A Muslim feminist in France speaks out
March 5, 2009 — Interview
Written by Naima Bouteldja
An interview with Zahra Ali, president of Al Houda, a Muslim women’s organisation.
During the Social Forum of the Banlieues (FSQP), in October 2008 at Nanterre, Paris, Naima Bouteldja interviewed Zahra Ali, 22, the president of Al Houda, a Rennes-based Muslim women’s organisation. Zahra, a student, is preparing a dissertation on the emergence of a Muslim feminist consciousness for an MA course at the EHESS (École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales). During the Social Forum Al Houda presented a play based on its experiences of being repeatedly excluded from International Women’s Days in Rennes.
How did you get involved in Al Houda?
I have been in Al Houda since I was 15. It provides a religious framework for Muslim women and young girls living in Rennes. We work quite a lot in the mosques and, for the last ten years, what has characterised Al Houda has been the Sunday morning classes. They take place every single Sunday in a mosque in Rennes and enable Muslim women to meet, to deepen their knowledge of Islam, and it also allows them to share the experience of being a female Muslim and what it is like to live as a female Muslim in France.
Could you explain the controversy at the core of the play presented at the Forum by your organisation?
For more than ten years our organisation has expressed an interest in participating in the Village of the Associations that organise International Women’s Day in Rennes. Nowadays the Village of the Associations is spread across the whole month of March in the form of a series of conferences, meetings and debates that are organised by local organisations in partnership with the city of Rennes. Women’s Day is generally organised for the Saturday that succeeds or precedes 8 March and it gathers together all the women’s and feminist organisations, and the human rights organisations that defend women’s rights. They basically introduce their activities to the public. They gather under a big marquee right in the town centre and their activities are advertised by the city of Rennes.
We have been present at the local level in Rennes for the last ten years, and, each year, or at least every other year, we have asked the organisers for the right to participate in the Village of the Associations, telling them that we’re an organisation that defines itself as feminist and we would like to participate in this Village because we belong to this activist community of Rennes and we want to present our activities (to the public). So each year, up until now, we were systematically met with rejection with the exception of one year where we managed to appear on the official booklet of the programme. In fact, we only managed to secure a listing in the official programme of a conference we were organising, but it was something. And then came 2003, the year with all the controversies around the issue of the headscarf, a controversy that fed all the popular fears. For many months, and at least until mid-2004, there was an amazing flood of racist and xenophobic rhetoric. Islam had been reduced to something alien, a segment of the population had been stigmatised by ideas such as ‘it’s a population that includes sexist, male chauvinistic, violent boys’. You saw the re-emergence of the figure of the barbarian (that had been manufactured during colonisation) as well as the figure of the veiled woman either submissive through force or in the pocket of fundamentalist networks.
At the beginning of the 2004 academic year, again we asked to participate in the 2005 Village of the Associations. And since we were slap-bang in the middle of the controversy it all kicked off. On 13 December 2004, I think, the town hall organised a meeting with all the representatives of local organisations like Amnesty International, Femmes Solidaires, Mix-cité and the theme was the possible inclusion of the organisation Al Houda in the women’s Village. So basically the town hall had gathered all the local associations to decide whether it was possible that our association could integrate into the Village of the Associations.
The meeting quickly transformed itself into a court in which we were the defendants and were more or less told, ‘prove to us that you’re feminists’! We were also told that the fact that we were wearing the headscarf stigmatised those who were not wearing it … and yet in our organisation itself some activists don’t wear it (many do wear the headscarf but any Muslim women, veiled or not, can join and participate in Al Houda). And since we also work a lot with the thinker Tariq Ramadan and this coincided with the release of Caroline Fourest’s book, Brother Tariq , we were also demonised for associating with him. In fact the meeting was unbelievably harsh with us and conducted in an atmosphere of total contempt and rejection.
But this time, we told ourselves that what had just happened was unacceptable; and it was even more unacceptable as not a single organisation had supported us during the meeting, so we really had been alone. We told ourselves that we were going to take the matter to court because we hoped that through that avenue we would transcend this whole impassioned and furious debate and be able to confront arguments with questions like, ‘what is it, that allows you to imply that we, by definition, are against women’s emancipation? What is it that allows you to imply, that we, by definition, cannot support women’s rights? What is it that allows you to imply that we, essentially, support stoning?’! We wanted to tell them, ‘just put forward your arguments; we’ve been here for the last ten years, so tell us what we did that allows you to say that we cannot participate in Women’s Day!’
So we decided to take the City of Rennes to court but we made a practical mistake by not using the right judicial procedure. The court could have refused our demand solely on the basis of this mistake and it would have then been entitled to close the case. But what the judge decided to do was to give a ruling based on the content of the complaint and he asserted clearly that, ‘a Muslim women’s organisation cannot be in tune with the spirit of Women’s Day!’ The judge of the court could simply have rejected the complaint on a technicality but he chose to add his personal judgment that was therefore that of the court. According to him an organisation of Muslim women – read veiled women (our organisation is perceived this way even if all the women of the organisation don’t wear the headscarf) – is not in tune with the historical sense of Women’s Day!
