mercredi 24 mars 2010

Female Religious Pofessionals in France, Amel BOUBEKEUR

28 I S I M NEWSLETTER 14 / J U N E 2004
In France, Islamic knowledge was formally
transmitted and reproduced to
Muslims through associations aimed at
controlling the religious market. “Religious
market” refers to the growing demand
by Muslims for religious education
and services such as the issuing of
fatwa (religious legal advice), and the
performance of rites such as prayer and
marriage. Individuals from mosques,
Muslim associations, or religious authorities
supplied all these religious
services.1 These institutions catered
mainly to male followers who were expected
to transmit religious knowledge
according to the in-house ideology; they did not usually promote the
interests of youth and women who were on their margins.
Young women, particularly, were not satisfied with their marginal
roles in Islamic organizations. Especially since the events of 11 September
2001, they seem to have grown tired of hearing the Islamist
militant speech of these associations and wanted to learn about their
religion through more spiritual and academic channels. Thus, more
and more young female students left the political and social militant
associations in favour of the religious teaching of the institutes for Islamic
Studies. They also took part in the activities associations of
young Muslim students such as Etudiants Musulmans de France and
Jeunes Musulmans de France who tried to move away from the strategies
of the central organization Union des Organisations Islamiques de
France (akin to the Muslim Brotherhood movement in France), especially
concerning the headscarf controversy. Consequently, they were
more liable to promote the principles of freedom of individual choice
with regard to issues such as, whether to wear the headscarf in schools
and workplaces, rather than to be a
part of a collective Islamist utopia
movement. Within these new organizations,
the role of women was no
longer that of the messenger of a preformulated
normative and ideological
message expressed by a religious militancy,
but of a “source” capable of offering
others an education in Islamic
In a highly diversified knowledge
market, the obligation to promote a religious,
pragmatic, and methodological
learning rather than a political Islamic
ideology made it thus possible for
women to integrate into programs devoted
to the propagation of the latter.
Because these women could not be
seen in the past as traditional active
militants, male religious leaders did not
conceive as viable the use of female activism
in the religious market. For example,
it is within a collective movement that is not exclusively Islamic
(CEDITIM), which fights against the expulsion from school of young girls
who wear the headscarf, that the very recent, and still discreetly visible
Siham Andaloussi (the secretary of Tariq Ramadan), became a spokesperson.
However, the potential risk of defection of the male audience in
the process of immigration led them to re-consider women as a necessary
reinforcement to a risk of weakening of a religious Islamic market
uprooted from its national conditions of production.
As far as women were concerned, they
did not conceive of their participation
as exceptional but rather as a way to
introduce themselves into the power
structures of the power-throughknowledge
milieu. In this respect, the
Muslim organizations and institutes
show a turning point in their internal
management of their marketing policy
around the “Muslim woman.” For
instance, patterns of attitudes that
had been imposed as the one and
unique normative avenue (like, for instance,
wearing the headscarf, or having
to sit at the appointed place for
women) are now presented as subject to a legitimate free and individual
choice. Moreover, the religious education market is open to
competition in the French context. No obligation of belief can now
be imposed upon the young female students who have experienced
a successful socialization out of the religious milieu. The place of female
religious elites in France makes also sense, thanks to a greater
presence of the feminine clientele, who do not only go to the Institutes,
mosques, and religious lectures, but also buys books and Islamic
cassettes. Seen as professional models with which women can
identify, they strongly appeal to a clientele that represents “between
65 and 70% of the audience of the new lectures, that is about 33, 000
The unofficial female market
The changes in the production pattern due to immigration should not
hide the fact that, even if female students in the Institutes are as numerous
as male students, their presence in the religious job market remains
symbolic (less than 15%). The female
religious elites, which include various
types of profiles such as preachers,
intellectuals, or even translators of Islamic
works, appear as a very fragmented
group. An open-to-women religious
education training system does not
necessarily imply that women will be
recruited for prestigious professions.
They are rather confined to a more classical
niche, the women associations,
while the dominant positions in the religious
market being still occupied by
men. Even though they do not fit in the
formal religious economy, they cannot
be totally excluded from it. Thus, these
new feminine professional abilities represent
a new contender for the traditional
male roles.
Clearly though, the establishment
finds itself well advised to educate and
in the last instance equip women with
adequate skills, even if it assigns them a lower position. Long excluded
from the institutional structures of religious knowledge, women usually
meet at homes for sharing religious information, making it easier for
some of them to become unofficial religious authorities, and proving
to be a real source for influencing other women. Women can now
alone bring forward the religious standards, and their unofficial information
can possibly meet head-on the interests of the male religious
