Women led prayer in France: an analyse of an unprecedented event

Saturday the 7th of September, for the first time in France a prayer has been led by two female Imams, in front of more than 50 believers and non-Muslims personalities invited for the occasion. This event, presented as the symbol of emergence of a French “liberal” or “progressive” Islam, has been quite well received by French media, while offering the opportunity to provide an overview of the question abroad.


A secret place and a major event for French Muslims:


Right after the prayer, the two organizers, Anne-Sophie Monsinay and Eva Janadin declared themselves “as stressed and happy at the same time”, as reported the French-newspaper Le Parisien. In their 30, the two teachers (in music and history), both converted to Islam almost ten years ago, aim to create an “inclusive” mosque in France. As such, the first ceremony has seen women and men praying conjointly in the same space without any distinction or discrimination. Indeed, one of the main purposes of the organizers is the promotion of equality between genders, with a special emphasis regarding women presence and access to places of worship. For instance, they are asking for better conditions for women prayers, arguing that most of the time women are excluded from the main hall and relegated in the second zone of the mosque. In the same vein, they argue that there is no statutory prohibition for a woman to become an Imam and facing the congregants: in their opinion the only obstacle is “cultural and psychological” they said (Le Point).


Anne-Sophie Monsinay and Eva Janadin also claim women’s right to choose if they want to wear the veil or not. They do not wear the veil themselves – a practice not compulsory they said –, and on this question also, the assembly was very diverse. More broadly, the two freshly Imama – a feminized version of the word Imam, or Imames in French, as the letter “e” symbolizes the feminine mark – preach for a “spiritual and progressive” Islam (Le Monde). They advocate for the creation of a mosque open and accessible to everyone and gave the sermon in French, with translations for Arabic formula, for a greater understanding. The targeted audience are the people – mainly but not only women – who are not satisfied with the religious offer or do not find their appropriated place in French mosques.


This first session – which mainly gathered young people worshipers – occurred in a secret place “for security reason” Saturday afternoon, but the following ones will be organized for the Friday prayer. The idea is to establish one preach per month in different locations – in Paris region, even if many participants came from all over France – to make an estimation of the demand and gather a large support. In the next few months, the purpose of their network baptized VIE (Voix d’un Islam éclairé – Voice for an enlightened Islam) – the acronym can also be read as “life” in French – is to open a house of worship near from Paris. Supported by the Fondation pour l’innovation politique(the Foundation for political innovation), a think-tank that has already published their manifesto, the mosque does not have the ambition to become a political force stricto sensu, but to be a place open on society and deeply rooted in its time. If the final process has not been completed yet, it already has a name: Sîmorgh, a biblical animal that refers to Sufi poetry and symbolizes the inner self of each believer.


High media coverage and overview of the situation abroad:


Invited to cover it, French press has mainly been dithyrambic regarding the event, presented as “progressive”. One could see, once again, the illustration of a dominant stream in the way French media perceive Islam in France through a binary scale: between “extremist” and “moderate”, “traditional” and “modernist” Islam. Conversely to the press, the initiative has – for the moment – not created a major interest from main French Muslim federations and remains quite at the margins from these actors. Nevertheless, the project leaders, who afford a strong importance to interreligious dialogue (a rabbin was there, as many protestant congregants), might count on international supports. Among the assembly, some significant figures were there, such as Ani Zonneveled, the President of the association “Muslims for Progressive Values” in the USA, or Seyran Ates, the woman Imam of the inclusive mosque Ibn Rushd-Goethe in Berlin. Their attendances remind that France appears to follow a general trend supplied in other countries since the beginning of the 2000. The New York Timesdrew up a review of the “women’s mosque” situation, which is quite dynamic in many countries such as Canada, the USA, Denmark, with the creation of the Fatima mosque by Sherin Khankan, or Germany, with the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque in Berlin, already mentioned. Moreover, the article put it in perspective by notably recalling an historical fact, the Hui traditions of women’s leading prayer in China since the 19th, which reminds the necessity of looking beyond the Western scale.


Finally, one must also add that the Sîmorgh mosque is not the only project occurring in France, as an analogous initiative is being initiated: the Fatima mosque. Led by Kahina Bahloul – a PhD-candidate in Islamic studies and the first female Imam in France – and her associate Faker Korchane, this project aims to promote a “liberal” Islam, with a weekly gathering and a rotation between men and women Imams for the Friday sermon. Strong parallels have been drawn in French newspapers with the first French woman rabbin, Delphine Horvilleur, who similarly advocates for a “liberal” Judaism. One major difference between both inclusive mosque projects is nevertheless noticeable: both will gather a mixed assembly in the same room, but in the second one, women and men prayers will seat separately. After promising first steps, the Sîmorgh mosque now appears confronted to more pragmatic dilemmas with the necessity to find a location adapted to its needs. A Stage that the Fatima mosque just took forward, as Kahina Bahloul recently declared the project has received enough support to preach one a week for one year.

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