We went to see solicitors who told us that we had two years to appeal but they advised us not to do so, and, anyway, by the end of the hearing, whose decision we received in March, we were exhausted. We had taken a lot of pressure and we really needed a break. We had decided we wanted to be treated as equal, we had decided not to keep silent, we had decided not to bow our heads, but ultimately at the end of it we just reaped two years worth of national controversy and intense media attention that contributed in unveiling an evident racism within French society.
Ironically though, around the same period, at the beginning of 2005, there was also a local mosque project in Rennes and for this project the town hall requested our input because the mayor, of course, needed the voice of Muslim women as a trump card so that he could say later on, ‘we, in our mosques, don’t tolerate the exclusion of Muslim women’. So basically when it’s about mosques, there is no problem, our contribution is sought. But when it’s not strictly related to community or religious issues, when it’s about social or political issues, all the stuff related to ‘being fully-fledged female citizens’, at that level, everything we do or ask for is perceived as provocative and extreme, as propaganda or as proselytising.
We were even told at that time, to show you how far communication had broken down, that we were operating in the field of irrationality. We were told exactly what Tariq Ramadan had been accused of: ‘you say you support women’s rights but that’s not what you think!’ In other words, ‘you practise “double-discourse”‘. So, when you get to that point, there is no longer any possibility of dialogue. But the breakdown in communication was not coming from us, in the sense that we carried on inviting representatives of local organisations, we carried on inviting the elected representatives of Rennes to our activities, and we did not despair either and we still submitted our requests for public funding (laughter).
And do the local representatives respond positively to your invitations?
No, now we are completely ignored. Before the hearing there was at least some kind of dialogue and they would answer us, but, since then, nothing. Recently, during a town council meeting, we heard that the mayor of the city of Rennes himself said that we were a fundamentalist sect that wanted to veil women in the banlieues, so we really are totally stigmatised and dialogue is no longer possible.
Still, do you have any relationship with left wing, anti-racist and civil rights organisations?
We’ve always worked in a spirit of partnership. But at a local level in Rennes, we have very little support. We are in touch with some activists but they always work with us as individuals and not as representatives of their respective organisations. So we are in touch with members of the Revolutionary Communist Youth who actually have always been on our side and we also work with some activists from the Green Party with whom we managed in the past to organise debates on Palestine. On women’s issues, we work with independent coalitions, with activists from Mix-cité.
Do you receive public subsidies?
No. We survive on collections. We collect money in the mosques, we ask for money from individuals we know, and there is also the money from the individual subscriptions. Then we self-finance ourselves: for every debate we organise, we ask the public to pay a fee, which allows us to reimburse the travel expenses of the panellists and the price of the room. We really have slender means and every year we are left with no money in our bank account.
How many members in Al Houda?
We number about thirty, with around a dozen who are very active.
How would you describe the role of your organisation?
The Sunday morning classes are really the basis of everything. They provide a meeting space for both young and older women. It’s really intergenerational; some of the founding members of the organisation who are in their mid-40s and have kids are still here, and then we have young teenagers and young adults also attending the classes. So it’s really mixed. The teenagers, in general, participate in our theatre workshop. The Muslim families of Rennes know that there is this halaqa (Islamic educational meeting) on Sunday mornings and all our activities start from these meetings. In other words, some people come and propose themes for events as well as conferences they would like to organise or attend for the coming year, and then, from that point, we share the tasks amongst ourselves. We are aware that many Muslims share our feelings, we somehow represent a space where young girls can come to inform themselves on all kinds of issues: a girl confronted by a forced marriage, a girl who doesn’t want to wear the hijab, a girl who is facing a problem at school. Really the space we have created connects many different things: we work as much on social as on political issues. We also self-educate and train ourselves and we are part of Presence Musulmane  which supplies us with an interesting educational framework.
But it’s important to understand that our activities remain generally very local and this has been particularly so over the last few years. We felt that was necessary because of the very high local demand and also because we have witnessed the emergence of a strain of literalist religious thought, that was very marginal in the past but is starting to affect more and more Muslims. The struggle against this school of thought is also one of our objectives. We want to confront it just by being ourselves, by remaining active and by speaking out, as Muslim women. For example, the very presence of a veiled Muslim woman distributing leaflets in a market provides a counterbalance to emergent salafist thought, not just in the banlieues, as often said, but in all social spheres.
Coming back to your own studies now, how do you define Muslim feminism?
