The Death of Feminism. I recently met Seyran for the first time in person in Rome at the G8 conference; I wrote about it for PJM here. We bonded. But, we really met when Seyran came to stay with me in New York City.

Seyran Ates latest book: Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution

Seyran Ates' latest book: "Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution"

By Phyllis Chesler for Human Rights Service

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.

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.

This interview was first published at Human Rights Service. The rights belong to the author and the piece may also be found at my website www.phyllis-Chesler.com


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