The Revolution Will not be Sexualized: More on Seyran Ates

German-Turkish writer Seyran Ates thinks Islam needs a sexual revolution. This might seem a little tongue-in-cheek, given the countless political revolutions post-due in predominantly Muslim countries, yet Ates’ book couldn’t be timelier.

Muslims, like everyone else, are exposed to sex at an earlier age, despite marrying later than past generations. It isn’t hard to prove that the Muslim world needs more open discourse on sex. However, it is challenging to lay out some concrete reasoning and exact plans for how this can be achieved.

Ates doesn’t live up to that challenge in this Spiegel Online interview about her book, Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution. In it, she describes the double standards and sexually-based challenges Muslim women face, yet doesn’t offer any background information or provide a method for overcoming them. The interview is simply a series of her impressions and experiences as a Muslim—the classic case of the individual used as collective fact.

She says Muslim women bear the brunt of outdated sexual laws. In case you can’t guess why, she says it’s because we have vaginas, as if that’s reason enough. When asked why the hymen is so important, Ates responds: “Because it was capital. Capital between my legs.”  She goes on to describe how sex was never discussed in her family, and how there’s this unspoken system that Muslim women can’t date but Muslim men can.

Ates never once mentions Islamic law, which you’d think would at least get a shout-out in any serious conversation about sexual mores in Islam. Instead, she continues to use hot-button words like “suppressed passion”, “anal sex”, and “hymens”, and even uses the phrase, “A hidden and extreme sexualizing of Islam.” Sound familiar?  So should this western go-to nugget of choice about polygamy:

“When an Arab man needs a justification for having several wives, he says: It was the same with Muhammad.”

This justification is not used by millions of Muslim men who, for whatever reason, don’t have more than one wife. It also implies a very basic generalization about Arab men, with no outline of what can be done to change this supposedly wide-spread mindset.

Ates is of Turkish-Kurdish descent. She moved with her family from Turkey to Germany at the age of six. Before her eighteenth birthday, she ran away from home and moved in with a German man. Clearly her impressions of Islam are based on her own experience growing up Muslim.

This background wouldn’t discredit her argument had she actually made one. Instead she sticks to blanket statements that are difficult to qualify: “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.”

When the reporter challenges her by saying German husbands also frequent brothels, she responds almost ridiculously by saying, “But they certainly don’t make such a point of letting their wives know about it,” only to backtrack and say Turkish men don’t necessarily discuss it directly with their wives.

Ates’s broad generalizations do nothing to advance the cause of sexual reform in Islam, primarily because they elicit an expected response from non-Muslims and westerners: “Bravo to the little Muslim female standing up against oppressive Islamic patriarchy!” If you are saying Islam needs a sexual revolution, you need to address Muslims and suggest alternative interpretations, not offend them with statements bent on stirring controversy.

Ates sounds more like a neo-con pundit than a Muslim reformist when she says Muslim children are more likely to characterize female German teachers as sluts because they cannot challenge the authority of their parents. Seriously? Just imagine a teenage Muslim boy telling his teacher, “Mrs. Schneider, I can’t argue with my parents for forbidding me from going to prom, so now I think you’re a slut.” What kind of logic is that? But that’s just it: Ates has no concrete argument based on logic for why Islam needs a sexual revolution; she’s simply content to use her own experiences as a complete guide to Muslims. Again:

“There is so much condescension and so little recognition, love, affection and encouragement of children. They have to vent their anger at some point.”

Ates does not make a single lucid point not based on stereotypes.  How absurd that, in a major interview about Islamic sexual reform, Ates would rather talk about her assumptions (which are influenced by her own experience growing up Muslim, in a home she acknowledges was less than ideal), rather than outline actual reasons as to why sexual reform is imminent or necessary? It’s disappointing when a Muslim aids the media in its baseless tendency to attribute single events or statements about Muslims as facts for understanding Islam.

When approaching the issue of sexual reform in Islam, it’s important to remember Islam is dynamic, yet deeply rooted in tradition. While it’s important to keep in mind that Islamic tradition frowns on non-scholarly opinion on issues of Islamic jurisprudence, it is also equally important to value individual thought for what it is: in this case, a Muslim woman’s opinion on the need for sexual reform. Ates has been threatened for being so outspoken; perhaps this is where her underlying anger toward conservative factions comes from.

Yet as a Muslim woman reading this interview, I have to question what value stereotypes bring toward advancing liberation within Islam. Perhaps Ates’ book provides some answers. Sexual reform is complicated, which is why I am willing to read her book despite this interview. It’s probably also why Ates contradicts herself throughout it.  She praises Western sexuality, all the while admitting there are consequences like child pornography, prostitution as a flat-rate service, and premature sexuality devoid of emotion.  At the end of the interview, Ates is asked what her God thinks about sex.  She says, “My God is very open about sex, having created me as a person for whom it’s important.”