Political Participation & Activism
Islam in France has been experiencing a
significant evolution of traditional gender
roles as more Muslim women have access to
schooling and employment. Increasingly, first
and second-generation Maghrebi women, as
well as new immigrants, seek out and benefit
from religious training in institutions that
have traditionally been male domains such as
mosques, religious associations and Institutes
for Islamic Studies. Could it be that new public
female Muslim elite with religious skills and
competencies is emerging? Do Muslim women
occupy a new position within a religious
education market?
Female Religious
Professionals in France organizations,
the role of women was no longer
that of the messenger of a preformulated...
message ..., but of a
'source' capable of offering others
an education in Islamic sciences.
Political Participation & Activism
In comparison to the far away traditional Maghrebi societies where religiously
knowledgeable women can be easily discredited as healers or
holy female marabouts, neither institutionalized nor accredited with
real knowledge, the social mobility of Muslim female elites in France
makes them first-rate competitors in the religious market. In fact, they
are no longer playing the cultural community go-betweens relaying religious
opinions to protect “the real image of the Muslim woman” from
the influences of the non-Muslim world. As they move, they bring
along their own clientele. In other words, the more prominent they appear,
as visible actors, educated and upper middle-class citizens, the
higher is the corresponding profile of their audience. They can therefore
occupy the central position of producing religious meanings in society.
The traditional dominant religious character is now being questioned,
and new Islamic indigenous feminist battlefields are emerging
against, for example, polygamy practices, and cultural and economic
male domination. Even if the new standards are the expression of an
unofficial market, they are nevertheless seriously competing in the religious
market. Since those women hold positions in public circles and
know how to use their religious abilities in a professional capacity, they
are not confined to the former scheme of traditional relays of knowledge.
Their roles are no longer restricted to raising children and contributing
to the smooth running of an “Islamic society,” but they execute
their roles according to a well-planned scheme. They transform
the old small-scale, family-minded corporate approach into a larger, rationalized
production of their knowledge, making their abilities fit in
with the logics of self-interest and profit, notably with children, youngsters,
or women.
How feminine religious elites were born
The women-centred production of elites, either through written production
(for example, the books on Muslim women in France by Dounia
Bouzar or Malika Dif, both members of the French Board of Muslim
Worship), fatwa, or ijtihad (interpretation of the Quran),4 all signal
strategies of professional redeployment. The shift of what used to be a
professional stigma5 (i.e. being a woman) into a highly researched
quality on the religious market is a revealing phenomenon. Following
their relative exclusion from the global religious market, the new
women elites have become specialists who can both secure a female
clientele and remain as a legitimate part of the religious market institution.
Subsequently, and as a sine qua non condition for their introduction
to the religious market, they, on the one hand, comply with the norms
and traditions that exclude them from the canonical authority like the
sermon of the Friday prayer (which is still considered a male prerogative).
On the other hand, they directly compete with the establishment,
lecturing in front of mixed audiences or teaching religious courses. By
doing so, they secure a balance between their “feminine” abilities and
career-oriented strategies, while keeping in touch with the global religious
market, now more competitive than ever.
Setting aside and belittling the achievements of women professionals
created an unofficial religious market that competes with that of men.
Women also inherit some benefits from the structural legitimacy of the
official market allowing them to put forward their own production.
These ambivalent market strategies and the extreme
diversity of the feminine religious proficiencies
produce great instability, but only because it
is still relatively new. Will this market become an
autonomous and exclusively feminine market (so
limiting their field of activity and clientele) or will
the recent feminine religious economy gain
enough value to be fully integrated to the global
religious market, thus providing religious women
elites with new perspectives and positions, far
from the traditional women “ghetto”?
I S I M NEWSLETTER 14 / J U N E 2004 29
Amel Boubekeur is a Ph.D. candidate at the École des Hautes
Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, France. Her current research
focuses on “New Islamic Elites in Europe." She is the author of
Le voile de la mariée. Jeunes musulmanes, voile et projet
matrimonial en France, Paris, L’Harmattan.
1. See Laurence R. Iannacone, “Introduction
to the Economics of Religion,” Journal of
Economic Literature 36 (September 1998):
2. Dounia Bouzar, L’islam des banlieues
(Paris: Syros, 2001): 129.
3. See Valérie Amiraux, “Discours voilés sur
les musulmanes en Europe: comment
les musulmans sont-ils devenus des
musulmanes ?” Social Compass 50, no.1
4. See the work of the lecturer and Islamic
lawyer Schaiyma al Sarraf, Ahkâm al mar’a
bayna al ijtihâd wa at-taqlîd (Paris: Al Qalam,
5. Nilufer Gole, “The Voluntary Adoption of
Islamic Stigma Symbols,” Social Research 70,
no. 3 (Fall 2003).
Meeting of
de France,
30 April 2001
P H O T O B Y M E H D I F E D O U A C H , © A F P , 2 0 0 1

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