German women’s rights activist and author Seyran Ates argues that the headscarf worn in Muslim culture is “nothing but an expression of oppression and inhibition, and of the fact that the men would prefer to hide the woman.” She says young Muslims are “burning up with passion. They have such a lust for life, and yet they are so inhibited.”
In the run-up to the Frankfurt Book Fair, German-Turkish writer Seyran Ates discusses her new book with Der Spiegel, which describes the necessity of a sexual revolution in the Islamic world, the recent integration debate in Germany and the arrogance of German women’s rights activists.
Ates in her Berlin apartment: “The men in cafés talk about their
sexual escapades, but never about those with their own wives. The
wife is sacrosanct. Married couples told me that sexuality in
marriage has been more or less reduced to a perfunctory act.”
SPIEGEL: Ms. Ates, in your controversial new book, you call for a sexual revolution in the Islamic world.
Ates: You don’t know how necessary that is.
SPIEGEL: But what exactly do you mean by a sexual revolution?
Ates: My use of the term is based on Wilhelm Reich and his book about the sexual revolution. I believe that the Islamic world must grapple with the consequences of rigid sexual morals, not unlike the way, as he describes, the Soviet Union dealt with its own circumstances. It must pursue the path of change, just as any totalitarian system must do when it wants to become a democratic society. Part of the process is that sexuality has to be recognized as something that every individual determines for himself or herself. Institutions like moral and religious police must be abolished. People who have sex before marriage cannot be punished or ostracized by society. Parents must be confronted with the question of why they do not allow their 16-year-old daughter to have a boyfriend, while their sons can brag about how many girlfriends they have. Sex education must be taught in the classroom. Parents shouldn’t have to do it, but they should accept it when the schools do it. Young and old people who are already living a self-determined sexuality in the Islamic world have to be more confident and make their voices heard.
SPIEGEL: Where do you see signs that the time has come for such a development?
Ates: Many young people have sex before marriage, and many aren’t even great believers in the institution of marriage. Just look at these young people. They are burning up with passion. They have such a lust for life, and yet they are so inhibited. People in the Middle East are poets, writing poetry from morning to night, and what do they write poetry about? About desire. The little boy in the street does it, and so do the construction worker and the academic. They are all writing poetry about the same subject, the subject that is suppressed more than anything else.
SPIEGEL: You mention people in the Middle East, but there are Muslims all over the world. The world’s largest Islamic country is Indonesia, an Asian country. In fact, it’s impossible to refer to Muslims as a uniform group.
Ates: I think it is possible. There is a strong cultural connection among the world’s Muslims: religion. I find that it’s a wonderful religion, but the cultural interpretation of this religion has led to sexual repression. It wasn’t terribly different in the West not very long ago. But I don’t want to make a blanket judgment and treat all Germans and Muslims the same.
Muslim women wearing cahdors in Tehran. “I find that it’s a wonderful religion, but the cultural interpretating of this religion has led to sexual repression. It wasn’t terribly different in the West not very long ago,” Ates says.
SPIEGEL: It’s also difficult to pass judgment about a community that may not be all that homogeneous. Thilo Sarrazin, a board member at the Bundesbank (Germany’s central bank), came under fire recently when he complained about German Muslims, particularly in Berlin. Was he right?
Ates: I believe that Mr. Sarrazin’s remarks were to the point and correct. We have serious problems in our multicultural society. Mr. Sarrazin isn’t the first to have brought them up.
SPIEGEL: In other words, he was completely in the right?
Ates: No, it’s more complicated than that. Mr. Sarrazin is a German, and when a high-profile German publicly refers to Turks having no “productive function,” there is great potential for misinterpretation. I know Turks on the street who say things like that, but they’re allowed to. Mr. Sarrazin isn’t — no matter how good the rest of his article was, and regardless of whether everyone who is so upset about it now actually read it. But we Muslims have to lead these discussions, because they are about us.
SPIEGEL: Okay, then tell us what you’ve experienced. You were one of those supposedly typical girls, living with your parents in Berlin and being kept away from love.
