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Stepping out of the fire

Having been violently attacked by the husband of one of her clients, Berlin lawyer and Islam critic Seyran Ates has closed her legal practice. A fighter for human rights resigns. By Mariam Lau

So she's throwing in the towel. Seyran Ates, lawyer, writer, and human rights activist was attacked at the beginning of June on her way from the court house in Berlin Kreuzberg to the underground station by the screaming husband of one of her clients. "You whore", the man shouted. "What ideas have you been putting into my wife's head?" No one intervened when Mehmet O. lashed out at Ates, her client and another woman.

Now Ates (42) is facing the consequences. She has handed in her law licence and also her membership of the women's rights organisation Terre de femmes. "This acutely threatening situation has brought home to me once more how dangerous my work as a lawyer is, and how little protection I have had and have as an individual," Ates explains.

The "ideas" to which the jealous husband was referring form part of the biographical adventures that bind the writer Seyran Ates with her colleagues Necla Kelek, Serap Cileli (interview in English here) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Long before she used the term "feminism" to describe the thing that so preoccupied her, she had had an urge for freedom that was nothing less than a small miracle. Who can explain why of all the girls from Anatolia who headed off to the Eldorado of Germany with their mothers and fathers, this one would decide to throw overboard everything she knew and had learned? Suddenly becoming appalled by things that had been utterly normal for generations – boys' circumcision and wedding nights with blood-soaked sheets which were endured by all involved with fear and horror, beatings, sadistic excesses, forced marriages, humiliations and bad jokes? How does individuality suddenly awaken out of a collective?

Barely a critic saw these books not as the "kitschy literature of dismay," the preferred put-down for the so-called "migration researchers," but as classic coming-of-age novels. The sorrows of young Ates.

Seyran Ates was ten years old when she realised that life in a one-room flat in Berlin's Wedding district under the tyranny of her brother Kemal and a helpless father whose experiences as a hapless gastarbeiter had cost him his self-esteem, was hell for her. "Große Reise ins Feuer" (great journey into the fire) is the title of her memoirs, and also the translation of her name.

Her gratitude towards German society in which one can become a student rep, write essays and then go on to study law, even against the wishes of one's parents, was construed by the politically correct as betrayal. "Aren't you frightened," Ates was asked in an interview with die Tageszeitung, "of being cited by conservative politicians as the chief witness for repressive measures?" No she was not. She answered that it was essential to think about sanctions against forced marriages, and that she had nothing against the questionnaire (compiled by the state of Baden-Württenberg for Muslims applying for German citizenship) in which 17 of the 30 questions concerned women's rights, even if she didn't consider it an efficient means of combating extremists.

The legal profession which she is now shelving had been a dream of Seyran Ates' since the age of fifteen. At that time she was the family and neighbourhood translator for letters from the authorities, she took care of all the correspondence and informed herself about legal positions. It was criminal law, says Ates, that really "spurred her into action." "It is the crown of toughness." Ates, like her fellow fighters, gets furious with people who romanticise immigrants and are willing to pass off their brutality as a "cultural feature." "Kreuzberg (a district in Berlin with a large Turkish population and alternative scene) is colourful because the Germans there are colourful; the Turkish culture there is grey. No one looks upwards. That's where the women are who are not allowed to participate at any cost, they look out from behind the curtains. Women who sometimes don't even know where they are, locked away." And the Green party, which could have got the Turkish feminists on board as the "true patriots" also preferred at their "Future Congress" on September 1 to stick with female immigrants keen to talk about German racism. German courts have long passed only manslaughter sentences for honour killings – because cultural influences qualify as mitigating circumstances.

Ates had been attacked before, in 1984, by Turkish right-wing youth organisation "Grey Wolves" (wikipedia) which stormed a women's centre. She was shot in the neck, an injury she took five years to recover from. The woman next to her was killed. Unlike Kelek, whose books deal foremost with Islam itself and the subjugation of the individual by the clans – and which effects men as much as women – Ates deals primarily with women's issues and sexuality. "We still live within patriarchal structures. Throughout the world, in Germany too. The oppression of women at the hands of men was written into all world religions. How long were Jewish women forbidden from reading the Torah and becoming Rabbis? How long did it take before Christian women were allowed to read and write? For Ates, the murder of Hatun Sürücu (news story) by her brothers (because she lived like a German) was more than anything an issue of social downgrading. "My brothers didn't beat me in Turkey," she remembers. "We knew poverty, but not violence. My father was raised with the idea that you don't hit women or children, and he passed that on to us. In a situation where he himself was humiliated as a gastarbeiter, he was all the more keen to protect his family in evil Germany. In Turkey the problem of domestic violence is often discussed." Young women are more successful in Germany, and so people take revenge on them.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Welt on September 4, 2006.

Mariam Lau is editor of the Opinion section of Die Welt.

Translation: lp.

Read Seyran Ates' article "Tolerance for the tolerant" at - let's talk european