France and Islamic feminism: intersectionality in the Republic

Open Democracy

As the presidency of François Hollande commenced its third year, French society is revealing its profound division between progressive and reactionary stances on gender equality and race issues. The latest protests “Manif pour Tous”, led by Christian rightwing movements against gay marriage were followed by the unbelievable alliance of Black anti-Semitic Dieudonné with the French far-right. “Jour de Colère”, the “Anti-Hollande” protest, gathered together on January 26 the Christian right, extreme right supporters, anti-Islam and anti-Semitic groups.

In the midst of what really feels like a backlash for all feminist and anti-racist activists, the topic of Islamic feminism in French society raises issues that help us towards a deeper understanding of women’s rights and racial segregation in France.

Islamic feminists, as defined by researcher Stephanie Latte Abdallah, "claim the right to an interpretation (of the Q’uran), (ijtihad) that promotes gender equality, new roles in rituals and religious practices, changes in the areas of family law, criminal law, and legal and political practices. "

Islamic feminists in Muslim countries do indeed seek to change their legal framework by various means, including Quranic "feminist" or gender-sensitive exegesis and raising legislators’ awareness of a more progressive interpretation of Islam. These researchers and activists try to help people to perceive the double bind that they experience; on the one hand, that of traditionalism or fundamentalism and political Islam and, on the other, that of Islamophobia or the discrimination that they encounter in western countries in their quest for alliances or for legitimacy. The fact is that Islamic feminists in western countries, and especially in France, struggle with identity affiliations and fight against multiple forms of oppression that bind them to post-colonial and anti-racist movements.

Muslims, friends & supporters in Paris against the stigmatisation of Muslims in France/Demotix/Tom Craig/All rights reserved

French feminism and anti-racism

Laure Berenin of the Institute of French Studies at NYU, analyzes the French feminist movements along two axes, the materialistic axis and the liberal axis. I would like to classify French feminisms, in their relation to anti-racist issues, under six category headings:

- Marxist / radical, materialist feminism, which founded the struggle for the emancipation of women on the basis of a"sex/class struggle," as defined by researchers such as Christine Delphy and Monique Wittig who refer to anti-racist issues in terms of feminist questions: culture as a whole is oppressive to women.

- Academic feminism, represented for example by the philosopher and feminist scholar, Elsa Dorlin, who introduced the concept of intersectionality to France; the anthropologist Nacira Guénif-Souilamas who offers a typology of racialized and sexualized figures in the French discourses on immigration and identity; or the sociologist Eric Fassin who makes explicit the links between sexual issues and racial issues through, for example, the concept of "sexual whiteness".

- Institutional feminism as epitomized by the equal political representation (parité) movements of the 90s, which recently led to the creation of the first Ministry of Women's Rights in France since President Mitterand. The majority associative epitome of French institutional feminism, movement Osez le Féminisme, which emerged from a Parti Socialiste, Planned Parenthood and UNEF alliance, makes claims which can crystallize in institutional terms in the Ministry. Osez le Féminisme’s positions on the use of headscarves by Muslim women, for example, are clear: the veil is a tool of domination.

-“Ghetto” mediatized Feminism, for example, with Ni putes Ni Soumises, Ni Voilées, Ni violées, prosecular identity-based, populist feminism from the suburbs.

-“Islamophobic” feminism, represented by Anne Zelensky, co-founder of the MLF in the 70s and recently participating in the Conference of Islamisation in Europe in 2010.

- Indigenized feminism, finally, with the movement (now party) Indigènes de la République with spokeswoman Houria Bouteldja, who manages to apply post-colonial analysis to the French case and has an in-depth analysis of the relationship between feminism and anti-racism.

However, in my opinion, feminists in France seem to have trouble getting out of a discourse crystallized around the "veiled women". "The veiled woman" as an object, seems to be the sticking point around which French feminists circulate.

