By Leyla Yilmaz
“We are still struggling in all Abrahamic religions. The sources of these religions have a patriarchal background. The female leadership will change this patriarchal system. In other words, we’ll have a global fight against patriarchy,” said Nefise Özkal Lorentzen to an audience of diverse religious backgrounds after they saw her documentary, “Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam.”
Özkal’s film was screened on Thursday as a part of the Moving Forward series by the Camera as Witness Program of Stanford Arts. The film documents the life of Seyran Ateş, a Turkish-German lawyer and feminist activist who outspokenly calls for a sexual revolution within Islam. According to Ateş, the Islamic world is dominated by the patriarchy, and the religion requires a shift in our theological interpretation to become the belief of peace and love that it is supposed to be.
Özkal said she was inspired to document Islam in an era when people frequently used religion to commit violence. She started her documentary-making journey by going out to explore the experiences of feminist Muslim men in different countries when her mother sent her a New York Times article on Seyran Ateş. In the film, Ateş argues that people unfamiliar to Islam’s true teachings regard the religion as rooted in fanaticism and radicalization. She, on the other hand, wants to portray Islam as a religion rooted in acceptance and diversity.
“Unfortunately, in the media what sells is the terrorism, the portrayal of women who cannot think by themselves, the discussion about hijabs. These are the main topics that come up when we think about Islam. But we do not really hear of Islam as a philosophical religion or Islam as a way of life,” Özkal said. During the event, she highlighted the limited perception of Islam in the western world, which is either deeply rooted in Islamophobia or restricted to surface-level ideas on religion.
With her documentary, Özkal expresses her belief that discussions around Islam should be revolutionized to center around teachings about morality and ethics. Özkal also mentioned scholarly work relating Islam to human rights and women’s rights after her film’s screening to reiterate the importance of having a diverse and modern array of religious interpretations.
In recurring shots throughout the film, the camera intimately captures Ateş lying down on a grassy field, under the bright light of the sun, narrating her experience of moving from Turkey to Germany as a kid. In her narration, Ateş focuses on the sexism she faced as a young girl. She reveals that realizing Muslim women and sex workers are oppressed by men from their own communities led her to open the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque in Berlin. The mosque is an inclusive space for people of all genders and sexualities to pray together, with a female imam, Ateş herself, leading the prayers.
Özkal said she wanted to depict Ateş lying down because it imitates her stance as a leader — not one where she is looking over people in a vertical posture and dominating them, but one where she is their equal, hence the horizontal capture.
“She is one part of her community. She doesn’t play like she is the authority,” Özkal said.
The film also emphasizes Ateş’ determination to reform religious practice despite the countless death threats, attacks, hate speech and sexist rhetoric against her. “Why do you want to kill me?” questions Ateş throughout the film. Her voice echoes in the background repetitively as the camera continues to shoot and the images keep moving. The voice demands: is it because she supports LGBTQ+ youth in Uyghur? Is it because she is not a traditionalist? Or is it because she prays with men?
“I don’t see the bad thing about love, you know. Love is great and that’s what the Qur’an says. If you hate because of Islam, there’s something really wrong in your head,” says Ateş’ nephew in the movie. His speech condemns not only the violence towards his aunt, but also the violent reading of religious texts by the patriarchy that both Ateş and Özkal call to change. The film shows that in today’s world, many different ideologies are twisted to commit hate; it includes scenes of the 2011 far-right terror attacks in Oslo to demonstrate that this issue is not specific to one religion but is much more universal.
The film has gathered both positive and negative reviews from diverse audiences, some saying that it should have challenged Ateş’ views more and shown the reason behind why people are critical towards her religious practice. Ateş receives frequent criticism from the German Muslim community as well, especially for her support of the German government’s decision to ban the hijab from schools, and for blaming the larger religious community for the sake of highlighting her own teachings.
To a question regarding these contrasting responses to the film and to Ateş, Özkal said that she was curious about how an even broader audience, each having a subjective definition of religious freedom and practice, would react to her film. She added that the film is not directed to appeal to the West or the East, but to allow the audience to come to its own conclusions about religion and culture.
“The film is an open sea. You as an audience will come to the harbor and sail and find your interest, your story within the film,” Özkal said.
“My target audience is young people, young people who want to make change,” Özkal concluded. She highlighted that her film is meant to encourage the next generation to reform, modernize and contextualize religious practice.