Ates: Sex was not discussed in my family. And steps were taken to ensure that I had as little contact with boys as possible. Naturally, I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend. None of it was actually said. They didn’t sit down and say: Dear daughter, you are a girl, and that’s why you can’t have a boyfriend, because we don’t want you to sleep with a man before marriage. Or: Dear daughter, you have a hymen, and we have to make sure that that hymen remains intact until your wedding. The entire system is designed so that everyone is given unspoken instructions on what to do — or rather, what not to do.
SPIEGEL: Why is the hymen so important?
Ates: Because it was capital, capital between my legs.
SPIEGEL: How do Muslim parents manage to enforce this obedience you describe? Many German parents can’t even get their children to carry their plates from the table to the dishwasher.
Ates: German parents have forgotten how much they can rely on their children’s affection. Children are loyal. From the moment they are born, they grow into a system from which they want acceptance, love and acknowledgment. Many German Turks severely isolate themselves from the world around them. That too creates a sense of community.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, in your book you describe a world that is internally divided in several ways. You argue that there is a double standard, a discrepancy between the façade and the inner life.
A model wearing a “burqini” Islamic swim suit. Ates argues:
“We have attained a self-determined sexuality in the West that
I would like to see in the rest of the world. Of course, there are
always excesses: child pornography, prostitution as a flat-rate
service, sexuality that happens to early and is devoid of emotion.
I’m not saying everything works perfectly in the West.”
Ates: Yes, that’s the way I see it. I conducted interviews for my book. Many young people I interviewed complained that they could only have anal sex, because of the hymen. The parents suspect and know about it, and yet they do not release their children from their absurd demands. If that isn’t a double standard, what is?
‘I’m Not Saying Everything Works Perfectly in the West’
SPIEGEL: In German-Turkish director Fatih Akin’s film “Against the Wall,” there is a scene in which two Turkish men are sitting there, playing a board game. One of them says: Should we go to the whorehouse? The other one says: Don’t you have any of your own women to fuck? Then the first man smashes a bottle, holds it up to the second man’s throat and says: Never mention the word fucking again when you talk about our women. Do you think that’s a realistic scene?
Ates: Yes. The men in the cafés talk about their sexual escapades, but never about those with their own wives. The wife is sacrosanct. Married couples told me that sexuality in marriage has been more or less reduced to a perfunctory act.
SPIEGEL: Why do you believe that this differs from many marriages in other cultures?
Ates: It doesn’t necessarily have to be different, but the point is a completely different one. Many Muslims don’t even allow themselves to think about what exactly sexuality means in their marriages. It’s simply accepted that the men have their fun in brothels.
SPIEGEL: German husbands also frequent brothels.
Ates: But they certainly don’t make such a point of letting their wives know about it. Turkish men who frequent brothels don’t necessarily discuss it directly with their wives, but it’s often very clear that that is the case, and that the women are expected to accept it.
SPIEGEL: This hidden passion you describe — if you think it’s so powerful, why doesn’t it prevail over religion?
Ates: Conservative forces have a lot of political power in the Islamic world. They have power and control over half the population, namely the women. They spread fear and they use violence. Making sexuality taboo enables them to isolate themselves from the West, which, of course, is a monster and is to blame for all the bad things in this world. Our religion, they say, helps to keep us from being taken over by the West. We are the better ones, the authentic ones. This mentality makes it possible to avoid even mentioning one’s own failure.
SPIEGEL: Is the West a valid role model for sexual revolution?
Ates: I just want to point out a natural path to freedom. All people want to be free. That isn’t something the West invented.
SPIEGEL: How do you feel about the treatment of pornography and violence in the West?
Ates: We have attained a self-determined sexuality in the West that I would like to see in the rest of the world. Of course, there are always excesses: child pornography, prostitution as a flat-rate service, sexuality that happens too early and is devoid of emotion. I’m not saying that everything works perfectly in the West. I believe that we Muslims can also mirror the West, and that we can all ask ourselves what went well, what went wrong, and why.
SPIEGEL: You claim that because many Muslim children are supposedly afraid to challenge authority at home, they are more likely to characterize female German teachers as sluts.
Ates: There is so much condescension and so little recognition, love, affection and encouragement of children. They have to vent their anger at some point.
SPIEGEL: Muhammad had a dozen wives. Is he a role model?
Ates: When an Arab man needs a justification for having several wives, he says: It was the same with Muhammad.
