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When women lead prayers

06 March 2021

France's first rabbi and a young Parisian imam discuss leading public worship in Judaism and Islam

Pauline Bebe recounts, “I grew up in a Jewish family that lived through the war. My parents felt deeply Jewish, but they had not received a Jewish education.  When my brother and I were children, they did not want to give us a negative view of Judaism only, that is, the view of anti-Semitism that they had experienced. They found the only liberal synagogue of the time, the one in rue Copernic in Paris, which combined Judaism and modernity, spirituality and rationalism.  I studied there, fascinated by the Judaic texts and philosophy, and wished to become a rabbi.  I learned that there were female rabbis in the United States and England. I went to see them and, after receiving my two degrees, I entered the Léo Baeck College in London, the only rabbinical seminary at the time that welcomed female students, to study there. As part of my studies, I also spent two years in Israel.”

Anne-Sophie Monsinay tells me “I converted to Islam about ten years ago and, after my conversion, I oriented myself towards interreligious associations so as not to find myself in areas that were too closed, since I had a very progressive vision.  While there I met imams, theologians, lecturers, and I followed their courses. I also became involved in social networks where I met another woman, Ėva Janadin.  After a while we received several requests to open a mosque which would be consistent with our reformist stance. This we set out to do, and which was accomplished in September 2019. Before the health crisis took over, we held two services in a row, once a month, in front of a mixed assembly composed of 50 to 70 people in each service.”

Is it hard to be a pioneer?

Bebe - It is both difficult and exhilarating. Being in a position where we can evolve mindsets is an opportunity. Sometimes we have to hang in there, not look at hostilities as personal attacks, and do our job. When it is appreciated, that is the greatest reward.

Monsinay - Yes, it is unavoidably difficult, because we have had to start from scratch. Our legitimacy has been brought into question, even beyond the imamate, because in addition to being women, we are converts and young people. We have had to deal with confusion, and then there is the question of training. As pioneers, we have had to create everything. We would like to come up with complete educational courses, for they don't exist, so we have to proceed differently. We tell ourselves that we are working for future generations.

Are the female rabbinate and imamate very reforming ideas or are they part of a tradition?

Bebe - To be honest, before the gender equality movements, the question was not posed in these terms. On the contrary, Jewish law has addressed many questions regarding what women are entitled to do or what they are forbidden from doing.  The interesting thing is that the sages and those who decide are not all of the same opinion. Most of the acts performed by a rabbi -who is first and foremost a teacher-, are permitted to women.  The problem is the leadership of public worship, the position of judge or witness, although one can rely on the example of Deborah in the Bible to say that it is possible. Attitudes change according to the centuries and circumstances. So one could say that it is innovative and at the same time anchored in tradition.

Monsinay - Contrary to what one might imagine, it was not an ultra-reformist concept. In the Quran, the term “imam” is used to designate prophets and guides. In addition to the Quran, there is the prophetic tradition too. One such tradition says that the Prophet called a woman to lead the prayer by flanking her with a muezzin. And, this was in the 7th century, a time when women did not have the same rights as men! Then, as Islam evolved, there were theological debates, and between the 9th and 13th centuries, some came forward in favor but over time there has always been far fewer. Women imams have always existed in private or semi-private circles; and, women spiritual teachers have always existed in Sufism, even if those of a more conservative tendency opposed them.

Is the place of women in the role of prayer a taboo issue? 

Monsinay - In the Prophet's time, the women stood behind the men, when there were tents, then walls. Sometimes they prayed in an adjoining room. Women were progressively excluded from the space of worship, and that of leading prayer is an issue because of the body issue. A woman imam in front of an assembly of women does not constitute a problem. What constitutes a problem is a woman in a mixed assembly. It is out of fear of the desire that the female body can arouse that it is only grudgingly accepted that a woman stands in front of men. This reveals a problematic approach towards women, and also for men, for it is as if they were basically unable to control their impulses.

Bebe - If you study the Bible and history, you realize that women had free access to the Temple and could make sacrifices. Between the Biblical and Talmudic times there was more exclusion. In traditionalist synagogues, men and women were separated, but not in liberal synagogues. The origin of the separation is interesting because in the Temple era it was temporary and removable, while later it became permanent. The separation is due to this exclusion of women from the public sphere. It stems from a patriarchal view of what woman can represent in the eyes of man. Even for Plato, woman belonged to the material world and man to the spiritual world. It is time to revise these notions and allow women free access to the religious world.

What can you tell me about the place of the feminine and women in the broader religious realm: does this issue frighten you?

Bebe - Unfortunately, it is often a matter of power and connections. There is the place you leave and the place you take.  The philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas said that the “after you” should be the most beautiful expression of our civilization. I prefer to think of it as the place of a spiritual expression.

Women, like men, have a spiritual dimension. I do not think the gendered body prevents us from being a spiritual leader for one another. We contrast the genders, while we should remember how everyone was created in the image of God in Genesis.

Mansinay - The imam is considered as one who “serves” the community, and this applies to both women and men. Among other things, there are women theologians and teachers, even in conservative circles, who instruct children and other women. As for religious bodies, they are composed mostly of men, while women are a minority. However, personally, around me I do not perceive of there being any fear about what I do. Many men are engaged in theological reform work, I do not even think there is a female approach to Islam that would be more progressive, because there are women who are more conservative than some men are.

By Marie Cionzynska

Anne-Sophie Monsinay

Anne-Sophie Monsinay is thirty years old.  She converted to Islam ten years ago, and is the imam in Ile-de-France. With Eva Janadin, 31 years old, she founded the association Les Voix d'un Islam éclairé (V.I.E), a movement for a spiritual and progressive Islam. They are the first two female imams in France who together have been leading Muslim prayer for over a year, to men and women, who gather once or twice a month.

Pauline Bebe

Pauline Bebe is the rabbi of Communauté Juive Libérale, a progressive Jewish congregation in Paris. She began her studies at Leo Baecj College in London, and completed her Jewish education at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. She was ordained rabbi in 1990, at the age of 25, the first woman to become a rabbi in France.   In 1995, with Rémy Schwartz, she created the (CJL).