Women Imams Around The World Challenge Male-Dominated Islam

From France to China, these female worship leaders not only provide spiritual guidance but also encourage diversity and dispel stereotypes, from both within and outside of their community.

Jamida Beevi leading prayer
Hannah Steinkopf-Frank

PARIS — Like most modern religions, Islam is dominated by men. Virtually every mosque in the world today is led by a male imam. And yet a quiet trend of more women imams — a practice that dates back centuries — is not only providing a different kind of spiritual guidance but also encouraging diversity and dispelling stereotypes, from both within and outside of the global Muslim community.

Examples include Dr. Amina Wadud, the first American woman imam and an early figure in modern Islamic feminism, and Sherin Khankan, the first woman to lead Muslim services in Denmark. Women have also made inroads within France's Islamic communities, to the point that in 2020, "there is nothing exceptional about being a woman imam," write imams Eva Janadin and Anne-Sophie Monsinay in a recent opinion piece for the French daily Le Monde.

As Janadin and Monsinay highlight in their piece, the existence of Muslim women leading prayer goes back centuries. Around the world, they have long been at the helm of women-only congregations. And now, there is an increasing movement, largely within progressive groups, of women imams promoting a more inclusive vision of Islam within mixed-gender religious spaces.

Making a difference in France: Neither Monsinay nor Janadin come from Muslim backgrounds, but turned to Islam as young adults. The two professors created the Voices of an Enlightened Islam movement in 2018 to promote studying Islam through a lens of "equality and freedom."

  • They created the Sîmorgh mosque project in 2019 to study the Quran from a contemporary perspective and not privilege the imam over the congregation members.

  • The mosque, which does not have a permanent space, draws a range of worshippers: an internal survey found that almost 70% of members are in mixed intercultural and interfaith unions. The movement stands out in a country where fear of Islamic terrorism and an insistence on secular values are used to target Muslims, particularly Muslim women and their use of headscarves.

  • But as Janadin and Monsinay argue in Le Monde, Islam isn't inherently sexist. The inequality that persists, they write, is "linked to the immobility of conservative and patriarchal mentalities that must be distinguished from spirituality."

The existence of Muslim women leading prayer goes back centuries, wrote imams Eva Janadin and Anne-Sophie Monsinay — Photo:

Blazing a new trail in India: In January 2018, Jamida Beevi made history as the first Indian woman to lead a mixed congregation for the Jumu'ah (Friday) prayer in a public space.

  • Beevi is part of the Quran Sunnat Society, a group in the southwestern India state of Kerala aiming to bring reform to Muslim communities.

  • She has strived to live an independent life, going against tradition to divorce a man she was forced to marry and questioning orthodox doctrine. Despite having received death threats, she hopes to inspire other women.

  • "The Quran does not have any discrimination based on gender, all the fury is because of the wrong interpretations," she tells India Today. "The Quran does not entitle men as the lone leaders of Jumu'ah prayer. We have taken this initiative to send a strong message to the society that both men and women are equal in Islam."

Centuries-old tradition in China: Going as far back as the 18th century, women-only mosques evolved out of schools as a way to both educate women and preserve the country's Muslim community, which has a long history of being oppressed and assimilated. Most recently, Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province have been interned and women forced to take birth control and be sterilized. Elsewhere in China, however, groups of Muslims have been able to practice freely, often because of their compliance with the government.

  • Both Islam and Christianity came to China in the 7th century. Henan, a central-eastern province in the Yellow River Valley, is home to many of these all-women mosques, with 16 located in the traditionally multifaith city of Kaifeng.

  • China is the only country in the world to have such a long practice of not only separate religious spaces for women but also women in charge of prayer. This is possibly because of its socialist history and isolation from religious changes in Islam globally during the 20th century.

  • "When our mothers were girls it was the only place where poor Muslim women could receive an education: the women did it together, women supporting women," a member of the Wangjia Alley mosque (built in 1820 in Kaifeng) tells the BBC.

Training to be mourchidat in Morocco: The North African Kingdom is the first country in the Middle East and North African region to provide government-sanctioned education for female religious leaders.

  • The program began in reaction to a 2003 terrorist attack in which 14 suicide bombers killed 33 civilians. Both men and women learn not only theology but also subjects such as history, philosophy and comparative religions. The program draws applicants from around Africa and Europe and places graduates in mosques around the country.

  • Since 2005, hundreds of women have been trained to work as mourchidat, female clerics who teach Islamic law and practice and counsel fellow women. The program has been criticized not only because it doesn't give women the same status as men, but also because it enforces government control over religious practice.

  • While they can't become imams, many women still find empowerment through their status: "Women are the heart of the family, it is they who shape behavior," Rabat-based mourchidat Ait Said tells Elle. ""The most important thing we do as mourchidat is transmit ideas to them, so that women can become the solution to problems. The men will follow.""

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European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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