For Seyran Ateş, restrictions on daily life as a result of the Covid pandemic have had little impact. The Turkish-German human rights lawyer and advocate for progressive Islam has been unable to move freely for 15 years because of death threats. “I’m surprised people feel so frustrated over just a few weeks or months,” she says with a smile.

Ateş has been under police protection since 2006 because of the risk to her life from extreme Islamists, Turkish-Kurdish nationalists and German rightwing extremists. Two fatwas have been issued against her and she is accused of being a terrorist by the Erdoğan government in Turkey.

Every day she fields horrific online abuse (a single example: “Ugly disgusting whore. You should be stabbed old bitch. You’re a traitor to your country”) and rape threats. “For years, it was like being punched in the face. Then I built a wall around me, so the word can’t reach me,” she says in a Zoom call from Berlin.

She has also come to terms with the need for “lots of big, fit men around me”. The threats mean “I can’t just wake up and decide where I’m going today. Everything has to be planned. For a while it made me frustrated and sad. Now I’m thankful. In Turkey, I’d be in jail for what I do – but, in Germany, the state protects me.”

What lies behind the abuse and threats is Ateş’s campaign for gender equality and LGBT+ inclusivity in Islam, her loud condemnation of Islamist extremism, her human rights work, and her creation of a liberal mosque in Berlin, where women lead mixed groups in prayer.

Her life has now been documented in a new film, Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam, directed by Turkish-Norwegian film-maker Nefise Özkal Lorentzen. “We are living in the 21st century but we are teaching Islam like in the 7th century,” Ateş says in the documentary. “I’m fighting for progressive Islam.”

Ateş was born in 1963 in the slums of Istanbul. Her Kurdish father was a factory worker; her Turkish mother did not work outside the house. The family moved to Berlin when Ateş was six. As she grew older, she was told to stay in the house to help her mother while her brothers were allowed out to play. She was beaten if she did “wrong” things, such as reading a book instead of housework. She watched her German contemporaries living a much freer life.

Seyran Ateş visits the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque in Berlin, in the documentary Sex, Revolution and Islam.
Seyran Ateş visits the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque in Berlin, in the documentary Sex, Revolution and Islam.

It was “like slavery”, she says in the film. “I became a feminist at a very early age because of my personal experiences.” At 17, she ran away from home to study law. At 21, she was shot in the neck and shoulder at a women’s centre while counselling a woman who was killed in the attack.

Twelve years ago, she had an idea for a mosque in which all would be welcome and all would pray together. It took another eight years to turn her vision into a reality but, in 2017, the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque opened its doors.

“We needed a place where contemporary Islam could be practised,” she says. “Islam is much more plural than many people think. Most of the things we are fighting are not against religion but against tradition.”

The mosque has a small but dedicated following. “Before the pandemic, we had a regular core of about 30 to 40 people, mostly Berliners, plus guests from all over the world. No one has to register – a lot of people would be frightened to register – or pay fees. We rely on donations, maybe €1,500-€2,000 [£1,300-£1,730] a month – enough to pay the rent.”

The mosque welcomes people from different branches of Islam, women without headscarves, LGBT+ people. Traditionally, men and women pray separately: men in the mosque’s main prayer hall, women and children in a back room, or at home. At the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque, everyone prays together.

Often Ateş leads the prayers, but she doesn’t like the term female imam. “I describe myself as a preacher. Imam refers to the person standing at the front of the congregation, so when I lead prayers I am an imam in that moment, but it might be a different person the next time. It’s very democratic.”

There are a growing number of women’s mosques around the world, where women lead prayers. The Women’s Mosque of America, opened in Los Angeles in 2015, but women’s mosques have existed in China for several hundred years. In 2016, the first female-led mosque in Scandinavia opened in Copenhagen.

In 2017, shortly after the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque opened, Ateş visited the UK to investigate potential sites for a liberal mosque, saying her dream was to create similar places of worship in every European capital. “The dream is still there, but some people say they are too afraid. The [threat of] violence is the reason why it doesn’t work in the UK. But it’s not crazy or impossible – it will just take time,” she says.

“More and more Muslim women are standing up for the right to lead prayers and for gender equality. There is a growing movement among Muslims for a more contemporary Islam and more freedom. But many men are afraid to lose their power to control.

“I’m sure we’ll see more change in the next 10-20 years. This is how it works – one or two people have an idea, they start a movement to change and it grows. I was alone for a long time, but now I am not alone.”



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