The women of the French organisation Lallab empower Muslim women and assert their ownership over stories about their own identity and existence. This is a much needed intervention in France, where discrimination against Muslims is widespread, says treasurer Binta Jammeh. “French society presents a tough uphill struggle for Muslim women. There is a lot of Islamophobia, racism, and gender discrimination. The ban on wearing headscarves for public officials and in government buildings, such as schools, legalises discrimination. We are also systematically portrayed as passive victims of oppression. As a collective, we fight for our rights and for control over the narratives of our lives. We also offer Muslim women a place where they can feel safe and heard.”
Lallab was founded in 2016. Jammeh explains, “It started after university friends Sarah Zouak and Justine Devillaine made a documentary about Muslim activists in five different countries, including Indonesia, Iran, and Morocco. In that documentary they demystified the idea of ‘the Muslim woman’. Back in France, they decided to apply the same idea in their own country, which is home to four million Muslims. This is how Lallab was born. The name is a contraction of the Arabic word for lady and the English word ‘lab’: so ‘women’s laboratory’.
Community of solidarity, expression and strength
Lallab currently has 600 members and creates meeting places for Muslim women. “We organise monthly discussion groups where they can exchange ideas about all kinds of topics that are important in their lives. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. I myself was so happy when I stumbled upon Lallab in 2020. Finally, a place where I didn’t have to explain what I was going through, where people knew what it’s like to live in a society that wasn’t designed for you. All facets of my identity – disabled, Black, Muslim – can come to life at Lallab.”
Through its meetings, Lallab aims to create a community of solidarity. Jammeh adds, “We foster solidarity among Muslim women from different backgrounds and take care of each other. That is why we also provide legal and psychological assistance through a hotline run by volunteers and therapists.” In addition, Lallab is building a community of expression and a community of strength. “We want to speak in our own words about ourselves, our lives, and our challenges. Get rid of all those stereotypes! Through all kinds of activities we reclaim control over our own stories and think together about how we can use our power to change discriminatory practices.”
One of Lallab’s important activities is organising 10-month training programmes. Jammeh explains, “Knowledge is power, so we educate participants on topics such as Islamophobia, racism, sexism, intersectionality, and systemic oppression.” With the Pouvoir programme, Lallab focuses on work and education. “We help women to reimagine their careers and to build professional networks. Muslim women have a very hard time in the labour market. We invest in their skills to help them create opportunities and ensure their safety in the workplaces. An important issue that plays a role here is the ongoing debate about wearing the hijab at work. The legal ban on wearing overt religious symbols in government buildings and schools also affects the private sector, which greatly impacts the career opportunities of Muslim women who wear headscarves.” Another programme focuses on health and sexuality. “We reconnect women with their health, their body, and their sexuality.”
Lallab is also making itself heard in the social and public domain. “We are raising our voice and highlighting the challenges facing Muslim women in France. We show how much influence the dominant social ideas have on the ability to find a job, on our access to networks, on the extent to which we feel comfortable speaking out in public debate. We draw attention to this with an online magazine, videos, and an annual festival. We share stories, images, and artwork on social media. Our reach is expanding. By 2022, our posts and videos on Muslim Women’s Day were viewed no less than 700,000 times!”
Of course it is difficult to operate in an environment that is hostile to Muslim women. “Staying hopeful and protecting ourselves and our community in an increasingly right-wing and sexist climate remains an ongoing challenge. That is why we are doing more and more outreach. Currently, we also train departments of local governments and companies in combating systematic discrimination, and we have become an important speaker about intersectional feminism in France.”