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Jan 10, 2019 | Europe

French Muslim women push for 'inclusive' mosque in Paris

By Alison Hird - RFI
Zakaria ABDELKAFI / AFP
Zakaria ABDELKAFI / AFP

Two Muslim organisations in France have launched projects to create "inclusive" mosques: spaces where women and men can pray together, and where female imams would be able to lead Friday prayers.

Kahina Bahloul conducts her prayers at home, in her living room. She decided to stop going to the mosque five years ago after she was refused access to the main prayer room.

"I went to the mosque with a group of male and female friends. It was a religious festival commemorating the birth of the Prophet, so it was very important," she told RFI.

"The men were told to go in, but we women were told 'cross the road and you'll find a room'. It was a garage in fact. So there I was in this garage. The sound system was terrible and the atmosphere was not at all spiritual. Women were cooking and kids were playing. I was extremely disappointed, shocked even."

Bahloul says the separation of men and women in the main prayer does not make sense.

"We're together everywhere in everyday life, and then suddenly, when it's prayer time, you can't even look at one another. It's as if we've been reduced to sexual objects and nothing else."

A need for an inclusive space
Bahloul has a doctorate in Islamic studies and is of the more mystical branch of Islam known as Sufism. Following the terror attacks in November 2015 she founded a discussion group and youtube forum, Parle moi d'Islam (talk to me about Islam).

Along with philosohy professor Faker Korchane, she has now set up an association with the aim of opening a Fatima mosque, an "inclusive” modern space where men and women can pray together.

"The mosque will welcome men and women in the same room, women on one side, men on the other, but both on the same level," she explained.

Bahloul does not wear a veil and does not believe the Koran imposes it, so there will be no dress code.

The other crucial feature is that a woman imam will lead Friday prayers every other week.

France's female imam
Bahloul would like to be the first woman in France to lead Friday prayers, but recognises that even though France has Europe's largest Muslim population (estimated between four to five million people), she is swimming against a very conservative tide.

"It's surprising that in France, considering there's such a large Muslim community, that there's also a deeply conservative tradition," she said. "The traditional currents such as Salafism and the Muslim brotherhood have a strong presence.

"Some schools of Islamic jurisprudence like the Mālikī school - the most common in the Maghreb - forbid women imams entirely. Other schools accept women imams, but they're allowed to hold prayers only in front of women, or there's a physical separation in the hall so you can't see the women imam."

New readings of the Koran
Eva Janadin is another French muslim woman with big hopes of creating a place embodying the reformist current of Islam.

Along with Anne-Sophie Monsinay, she plans to open the Simorgh Mosque, also mixed, with female imams and an open dress code. Prayers would be in French.

"We would like to use the critical-historical discourse around Islam that has developed within universities," she told RFI. "To try and make it more accessible to a wider public and bring it into the religious domain.

"In other words we want to draw concrete lessons on how you can lead a spiritual life in today's world, following all the new readings of the Koran, new religious concepts and so on."

Both groups are looking for funds and premises for the mosques which would, ideally, be in the French capital.

Other attempts in Europe
There is some support for women imams in Britain and Spain, but so far Germany and Denmark are the only European countries that have more progressive mosques where women and men can pray side by side.

The Mariam mosque, which opened in Copenhagen in early 2016, welcomes worshippers of both sexes; Friday prayers are reserved for women.

Berlin's Ibn Rushd-Goethe 'liberal' mosque opened in June 2017. Prayers are held in German in a building belonging to the Protestant community.

Despite positive media coverage the Berlin mosque has only a few dozen regular worshippers. And its female imam, Seyran Ates, a well-known lawyer and human rights militant, has suffered ongoing threats and lives under police protection.

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