If we are going to advance the idea of sexual liberation, we can never get anywhere as a community by pointing fingers at this sect or that movement, or making assumptions about an entire group’s gender or sexuality. If Ates is truly intent on creating change for Muslims, she has to work with Muslims, not against them.

Editor’s Note: For Alicia’s take on this, see her post from yesterday.

  • http://telephonsystem.com m az

    thank you so much for your post. when i read her interview became sad, when she sed woman who wear hedscarf are opressed. how she thinks humiliating muslim women is advocating their right ?she is not a liberal muslim but only a obsessive person.

  • Pingback: Muslimah Media Watch » Whose Revolution? Critiquing Seyran Ates and her Islamic Sexual Revolution

  • http://maedchenmannschaft.net Helga

    To say she has been threatened is way to little to describe what she has endured.

    On Monday, six days after the interview, Seyran Ateş announced that she will not attend any public events anymore and not appear in the spotlight since she has received a number of death threats following the release of her book. So far it’s only published on a German website.
    http://www.dradio.de/kulturnachrichten/200910191600/3

    Three years ago she already gave up working as a lawyer because she and a client had been beaten up by the client’s ex-husband and a wave of threats followed. 25 years ago while she was working at a community centre for female immigrants, she and a woman were gunned down and almost killed.

    She has had more than her fair share of anecdotal evidence and actually is working with Muslims.

    The main problem is a different one: German politics has (and continues) to fail its immigrants and Turkish immigrants (which are the majority of Muslims) in particular. Everybody thought they would return to Turkey eventually so they didn’t really bother about immigrants’ education.

    Last but not least: The interview is full of stereotypes but the German media and their depictions of Muslims is “a whole nother can of worms”. There’s nothing like Fox news but I would actually surprised if news outlets started to acknowledge the full scope of immigrants and religions.

  • http://getoutlines.wordpress.com Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    It’s great reading two different takes on this.

    Helga- “Everybody thought they would return to Turkey eventually so they didn’t really bother about immigrants’ education.”

    That’s putting it rather mildly. Not only the the German government not bother providing quality education, they also denied them citizenship, hence the odious term ‘gastarbeiter’, even for those who has been there over a generation.

    Finally, no matter what treatment Seyran has had at the hands of Muslims, she does not and cannot speak for all Muslims.

    Actually, I’m confused. One minute the press are salivating over our elaborate underwear in Syria, the next we’re all uptight prudes in Germany. Which is the truth?

  • http://polprav.blogspot.com/ Polprav

    Hello from Russia!
    Can I quote a post in your blog with the link to you?

  • RCHOUDH

    Ms. Ates’ take on sexual issues on Islam is misguided to say the least. She fails to understand the dynamic differences towards sexuality between Islam and Judeo-Christian tradition. One of the most important reasons for the sexual revolution in the West was due to the compelling silence and rigidity towards sexual issues in Judeo-Christian tradition, because of sexuality being seen by these traditions as being “sinful and corrupt” even within institutions where sex could lawfully be practiced, such as marriage. Christianity in particular laid great emphasis on lifelong abstinence bringing one “closer to God”, which is why they emphasized celibacy for priests and nuns (differing interpretations by different Christian sects notwithstanding). Besides this, another reason for the revolution was because secularism, or separation of religion from daily life, had already been firmly established in the West. So now that most people were no longer running their lives according to the dictates of the church, they felt free to express their sexuality any way they pleased.

    Islam by contrast never instructed its followers to practice celibacy or to view sex as immoral and corrupt. Instead it frankly encourages its followers to seek the pleasures of sex freely with the lawful institution of marriage. Instead of feeling shameful for having had sex Muslims are told of the endless rewards for having it each time they do it as marital partners. The other difference between Islam and Judeo-Christian tradition has to do with the fact that Islam has ideological underpinnings that make it exist within every facet of society from the personal to the political. By failing to understand this basic historical framework between Islam and the Western Judo-Christian tradition, Ates’ recommendation falls far short.

  • http://maedchenmannschaft.net/ Helga

    Wasalam aleikum Safiya Outlines,

    there’s even much more wrong with the German government’s dealing with immigrants but that would probably derail the comments even more. Actually, there’s not much difference whether they talk about fancy bras and being prude. On the one hand “look at them, they’re still in the middle ages” is a nice cover so nobody has to reflect on the fact that much of Germany’s gender and sexual conventions are still stuck in the fifties and carry on ideas from the Nazi era. Also the article in question mentioned that western influence has led to the popularity of those undergarments (good western ideas + bad repressed people = way over the top bras = quality entertainment). It was only article though and 99% of the coverage is on the side of “this are the problems Muslim countries have with sex”. More recently the ad about sexy lingerie under burqas was passed around everywhere just like circusses (is that the proper plural form?) used to show off human “atrocities”.

