By Doreen Carvajal
March 8, 2019
These are heady times for Kahina Bahloul, organizer of a women’s mosque in France, a country that is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe. Practical considerations dominate the spiritual — a search for an affordable location, a flurry of radio and television interviews marking the rise of a vanguard of women imams leading pop-up mosques from Berlin to Berkeley, Calif.
Ms. Bahloul, 39, who was trained as a lawyer in Algeria, said she stopped attending formal prayer services in Paris about three years ago because “I didn’t feel respected.”
She said she was taken aback by mosques that isolated women, steering them to back doors and relegating the worshipers to basements or seats hidden behind screens. She gave up after one mosque directed the women to pray in a nearby garage.
“I felt excluded by the mosques,” said Ms. Bahloul, who is earning a doctorate in Islamic studies from France’s École Pratique des Hautes Études and intends to be one of two imams leading prayers at the mosque. “I felt excluded by my community — and a lot of other women felt the same way.”
Together with Faker Korchane, 40, a high school philosophy teacher and a freelance journalist, she is developing the Fatima Mosque while searching for rental space in the Paris region. Their concept is a liberal mosque that will host weekly prayers led alternately by a female and male imam with worshipers of both sexes separated on either side of the same prayer hall.
Seyran Ates left, a Turkish-born German lawyer and activist who founded the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque in Berlin, with the imam Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed.
Ms. Bahloul is building on an evolving tradition of women imams with history dating from the 19th century in China among the Hui Muslims. There, women lead mosques exclusively for women. But in the last three years, women imams elsewhere have begun to organize women’s mosques with varying styles in Denmark, Germany, Canada and the United States.
In 2016, the Mariam mosque opened in central Copenhagen, with the call to prayer sung by women. A year later, Seyran Ates, a Turkish-born German lawyer and activist, founded the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque in Berlin. To great fanfare and speeches, a women’s mosque started in Berkeley, Calif., in 2017 at Starr King School for the Ministry, a graduate school and Unitarian Universalist seminary.
Rabi’a Keeble, a Muslim convert and graduate of that seminary, founded the Berkeley mosque, Qal’bu Maryam. But she quickly faced challenges. It was not easy to attract Muslim women, who were wary of the organizers, she said.
“You assume there must be other like-minded people all over the place,” Ms. Keeble said. “What woman wants to continue to sit behind, walk behind, listen to men interpret scripture to their benefit? There must be a bunch of women waiting for someone to step up and kick those doors down. Well, that’s just not true.”
The Berkeley mosque’s location was always tenuous. After a year occupying free space, the group moved to a temporary home, she said, and recently found new quarters at First Congregational Church of Oakland.
Real estate is the critical issue that determines the strength of reform mosques. In 2012, Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed opened a mosque in Paris designed to be inclusive to women and welcoming to homosexual Muslims. Faced with insults and some hostility, Mr. Zahed said members preferred to be discreet, moving locations every three months to avoid being targeted. The mosque closed after three years, and Mr. Zahed has since resettled in Marseille in the south of France to run an institute to train reform imams.
“We had threats and people identified the places,” Mr. Zahed said of the Paris mosque. “Then owners didn’t want us to stay any longer. They were very happy to have us in the beginning, but they had so much political pressure that they wanted us to leave. It was always like this.”
Faker Korchane, 40, a philosophy teacher, is helping Kahina Bahloul develop her mosque.
Ms. Bahloul has not faced that kind of pressure for the Fatima Mosque, a concept she has openly promoted since January with a series of television interviews in France that have provoked hundreds of comments. She has also drawn coverage in Brazil, Italy and Canada, and in Northern Africa in Morocco, which characterized her concept as revolutionary.
“Among Muslims there are two reactions,” she said. “Most are very favorable — ‘finally a breath of fresh air. We have been waiting for this for a long time.’ There are others who are insulting and accuse us of trying to change the real Islam. But what is real Islam? Those critics have a very simple approach and have a superficial understanding of Islam.”
Ms. Bahloul’s views are shaped by her eclectic background, divided between France and Algeria, where she grew up in northern Kabylia, the child of an Algerian father and French mother. Her maternal grandmother was a Polish Jew and her grandfather French Catholic.
“Since I was young, I have always posed questions,” Ms. Bahloul said. “What really struck me was the evolution of the practice of Islam of my paternal grandparents, who were very traditional, cultural and spiritual. And after that I watched the spread of the conservative Salafist movement and the first veils worn by women in the 1990s.”
For now the organizers are preoccupied with practical concerns — renting a location, eventually organizing a crowd-funding campaign, reaching out to city officials who could aid in the search for space for Friday prayers and community meetings.
In the meantime, Ms. Bahloul teaches about Islam online through her association, Parle-moi d’Islam, with lectures on how to read the Quran or prosaic themes such as: “Does the Quran say to hit wives?”
Mr. Korchane, the co-founder, also says they must work to reach another pivotal group. He wants to create special videos to attract young Muslims, who he says sometimes lack deep knowledge of Islam. “They think, for example,” he said, “that eating halal or wearing a veil are part of the pillars of Islam.”