Non-victimization and double bind

What seems intolerable to the reactionary narrative is non-victimization. While western rights are the first to vilify the Muslim domination of women, their words imply that "dominated" women themselves do not want to participate in their liberation. It is intolerable to be faced with someone who is seen as a victim and who yet considers himself as a free being. Recognizing multiple forms of oppression while refusing victimization is a powerful means of struggle rooted in the struggles of Black feminism in the United States. Amélie le Renard, in her article « Lectures et usages féministes de l’islam » about Zahra Ali’s bookFéminismes Islamiques, said that, "Zahra Ali (…) returns on the prohibition of headscarves in schools and of the niqab in public places in France, and draws a parallel with the unveiling of women in the colonial context. (...) She strongly associates the approaches of Islamic feminism and anti-racism. Islamic feminists seek to "fight against racism, Islamophobia stigmatizing them and their brothers, associating them to the other, archaic and obscurantist. This interweaving of sexism to racism [...] is a posture facing a double oppression.””

The veil provocation

Zahra Ali, the main Islamic feminist theoretician in France explains the genesis of the movement in a French assimilationist context. She explains that French Islamic feminists are using their knowledge of Islam as an access to legitimacy in their communities. They also recover, according to Zahra Ali, through these affiliations, political resources against racism in society at large.

Thus, French Muslim women have a faith that the researcher identified as "born again", unearned but in some ways reinvented, mainly fuelled by agency, in itself a post-modern tool. "The adherence to Islam is spiritualized in the discourse of these women, the divine is synonymous with love, and religion is seen as a support, an additional resource, a choice that gives preference to the meaning, the intrinsic logic of Islam, rather than to belonging to a socio-ethnic group.”

This strategy refers to what Amelie Le Renard identifies among feminists in Saudi Arabia, opposing emancipating “Islam” to conservative “social customs". Le Renard links this narrative to a hybridization between American-style personal development and references to the Quran and the Prophet's character as an example of “indigenized” modernity.

Beyond the individual, or personal and cultural dimension of Islam appropriated by women, Islamic feminism in France clearly allows women who claim their belonging to this movement to accumulate tools that can respond both to sexism and racism. Are Islamic feminists in France, then, only reacting against intra- and extra- community discrimination? They do experience a double bind similar to their counterparts in Muslim countries. However, in the case of France, the strategies of Islamic feminists have everything to do with the question of the veil. "Aware of the stigma associated with Islam, the veiled Muslim women will (especially after the adoption in 2004 by the French Parliament of the law on the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools) also give their veiling a sense of challenge and of questioning the French integrationist injunction.”


Knowledge of religion by a gender sensitive exegesis, coupled with awareness of intra-community and societal oppression, empower French Islamic feminists. Unconscious colonial representations, highlighted by the law on religious symbols in public places, founded the context from which Islamic feminists in France emerged. Political resources and cultural capital provided by membership to an Islamic feminism movement, allow women who associate themselves with this movement to offer a different interpretation of “Islam” and "Muslim women". However, this line of thought and action binds them to formal and informal local and transnational Muslim networks as well as to Islamic feminist ones, and this affiliation continues to isolate them from both dominant feminist movements in France, and more broadly from the French governmental left, who both continue to claim an anti-community and universalist line.

In these times of generalized backwardness, it is necessary for French feminist movements to take into account the double bind that these movements meet in their struggles. Only an intersectional French feminism can allow for the building of transnational alliances to support the struggles of liberation and emancipation of women and step out of the universalism/cultural relativism dichotomy or, as in the French case, the confrontation between identity politics and the Republican rejection of any form of differentiation. In the French context, traditional feminism must seize on intersectionality if it is to support Islamic feminists. And use this outstanding conceptual tool to embrace the issues that cross French society at this juncture.


1 Stéphanie Latte Abdallah, « Les féminismes islamiques au tournant du XXIe siècle », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, December 2010

2 Laure Berenin, “Accounting for French Feminism’s Blindness to Difference: The Inescapable Legacy of Universalism”,NYU Symposium:“Feminism/s Without Borders: Perspectives from France and the United States”, Oct 2009

3 The National Union of Students of France, the first student organization, present in all Higher Education Institutions.

4 Caroline De Haas, « L'interdit vestimentaire : un instrument constant de la domination masculine à travers les âges »,September 2009  

5 Amélie Le Renard, « Lectures et usages féministes de l’islam », La Vie des idées, January 2013,

6 Zahra Ali, « Des musulmanes en France : Féminisme islamique et nouvelles formes de l’engagement pieux », in Féminismes Islamiques, La Fabrique, September 2012