    Sorry if this is a bit incoherent but it’s quite late.

    [This comment has been edited to fit within comment moderation guidelines.]

  • Rochelle

    “The other difference between Islam and Judeo-Christian tradition has to do with the fact that Islam has ideological underpinnings that make it exist within every facet of society from the personal to the political.”

    Really?

    You seriously don’t think Christians incorporate their religion into their daily lives? Or Jews? Come to where I grew up, in Middle America Evangelical country and you’ll see otherwise. Or go to new york, where orthodox Jews can’t press elevator keys on the sabbath.

    To say that Islam permeates into people’s lives but Christianity and Judaism do not is ethnocentric and really just… weird. There are plenty of “secular Muslims” out there.

    And by the way, Jews never practiced celibacy and Judaism frankly encourages sex just like Islam. Sex is practically required on the sabbath.

  • Sobia

    I have to agree with Rochelle on this one. What were the George W. Bush years but the interplay of extreme right Christianity and politics? I think it is ethno/religo-centric of us Muslims to assume that somehow our religion gave us all these rights but other religions did not. I’m sure you’d be able to find Christians and Jews (not to mention Hindus, Sikhs, etc) who view their respective religions in the same positive light as many Muslims view theirs.

    Also, that religion permeate through every facet of life can be extremely problematic as well. Isn’t it this assumption of permeation that has led to the imposition of draconian and often vulgar laws on people in various parts of the world and in various points in history? And I’m not just referring to Islam here.

  • RCHOUDH

    Rochelle and Sobia,

    What I meant by Islam being part of every facet of human life, I meant it in a historical framework. Just examine how Islam was implemented by the Prophet (SAWS) in Madinah (where he served as as the political leader and commander-in-chief within an Islamic state and implemented all rules regarding politics, economics, and social welfare by the dictates of Islam). I am not talking about this day and age where Muslims either don’t apply Islamic rules in totality and whatever rules they do apply they misapply it (thus the draconian and vulgar laws we see in existence today).
    And WRT to Judaism and celibacy thank you for pointing that out to me because I was unaware of that. However it still holds true that historically in Europe, since Christianity was the predominant religion there, it played a large part in shaping people’s views towards sex and sexuality, which ultimately led to the sexual revolution.

  • muffy

    RCHOUDH, rather than Judaism and Christianity agreeing against Islam, I would argue that it’s Judaism and Islam agreeing against Christianity, at least as far as your point goes. Both Islam and Judaism are legalistic religions that establish laws/rules that a government can enforce on society. In some ways Sharia is very similar to the laws in Jewish scripture, i.e. the Hebrew Bible and Talmud. Christianity does not have anything comparable. The New Testament certainly does not provide much of a framework for governance. Unlike Mohammed, Jesus and his followers did not establish and earthly system of government. It wasn’t until 3 centuries or so after Jesus died that Christianity established itself in a government with Constantine’s conversion. Even with that, pre-Christian Roman law still remained the law of the land.

    So, while you have a point about Christianity vs. Islam, I think you’re misplacing Judaism in the picture.

  • RCHOUDH

    @ Muffy

    Thanks for the clarification. I always had a feeling Judaism and Islam had more in common than Judaism and Christianity, but with the term “Judeo-Christian” tradition it’s easy to think other wise.

  • http://forsoothsayings.blogspot.com forsoothsayer

    you guys are always criticizing books that criticize islam, or talk about muslims, as involving generalizations and stereotypes. so do you then believe that at no point can one talk about trends or beliefs or cultural practises without pointing to various surveys and studies, or can one’s own experiences supplemented with reading etc ever suffice in making any observations about muslims or islam? because everything you have said about what she claimed sounds bang on the money in my own observations. yes, am not a muslim, but i have spent most of my life in muslim countries and most of the people i know are muslims. is that enough to make any observations whatsoever?

  • OmarG

    Ates apparently feels deep down inside that she’s done something quite wrong. So, instead of repenting and doing good deeds to make up for it, she wants everyone to have a revolution to legitmize her own sexual behavior. I’d take this as a sign that repressed sexualities and childhoods are bad, bad things because they really screw up people as adults.

    So, how do you all suggest we not act sexually repressed without violating our Islamic sexual ethics?

  • Dr Jamil M Chaudri

    Only thing I can say is: Perhaps Seyran Ates’s parents would have been better of if they had known how to use conterceptives. We would have been saved this stupidity.