Faith, Feminism and Freedom (3:3): Female Pioneers of Faith

A female rabbi meets a female imam

Thursday 19 May 2016 at 17:00 The Queen's Hall
Sherin Khankan and Delphine Horvilleur (Foto: Manyar Parwani/JF PAGA © Grasset)
Sherin Khankan and Delphine Horvilleur (Foto: Manyar Parwani/JF PAGA © Grasset)


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Faith, Feminism and Freedom (3:3): Two outstanding women meet at The Black Diamond: The French rabbi Delphine Horvilleur and the Danish imam Sherin Khankan. 

"The 21st century will be religious or it will not be at all"

This utterance came by all accounts from the French politician and writer André Malraux (1901-1976) about the century we are already well into. It is probably not an either-or, but religion still plays a crucial role. In an age of massive influxes of refugees, globalisation and cultural exchange we must inevitably turn our gaze on the factor that is often described as the cause of transnational conflicts, i.e. religion. Throughout history there have been many examples of peaceful coexistence between religious groups – and examples of how inner forces attempt to reform and modernise religions by making their dogmas the subject of debate.

The struggle for gender equality has a key position in this debate. Two women who have made an important contribution to this debate are the French rabbi Delphine Horvilleur and the Danish imam Sherin Khankan. Both women were born with a Christian and a Jewish and Moslem parent respectively.  So both are examples of how various religions and cultures can interact without clashing. But Sherin Khankan and Delphine Horvilleur are not just religious – they are also women in a globalised world.

Delphine Horvilleur (1974)

is the third female rabbi in French history. Apart from working as a journalist, she is both chief editor of the Jewish cultural periodical Tenou’a and author of two books about tradition and gender identity in Judaism. Via an examination of the religious writings and their translations, Horvilleur manages to reopen them to the present and thereby do away with a tradition understanding of gender which places men and women on ‘opposite sides of the fence’. Horvilleur is particularly interested in the role religions ascribe women.

Via her reinterpretations, Horvilleur attempts to get to grips with prejudices, religious dogmas and extremism. According to her, present-day religion is in need of free, modern voices with a transformational potential, to which she can contribute via her position as a rabbi. For Horvilleur, identity cannot and must not be reduced to a unambiguous entity such as a question of religiosity – this opens up the danger of extremism. Instead, identity must be understood as an interaction of various factors, and so masculine and feminine characteristics cannot be ascribed to a particular gender.

Sherin Khankan (1974)

is a writer, former politician and one of the country’s four first female imams – so-called femimams. She is also the founder of and spokeswoman for Forum for Critical Muslims which, among other things, argues in favour of a modernistic re-reading of the Koran, one that treats women and men as equals.

Khankan represents a Sufi form of Islam, which emphasizes the more spiritual nature of her religion. Like Delphine Horvilleur, Sherin Khankan argues in favour of a community that can include a congregation that has affiliations with various cultures. This also means that there is no need for there to be any clash between being a practising Moslem and a young person in Denmark, as many imams in Denmark, according to Khankan, seem to claim.

Khankan is also the founder and head of Exitcirklen, which is a voluntary organisation which, with the aid of conversation groups, seeks to help women and girls from every background to combat mental violence and social control.

In collaboration with 


Faith, Feminism and Freedom at The Black Diamond

This event is part of The Royal Library’s marking of the global conference Women Deliver, to be held in Copenhagen 16-20 May. 

17/5 Michael Kimmel
International Authors' Stage
18/5 Why Women?
Film screening 
19/5 Female Pioneers of Faith
Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur and imam Sherin Khankan.


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