SPIEGEL: Christian men don’t have that excuse.
Ates: No, but it’s a shame that Christians worship such an asexual man. Muslims are in a better position, in that respect, but this need of the man to have several women, legitimized by Muhammad, has led to a hidden and extreme sexualizing of Islam.
SPIEGEL: You call for a revolution, but doesn’t that take a lot of time?
Ates: Look at the student uprisings here in Germany. Something happened, and suddenly young people took to the streets. We saw the same thing in Iran after the election: The young people were prepared to protest. We now have this one opportunity to drive up the boiling point, using all the democratic and political means at our disposal.
SPIEGEL: But there is one thing you can’t change: The lack of simultaneity between the West and parts of Islamic societies in terms of cultural development.
Ates: That’s the big problem we have: the acceptance of this lack of simultaneity in religion and culture. If we could at least acknowledge its existence. They’ve come a lot further at universities in Turkey than the protagonists in the integration debate here in Germany have.
SPIEGEL: What troubles you about that?
Ates: Particularly here in Germany, there are some very deep archaic self-images — including those among leftist German feminist women — of the whites who behave like big sisters. It’s very arrogant. These women rail against the Catholic Church and its rigid sexual morals, but they insist that we tolerate Turkish women wearing the headscarf, because they believe that this enables the women to preserve their culture. But as far as I’m concerned, this headscarf is nothing but an expression of oppression and inhibition, and of the fact that the men would prefer to hide the women.
SPIEGEL: Do you believe in God?
Ates: I believe in God.
SPIEGEL: Did you fast during Ramadan?
Ates: I do not fast during Ramadan.
SPIEGEL: Do you pray five times a day?
Ates: I pray, but not five times a day.
SPIEGEL: Do you go to the mosque?
Ates: I don’t go to a mosque, because there are no mosques that appeal to me. One of my latest ideas is to establish a free, progressive mosque.
SPIEGEL: With a female imam?
Ates: Exactly, with a female imam and with equal access to all parts of the mosque for men and women. There must be an end to the presence of conservative Muslims, who want to reserve Islam for a specific group. We liberal Muslims don’t want the separations among Shiites, Sunnis and Alawites. We want to participate jointly in a contemporary interpretation of Islam.
SPIEGEL: How does your God feel about sex?
Ates: My God is very open about sex, having created me as a person for whom it’s important. Of course, my conviction that God exists is also based on personal experiences. When I was 21, in my third semester of studying law, I was shot in a counseling center for women from Turkey. I lost a lot of blood and had a near-death experience. It was as if I was having a dialogue with a higher power and was given the chance to decide whether I wanted to leave this world or return to it. I never saw religion exclusively as something negative.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, you have come a long way from the things that once influenced you. Your new book was almost titled: “I’ll Fuck Whoever I Want.” Were your parents aware of this?
Ates: No, and I’m very happy now that the publishing house stepped in, because my book is completely serious. “I’ll fuck whoever I want” was the sentence Hatun Sürücü, a Turkish girl from Berlin, said to her brother before he murdered her, and that’s how I came up with the idea to use it as my title. My parents, by the way, have come a long way. They respect my life today, even the fact that I’m a single mother. They love their grandchild. My father now says that he can’t imagine a Turkish man who could put up with me. He understands what I’ve accomplished. I once said to my father: You know, having a child and wanting a man doesn’t seem to work, so maybe I’ll end up with a woman, after all. He said: You know, I was thinking the same thing myself.
SPIEGEL: How were your parents able to get that far?
Ates: Out of love for me. And because they did not refuse to accept the influences of the West and the modern world. My parents were farmers, with almost no education at all. They came to Germany to offer their children a future and to improve their own economic situation. At first, the needs of their children played no role in the way we were raised. But my mother learned how to read and write at 50. They have since returned to Turkey, where they now live in a house with a garden and view of the sea. They have 13 grandchildren. And they allow us, their five children, to live the way we please. They are proud that we all have a profession. My parents’ dreams came true because they were willing to grow.
SPIEGEL: Ms. Ates, we thank you for this interview.
See Related: SOCIAL DIARY
ABOUT THE SAN FRANCISCO SENTINEL
SENTINEL FOUNDER PAT MURPHY