The term ‘feminist’, in itself, I would define in a very generic way as a way of being, of acting, a will to promote women’s emancipation by promoting the struggle for universal principles of equality and justice. Within Al Houda we define ourselves as feminist in this way. As for Muslim feminism, personally it starts from a very deep spirituality. We begin with the spiritual idea of equality before God, to state that all issues related to discrimination, all logic that reduces women to objects, women to their role as mothers, their role as spouses, their role as daughters – basically everything that is opposed to the principle of equality and justice – we have to struggle against because we need to remain faithful to a message that came to empower women.
This idea that Islam came to emancipate women can sound quite odd to many people and it also generally contradicts practices one can observe in many Muslim societies.
Obviously we are aware of the fact that proclaiming ‘Islamic feminism’ seems paradoxical. Firstly, within a Western context, particularly in France, women’s emancipation is associated with a certain degree of rupture from religion. Second, within a context where, on the one hand, international news introduces western audiences to a caricature of fundamentalist and sexist religious groups, and where, on the other hand, the concrete realities of the Muslim world itself (in terms of legislation, for example, on the family code and in terms of social relations where women are often relegated to the private sphere, suffering domestic violence etc) are undoubtedly disastrous in relation to women.
But one should start by saying that the majority of Muslim countries are countries which belong to the ‘Third World’ where political regimes are often far from democratic. In Afghanistan, for example, it is a whole people who are being deprived of elementary rights (such as security, health, access to education) and women, as in every society, are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Afghan women at all levels suffer on two counts from insecurity, poverty and sexism, with the American occupation adding to difficulties.
But it is obvious that Muslim thought remains largely fossilised when it comes to feminine issues and socio-political answers don’t explain everything. It’s precisely at that level that we think there is a need to question classical Islamic law and to re-read our sources in a spirit of emancipation. It’s our work as female believers to work to remain faithful to a message that, according to us, has been above all liberating for women. For us, the Revelation carried an egalitarian and empowering message for women, and it is our duty to distinguish between contextual readings that, when applied through the lens of cultural patriarchy and sexism, pervert the sense of the Revelation, and the readings that are faithful to the meaning of the message.
What are your relationships like with French feminists, generally speaking?
We had an experience with the Collective of Feminists for Equality , of which I was a member alongside other members of Al Houda. And it was a very rich experience because they were feminists from all kinds of backgrounds. We spent one year campaigning in this collective and eventually chose to return to local issues and to concentrate on the work in our city of Rennes and in particular to concentrate on intra-community issues that had been neglected over the previous years.
Now, generally speaking, the French feminist landscape remains very divided in its opinion of us, so the feminists that we are working with are those who have really developed a critique of colonialism. In fact, we found ourselves in a similar scenario to that of our other struggles. We ended up working with feminists who had already worked a lot on, for example, the issue of the sans-papiers and on racism.
Now what needs to be said is that I’m not trying to impose my model of Muslim feminism on people. I know that some Muslim feminists don’t claim any link to a western feminist legacy. As far as I am concerned, I am a western woman and I have been deeply shaped and influenced by western feminist literature. I have, of course, a greater sensibility towards African-American feminist literature. The literature I was reading first when I was very young was, for example, Angela Davis, but, nonetheless, I feel strongly that I am an heir to the historical feminist movement of the ’70s and the first feminist wave. Of course, I will differ on some of their stances because they will oppose my spiritual legacy. But regardless of my conception of the body, my link with transcendence, I don’t feel a rupture, I really feel an heir to this movement of struggle that has enabled women to move beyond what biology has ordained, that has enabled women not to be reduced to their roles as mother and housewife. I feel totally an heir of it all. Simone de Beauvoir is very relevant for me.
What are your future projects?
We have been engaged in working on feminine and feminist issues in Islam for some years and we are beginning to articulate our group thoughts on a certain reading of the Qur’an that would be of feminine and feminist inspiration. We will carry on with our local activities – organising conferences and classes – but what we really have our hearts set on, at this moment in time, is the work on this issue of feminism in Islam.
Read an IRR News story: Unity of purpose in the French banlieues
Read an IRR News story: Organising in the banlieues
 The book by Fourest and Denis MacShane has the subtitle, The doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan. Fourest is a French feminist who was given a 'Laïcitê' award in 2005. She was also one of the original eleven signatories, alongside Hirsi Ali and Salman Rushdie, of the 2006 manifesto, 'Together facing the new totalitarianism'.  A Muslim network that provides training courses for Muslim activists in several French-speaking countries.  The Collective of Feminists for Equality was created following a petition in Le Monde in December 2004 entitled, 'A veil on discrimination'. It includes both non-Muslim and Muslim feminists and its charter states there is no 'one single model of liberation and emancipation for women' and calls for respect for freedom of choice on the wearing of the headscarf. The Institute of Race Relations is currently conducting a two-year research project on 'Alternative Voices on Integration' funded by the Network of European Foundations (European Programme on Integration and Migration).
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.
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