Turkish Women in Germany Lose an Advocate

Seyran Ates opened a loose-leaf notebook in her fourth floor apartment in the center of Berlin and flipped through the pages of hate mail. She read the letters in a monotone. The 43-year-old Turkish-born attorney had the face of a weary warrior.

o “You should receive the highest punishment possible for your nasty, dirty existence.”

o “You are a Nazi. You support the racists that hate Turks.”

o “How can you betray us, you whore.”

In June, an enraged husband attacked Ates in a courthouse as she accompanied his wife, a client who was about to start divorce proceedings. “You whore. What ideas have you been putting into my wife’s head?” the assailant shouted as he beat his wife and attempted to strike Ates.

For 20 years Ates has endured attacks and threats from Turkish men as she represented the wives who accused them of abuse and sought divorces. She has been shot and badly wounded, she has been beaten, and she receives daily death threats. Police guard her home.

Now she has decided to give up her Berlin law practice, because it is too dangerous to continue.

For security reasons, interviews with Ates must be arranged through trusted intermediaries. Her name is disguised on the buzzer in the lobby of her apartment house.

Seyran Ates’s ordeal in Germany began in 1973, when her family moved from Istanbul to a one-room apartment in the working-class district of Wedding in Berlin. She was 10 years old.

She lived under the tyranny of her brother, Kemal, and a father whose experience in Germany had destroyed his self-esteem. Ates was beaten and not permitted to leave the tiny apartment without her father or brother.

Unlike the other members of her family, she quickly learned German and was soon translating correspondence for her family and others who spoke only Turkish.

“When I was 15 years old I decided I wanted to become a lawyer and fight injustice,” she said in a recent interview. It was an awesome challenge for a young woman living in an immigrant society dominated by men.

She felt increasingly stifled by her authoritarian home environment. When she was 17 years old, she ran away and sought refuge in a women’s shelter, where she lived in a community of battered Turkish and German women.

In 1984, an ultra-nationalist band of Turkish youths, known as the Grey Wolves, invaded the women’s center, guns blazing. Ates was shot in the throat and severely wounded. The woman next to her was killed. It took five years for her to recover from the wounds and the trauma of the attack.

“After the attempt to kill me I decided that no man has the right to destroy my dream of becoming a lawyer and fighting for women’s rights. The shooting strengthened my determination to succeed,” she said, continuing her passionate call for women’s rights.

But the attack in June has forced this intrepid fighter for women’s rights to surrender.

“I’m withdrawing from my professional life as a lawyer; my client is living in a women’s shelter; and her husband is running around scot-free,” she said. “My life and the life of my daughter, Zoe, must take priority.”

Why do Muslim men see her as such a threat?

Johannes Kandel, a political scientist, gives this explanation: “She doesn’t live like a Muslim woman. They see her as straying from the path of truth, and she is stirring women against men.”

Ates' decision to quit practicing law was splashed across the front pages of Germany’s newspapers, partly because she was named Germany’s woman of the year in 2005. Articles about her decision drew attention to the mistreatment of Muslim women, underscoring doubts in Germany that Islam can be reconciled with Europe’s democratic values.

Ates’ outspoken criticism of the male-dominated Islamic culture has not only generated the enmity of Turkish men, but has also drawn criticism from many left-wing Germans who advocate uncritical acceptance of a multi-cultural society, according to Deutsche Welle, the government’s official broadcasting system.

There are fears in Germany, as in other Western European nations, that any criticism of Islam will ignite violence. Ates says this hands-off policy of tolerance is naive in its acceptance of the intolerance within the immigrant culture.

There were five so-called “honor killings” committed last year in Germany by Islamic fundamentalists. “Honor killings” are carried out to punish women whose sexual conduct deviates from the strict traditional standards of the patriarchal immigrant society.

Ates says Turks feel increasingly marginalized in Germany, and as a result, more of them are turning to Islam to find their identity. She warns of growing Islamic militancy. “There are Islamic groups that are active here that would be banned in Turkey,” she says.

The cultural divide between Turks and Germans is clearly seen in the sharply differing attitudes regarding violence toward women. According to sociologist Necla Kelek, violence is condoned as a way to get women to obey their husbands. Susanne Bauer, an official with the Berlin Police Department, says corporal punishment is widely used on children raised in Turkish homes. She quotes a Turkish proverb: “When you strike your wife, or your daughter, a flower will bloom where you hit them.”

“The Turks have brought the Middle Ages back to Germany,” said Suzan Gulfrat, a reporter who covers Germany’s Turkish community for Der Tagesspiegel, a respected Berlin newspaper.

But Imam Harun Bulut of the huge Turkish mosque on Columbiadamm in Berlin demonstrates an enlightened view. He recently denounced domestic violence after a Friday service and said the Koran does not condone such behavior. He has ordered shopping bags for the local food stores with printed messages in Turkish opposing violence in the home.

The problem of domestic abuse in the immigrant community is exacerbated by the common practice of bringing poorly educated brides from Turkish villages to Germany, where they become totally dependent on the husband’s family. According to Kelek, around 20,000 brides have come to Germany each year since 1980.

“People who try to help female victims of abuse in public are putting themselves in great danger,” says Kelek.

Seyran Ates, defeated by the Muslim culture, knows this only too well.

The woman who has devoted her life to fighting for the freedom of women has now become a prisoner who lives in hiding.