Whose Revolution? Critiquing Seyran Ates and her Islamic Sexual Revolution

The calls of lawyer, activist, and writer Seyran Ates for a sexual revolution in the heterogeneous Muslim world may surprise many, particularly when the movement is commonly associated with free love, hippies, and public nudity. In a recent interview with German magazine Spiegel, Ates begins with discussing what she means by this and her experiences that inspired her new book, Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution.

Things went downhill immediately, when Ates said that she based the term “sexual revolution” 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.

Naming Wilhelm Reich as an inspiration for her cause is to me quite problematic. A disciple of Freud, and a serial wife-cheater, Reich is known for his view that sexual repression is the cause of authoritative family and societal structures, and his study was borne out of his criticism against the fascist movement during his time in Germany, otherwise known as the Nazi party. I don’t know about you, but seeing similarities between conservatism in Muslim communities and Hitler’s regime strikes me as a little essentialist and far-fetched on Ates’ part–and that’s putting it kindly.

As much as I welcome a more permissive attitude towards sexuality in Muslim communities, I doubt that a revolution can occur out of thin air. In the West, the impetus for the sexual revolution came as a reaction from multiple directions: scientific (the birth control pill), political (the social paranoia of the Cold War), social (the rise of the women’s liberation movement), and economic (more on this below). This is where I have problems with what Ates means by a sexual revolution. It is an ethnocentric construct that the Western world had a monopoly over. And if we use the Western sexual revolution as a model, then simply place an Islamic label on it, we play by rules that were hardly faith-based to begin with.

Further, it’s about re-asserting economic privileges that few (in 1960s America/Europe) had. Translate that to the Muslim world (in the East and West) today, even fewer people will reap the joys of the revolution. Why? Having a fulfilling sex life takes time and money–raising children, hire nannies, afford contraceptives or divorces–some things many in the middle class can enjoy. It should not be just about access to sexual activity that Ates purports as a revolution, but about making economic sense out of sex. The main reason why young people are less interested in marriage is because it’s expensive.

Then Ates mentions prophets as role models:

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.

Saying that Jesus is less of a role model than Muhammad because he was seen as asexual is quite offensive. Being a single prophet does not necessarily qualify as being asexual. But most importantly, sexual freedoms include being both sexual and asexual (celibate). Sex is often overrated, while asexuality (or lacking sexual desire) is viewed as being less human–utter nonsense, in my opinion.

Ates asserts that the Muslim world to a large extent is monolithic, that Muslims the world over can relate to each other in all matters sexual. And, yes, liberalism is not our best known trait. Some live under extremely repressive regimes and others endure conservative laws and attitudes to a less extreme degree.

But within many Muslim communities, class disparity can mean a difference in sexual mores as different as night and day. This goes back to the works of Reich, who saw that people from a working class background were the most sexually repressed and were most likely to obey authoritative regimes. By overlapping Ates and Reich’s arguments, one must assume that all Muslims are economically oppressed for a sexual revolution to happen which in my opinion is an unfair assumption.

I don’t believe that a revolution can take place overnight, or through massive protests that Ates envisions. A sexual revolution in a religious context cannot happen without first planting some seeds of change. These seeds can come in the form of faith-based dialogue and rights-based legislation. Also, better economic conditions mean that people can make better marital choices. It seems clear that Seyran Ates takes her cause very personally, but in the interview she does not acknowledge enough the social and moral impact of sexual permissiveness that she is promoting, which is really the main concern of everyone involved in a “sexual revolution”. This remains a big question mark for me, and I will watch carefully in the future for a sexual revolution spearheaded by Ates.

Muslimah Media Watch thanks Mohani Niza for the tip.

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned tomorrow for Yusra’s viewpoint on Seyran Ates and her sexual revolution!

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  • Kathy

    I really liked this article. I’m interested in what you said “[t]hese seeds can come in the form of faith-based dialogue and rights-based legislation.” Do you think a rights framework is useful for this kind of activism in religious contexts?

  • http://cycads.wordpress.com Alicia


    That’s a good point, and something many feminist activists particularly in pre-dominantly Muslim countries are dealing with.

    A rights-based framework is really important and useful in this context because not only because is it valid in Islamic terms but it is also universal (especially if such laws are extended to non-Muslims who live in a Muslim majority nation states). But Islam does appear to live a double life in many communities, where dominant and typically androcentric interpretation of the Quran are at odds with the ethical interpretation of the Quran (in which women and men are spiritually, psychologically, and mentally equal, and therefore should be treated as such). A rights framework would refer heavily on the latter interpretation and is often used as a tool (for lack of a better word) by activists and reformists.

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  • muffy

    Thank you for bringing up the point about asexuality. Ates’ statement implying that Jesus is a worse role model for being asexual was ludicrous and insulting to both asexuals and Christians.

    This brings up a larger issue: people aren’t just sexually oppressed because they can’t get sex, but also because they’re expected to be sexual when they don’t want to be. What about Muslim women who are forced into marriage at a young age, such as that 12-year-old girl in Yemen who died in childbirth? In cases such as that, Muslim girls are expected to be sexual creatures when they actually shouldn’t be. That’s just as much of a problem as expecting Muslim women to be sheltered chaste angels.


    I too find Ates’ comparison between the Prophets Isa (AS) and Muhammad (SAWS) to be deplorable. She’s clearly very confused and will be another one of those Muslims whose recommendations ring hollow.

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