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She says Muslim women bear the brunt of outdated sexual laws.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.