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The rise of the female imam in France?

Charlotte Houang, FRANCE 24 | Kahina Bahloul hopes to become France's first female imam by founding the Fatima Mosque, an "inclusive" house of worship.

Kahina Bahloul has set her sights on becoming France’s first female imam, as she moves forward with plans to construct an "inclusive" mosque in Paris.

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Bahloul submitted a proposal in November 2018 to construct a house of worship known as the Fatima Mosque, where weekly prayers would alternate between a male and female imam. Congregants of both sexes would be invited to attend the service, although they would be separated on different sides of the main prayer hall.

The proposal, which is in the initial stages of securing financing and a possible site for the mosque, was co-sponsored by Faker Korchane, a freelance journalist and philosophy professor.

Bahloul, 39, has a doctorate in Islamic studies from France’s prestigious École Pratique des Hautes Études. She said she was driven to become an imam because she feels out of step with how Islam is taught in traditional and hardline Salafist mosques.

“The major problem with Islam today is that it is viewed through the lens of a man whose understanding of society is patriarchal, if not misogynist,” Bahloul told FRANCE 24 in an interview in January. “We should be able to approach religious texts differently in the 21st century.”

“It’s important that Muslim women make themselves heard, that they take their place in houses of worship,” she added.

Bahloul has fought for years against what she described as “misogynist Salafist rhetoric and other conservative factions in Islam”. But it wasn’t until the November 13, 2015 terror attacks in Paris that she felt compelled to become an imam.

“It was so shocking I told myself that I had to do something as a French Muslim, and as a woman,” Bahloul recalled.

Yet many mosques do not allow women to enter the main prayer hall, let alone lead a religious service.

“A lot of people aren’t ready for a woman to take leadership, especially when it comes to religion,” Bahloul said.

Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, a model of progress

Bahloul would be far from the first woman in the world to become an imam. In China, the Hui Muslims have a tradition of female imams and mosques, while women have also been known to lead prayers in the United States, Canada, South Africa, the United Kingdom and in other European countries.

Perhaps most recently, Sherin Khankan made international headlines in 2016 when she became Denmark’s first female imam, with some hailing her as the future of Islam.

Most of these women come from a more progressive, reformist version of Islam that embraces female imams. For them, there is no theological argument against a woman leading prayer.

Yet the issue is not so simple for everyone. Sylvie Taussig – a researcher with the French National Centre for Scientific Research who recently co-authored an article on female imams for The Conversation website – said that there is still room for theological debate over how the role of imam can and should be defined.

“Denmark’s female imam conducts marriages (the equivalent of a civil ceremony in Islam), but does not perform funeral prayers (which requires the presence of an imam),” she wrote.

Taussig went on to point out that because of all the attention Khankan had received in the press and on social media, she has come to be known more as a symbol of change rather than an agent of it within the Muslim community. Taussig argued that the Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, leader of the Liberal Jewish movement of France, is a far better role model for progress.

Rachid Benzine, a prominent scholar of Islam, also praised the strides Horvilleur has made in a profile of the rabbi that recently appeared in French newspaper Le Parisien.

“Delphine Horvilleur has done a lot of good for French society. She’s not encapsulated by her community. I know a lot of young Muslim women who read and admire her work. She speaks first and foremost as a woman. She just happens to be Jewish. We need female imams like her to shake things up,” Benzine said.

It now appears this may be just a question of time. In addition to the Fatima Mosque, the founders of the Voice of Enlightened Islam organisation, Eva Janadin and Anne-Sophie Monsinay, have also submitted a proposal for another inclusive mosque. The two women hope their Simorgh mosque will embody a more progressive, non-traditional form of Islam by housing “an entirely mixed congregation”, where men and women can sit side-by-side at prayer.

This article was translated from the original in French. To read that piece, click here.

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