“Why do you want to kill me?” is the question Seyran Ateş asks all those who threaten her with derogatory and violent online posts. She repeats the question like an incantation as if by asking it over and over, the online haters will somehow reflect upon their threatening language and change their behavior. Or perhaps her repetition will unlock the secret as to why hate exists in the universe. Unfortunately, hate is a very real and persistent part of her life that refuses to go away. A fatwa has been declared on her. Ateş has armed guards protecting her as she moves around her hometown of Berlin. Opponents have many reasons for her wanting her dead: her identification as a Turkish feminist, outspokenness, being a female imam, founding a progressive mosque, and calling for a sexual revolution within Islam.
Director Nefise Özkal Lorentzen’s documentary, Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam, is a tribute to a woman whose life has been one of constant questioning. Ateş was born into poverty in Istanbul, but a few years later, her parents emigrated to Berlin. So from a very young age, Ateş was thrown into a new environment. She noticed that while her brothers were allowed to go out and roam freely, her mother imposed restrictions upon her. These limitations clashed with what she saw around her. She noticed that German girls and women seemed liberated. Whenever she asked to go out, there was a constant threat of being called a “w***e.” Liberation was always punished with that label. The question that Ateş started asking was, “why is everything with women sexualized?”
Ateş did not reject Islam; she decided to change it from within. She wanted to counter Islam’s violent image with one of inclusion, so she founded a progressive mosque that became an affront to the more conservative factions within Islam. Her mosque allows men and women to pray together in a common area and is inclusive of the LGBT community. It became a springboard for her activism. Lorentzen’s documentary follows Ateş as she travels the globe acting as a bridge between a more compassionate brand of Islam and victims of religious extremism and white supremacist terror in Madrid and Oslo. Her activism even leads her to dialogue with German sex workers caught in a web of misogyny, shame, and misunderstanding.
“…Ateş…travels the globe acting as a bridge between a more compassionate brand of Islam and victims of religious extremism…”
Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam works on several levels. First and foremost, it serves as a proper tribute to one woman’s courageous work. Second, it works because it does not gloss over the more problematic aspects of its subject’s activism. Scenes involving Ateş meeting female Uighur imams could have been approached as a smooth and simple gathering of women sharing a common faith. To the director’s credit, she includes footage that shows the discomfort felt by the Uighur imams when they discover that the mosque allows men and women to pray in the same common area. Reform is a slow process. This progressive Islam makes not only male Islamists uncomfortable but also some women in mainstream Islam.
Anti-headscarf views are also covered in the documentary. Lorentzen shows how Ateş is attacked by conservative factions in Islam and more left-wing views that accuse her of imposing a Western ideology upon the issue of headscarves. Indeed, these are complex issues.
Seyran Ateş urges for a sexual revolution within Islam. She makes it clear that she is not calling for unbridled licentiousness within Islam. She is advocating for a loosening of the patriarchal grip within Islam. She calls for gender equality. Ateş does not campaign on anti-Islam rhetoric. In fact, she is a woman of faith. Her strategy is to fight political Islam through a different interpretation of the faith. That alternative understanding has brought on threats against her life. She has the bullet scars to prove that these were far from empty threats. Whether one disagrees or agrees with Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam, the courage on display is undeniable.
"…proper tribute to one woman's courageous work."