Living and Developing a French Muslim identity: the influence of gender


Gender Studies, an interdisciplinary academic field mixing literature, language, sociology, anthropology, political science, history and others such as media studies and philosophy has been around for several decades

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in the United-States and the United-Kingdom. Yet, the interest in Gender Studies remains sparse and controversial. For instance, in France the worth of Gender Studies has been relatively meagre. Key works discussing the nature and construction of sexual identity have been largely dismissed in French academia. For instance, Gayle Rubin’s essay The traffic in Women (1975) which introduced the sex/gender system[1] has never been translated. Others, such as Judith Butler’s Gender trouble (1990) which presents gender identity as a performance, have only been translated and published in France this past decade.

As a convert Muslim woman and a researcher, I became increasingly interested in the concept of gender identity because my conversion to Islam had me entered a new religious system, but also new cultural dimensions: Muslim cultures. I understand Muslim cultures as a mix between a non-religious cultural heritage and a sort dogmatic Islamic cultural heritage, which is a set of beliefs and practices stemming from a person’s faith and decision to follow Islam. Thus, many different Muslim cultures exist: Indonesian, Yemeni, Moroccan etc. The common religious framework set by Islam does not suffice to make all Muslims throughout the world understand each other and capable to live with each other in absolute harmony.

My entrance in some of the Muslim cultures was more complex than I thought it would be, especially because of my gender. Indeed, there was often a gap between what I had been used to as a young French woman and what some of the Muslim cultures were expecting of me in terms of behaviour, way of life and way of thinking. Becoming a Muslim can be a real clash of culture, the encounter of two distinct cultural categories that may drive people to develop a hybrid identity[2] in order

to fit in. In my case, gender supposedly triggered and affected the development of a hybrid identity, which made me aware of the power of gender roles and ultimately of gender identity[3].

Although I am based in a British university, my topic focuses on France and more specifically on the French Muslim population. I seek to understand French Muslim experience ‘living Islam in France’, but also how they live and think their gender identities because religion often sets pre-define gender roles which may crystallised expressions of gender identities. My research is dedicated to establishing and evaluating the key aspects of gender identities according to religion and uncovering whether such aspects can be found in the way French Muslims live and understand their gender identities.

French Muslims, principally when they are devote and practicing, often have to conciliate between what Islam teaches in terms of gender roles and the type of culture and citizens the secular and ‘liberate’ French society brings into being. French Muslims seem to negotiate their identities, their masculinities or their femininities on a regular basis, sometimes without even being aware of it. Therefore, the thesis aims at shedding light on the particular phenomenon of living Islam in France, as a man and as a woman.

Of course, it should be noted that it might also

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exist differences between French Muslims who experience Islam as part of a cultural heritage and French Muslims who choose to enter Islam and may already have a completely different cultural background (e.g. White Europeans). However, measuring such differences is not the primary focus of the thesis, and such topic will only be briefly discussed and particularly in the case of Muslim women. Indeed, only three converts to Islam accepted to participate in this research and they were all women. It was easier to get female converts to participate, perhaps because women tend to convert to Islam in larger numbers than men and converts only represent a small portion of the French Muslim population. More precisely, the total of converts in France has been roughly estimated to be between 70,000 and 110,000 on a total Muslim population of 2.1 million[4].

One of the interests of this thesis is to define what type of experience of living Islam French Muslims have, personally and in relation to the others. Another interest is to evaluate the participants’ experiences and understanding of modesty and honour; key concepts which I identified from literature discussing gender identity. Finally, the thesis assesses the correlations between notions of female oppression and male domination according to the lived experiences and opinions of participants. Such interests aim at painting an accurate idea of what it means to be a Muslim man and a Muslim woman in France, while challenging the stereotyped way in which Muslims men and women are portrayed in the French media and, to a larger extent, in the West. Thus, this study hopes to add to the growing literature on Islam and gender and to the debates on the process of gender and identity construction by attempting to answer the questions: in what way(s) gender influences the experience of living Islam in France? And, does gender influence the development of a Muslim identity and understanding of Islam, and how?

Mariana Dussin graduated with a BA in Applied Languages from University of Bordeaux III, and a Post Graduate Diploma in Applied Languages from the University of Aix-En-Provence 1. She then studied a Masters in Global Politics and Intercultural Studies at Swansea University, where she is now completing a Phd. Her research focuses on investigating and documenting the full range of views, perceptions, stances, attitudes, orientation, values, problems and identities of Muslims in France. The thesis aims at challenging concepts and ideas about gender in Islam.

[1] Described by Rubin as “the set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity, and in which these transformed sexual needs are satisfied” (p.159)

[2] Keri E. Iyall Smith, Hybrid Identities: Theoretical and Empirical Examinations, Haymarket Books (2009), (p.4)

[3] Gender identity refers to “one’s sense of oneself as male, female, or transgender” (American Psychological Association, 2006). When one’s gender identity and biological sex are not congruent, the individual may identify as transsexual or as another transgender category.

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