Seyran Ates was selected for the 2011 Women Inspiring Europe Calendar
Seyran Ates’ most impressive experience occurred when a young man approached her on the street as she stepped out of one of her favourite restaurants, a popular contemporary Turkish joint in Berlin, her hometown. She had just finished lunch with her brother, one of the rare occasions where the two had found the time to just sit and talk. The young man walked straight towards her and stopped close in front of her, towering over her 160-centimeter figure. He was broad with impressive shoulders and big, muscular arms. “Thank you”, he said simply. “Thank you for what you have done for us.”
It was a reaction Ates wasn’t used to at the time. It was like making peace with her past - and her fellow Turkish people. A well-known and, to some, notorious human rights defender and advocate for women’s rights, she had been forced to close her Berlin law practice because it was too dangerous to continue. In the last incident in a series of attacks and threats, an enraged husband had attacked Ates in a courthouse as she accompanied his wife, her client, who was filing for divorce. Earlier, at the age of 21, she was shot at for working as a counsellor in a women’s shelter.
Ates talks rapidly but succinctly, taking quick sips of sweetened black tea between her sentences. While on the phone, she had prepared the tea, shuffled through some papers, read through some invoices and, through eye movement and facial expressions, still managed to stay in a conversation with the guest sitting at the huge antique table in the middle of an impressive office with high ceilings and a wooden floor. Ates now runs a successful real estate office in Berlin. She has many Turkish clients, probably more than Germans. This too she thinks of as reconciliation.
For 20 years, Ates, a German woman with Turkish roots, has been the target of angry people, especially Turkish men whose wives she represented as they sought justice for being beaten, mistreated and violated. Ates has been attacked, shot at and has received hate emails and death threats. “You should receive the highest punishment possible for your nasty, dirty existence”, one of them reads. Another says, “How can you betray us, you whore.”
Her views on Islam and integration have made Ates a controversial figure that is hard for many to digest, and not just by Turks. Many Germans felt that their model of a multi-cultural society had been betrayed. Ates constantly pointed out it was naïve to believe in such visions, insisting that integration and fundamentalism will never go together. Her own upbringing in a traditional Muslim family and the role that had been destined to her as a woman profoundly marked her. That said, she insists firmly on the difference between being a conscious believer or simply a follower of passed-down customs. “No clear-minded person can actually believe that the oppression of women is a religious or spiritual value.” She adds, “If you think for yourself that is.”
Ever since a 10-year-old Seyran Ates had to fight to be allowed to go to “Gymnasium”, an academic-focused secondary school which awards the degree necessary to enter university, she has been a defender of human and women’s rights – first her own, then those of others. Her parents had opposed it although she had impressive grades throughout elementary school. “In our culture, education has no worth whatsoever.” Ates explains. “My mother learned how to read and write as an adult and only then actually started reading the Quran.”
Like so many Turkish immigrants Ates’ parents arrived in Germany as “Gastarbeiter”, or guest workers, to work in the factories during the industrial boom of the 1960s. As one of four children, Ates suffered from her parents’ attempts to forcefully live the life they thought they would have lived back in Turkey: the girls secluded and destined to stay in the house, while the male members of the family ruled over them – even if they were younger. She was beaten and only allowed to leave the apartment with her father or brother. Unlike the rest of the family, Ates quickly learned German and had German friends at school, but was not allowed to meet them in the afternoon. “I asked myself: Why are they free and I am not? What is the difference between us?” She eventually escaped from home when she was 17 and moved into a women’s shelter. For years, she hid herself from her family. At 18, she wrote her first book on freedom and religion. She went on to law school to become a German-trained lawyer. Only later, as a settled lawyer and the mother of a daughter, did she find reconciliation with her family.
When the young man thanked her in the middle of the street in Berlin, she understood that it’s not only women who need liberation from traditions and gender roles, especially in the mainly Muslim, Turkish community. “Men, too, need someone to free them.”
International Editor – auFeminin Group