11 01 18
  • Name: Lallab
  • Mission: Develop debates, resources and tools for Muslim women to have a voice and change the narratives about them that often lead to discrimination.
  • Size: 2 staff, 10 < volunteers
  • Location: Paris, France
  • Key personnel: Founders – Sarah Zouak, Justine Devillaine; Treasurer – Attika Trabelsi


Two young graduates, one Muslim and the other atheist, created an organisation to empower Muslim women by giving them a platform online, in the media and in public spaces.

Lallab includes an online magazine where women write about social issues that affect them personally, and workshops that allow the general public to engage with the topic of Islam and women by hearing directly from the source.


“We just continually talk about Muslim women in France, without ever giving them a voice. People speak in our place, and it reaches the point where they tell us how to think, how to dress, whether we’re allowed to go to the beach, whether we’re allowed to go to university,” says Sarah Zouak, co-founder of Lallab.

“We are having debates that are completely abhorrent but yet somehow exist in France.”

Public discourse on Islam in France is, sadly, rarely positive. The rise of Islamist and far-right extremism has compounded the matter.

The toxic atmosphere for Muslims has seeped through many different spheres of the French system, from mainstream political discourse, to the media and even academia.

Terrorist attacks by jihadi extremists in the last few years have exacerbated the situation but the normalisation of Islamophobia and the stigmatisation towards Muslim communities in France has taken decades to build up.

Muslim women are often at the centre of debates on the topic of integration while rarely given a platform to speak. The CCIF, the Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en France, which records Islamophobic acts, reports three quarters of the victims of prejudice are women.

Even if they have not personally been attacked, the daily elite discourse happening in intellectual, political and media spheres – on whether you can publicly practise your faith and be a true citizen also integrating French secularism – can be heavy.  

There is anecdotal evidence that the constant exclusion felt by visibly Muslim women in France is the reason many of them either choose to work from home or decide to leave the country.

The direness of the situation hit Sarah, co-founder of Lallab, when she realised French feminism was not representing Muslim women like her, especially those wearing headscarves.

“It was bewildering for me that these women who were fighting so that women could have control of their own body were prejudiced, thinking, ‘we must save the poor Muslim women from themselves’. As if we are oppressed and submissive with no free will and therefore needed external help. I found that very condescending and paternalistic,” she says.

When she decided to do her Masters thesis on Muslim feminism, her professor told her one couldn’t be both and therefore she had to pick one.

Instead, Sarah decided to travel around the world to meet female Muslim changemakers and leaders in their field, from Tunisia and Indonesia to Turkey and Iran.

Women SenseTour – Episode Maroc – Teaser from Lallab on Vimeo.


“At Lallab we always give the microphone to the person concerned,” says Sarah.

Sarah and her friend Justine Devillaine, who is atheist, founded Lallab, with the aim of empowering a group that remained voiceless yet constantly talked about in France: Muslim women.

The response from Muslim women has been overwhelmingly positive.

Lallab deconstructs prejudice through training, debates, articles, interviews and community work. The name stems from “Lalla” meaning “lady” in Moroccan Arabic and “Lab” for Laboratory – and was designed as a juncture for anti-racist and feminist ideas.

The online magazine is used as a platform to address issues that are being discussed in the media and politics. The aim is to have someone directly concerned give their insight on an issue – whether it is headscarves, education or immigration.

Lallab’s workshops are organised around the documentary Sarah created when travelling across the world. The aim of the documentary was to open a conversation on the role and potential of Muslim women in society and Lallab has organised over 50 of these debates, with over 6,000 people in the 2017 alone.

For many attending the debates, it is the first time they see a headscarf-wearing woman expressing herself. For many Muslim women, it is the first time they have held a microphone and can express themselves in a public forum.

(When Sarah was asked to debate the headscarf on national television against Manuel Valls, former prime minister of France, she repeatedly refused and said it was not for her to speak, as she didn’t wear a headscarf. Attika Trabelsi, Lallab treasurer and headscarf wearer, was sent instead).

Lallab has organised workshops in universities, schools, town halls, libraries and other public spaces.  

Many men and non-Muslims have also joined Lallab and come to events because they recognise how inclusive the organisation is and find a diversity missing in many other feminist organisations, suggests Sarah.

“At the end of the day, it’s about allowing women to bloom without having to decide between their multiple identities,” she says.

Lallab also tries to give as many interviews as possible to the mainstream media. Sarah says they’ve been featured in over 150 articles and that now they often get requests to come and speak when the topic is about Muslim women.


“What is interesting is that the more we are seen, the more people try to silence us,” says Sarah.

Getting a space for the workshops has often been fraught with complications and questions, often focusing on how many veiled women would be present or whether Lallab and its speakers believed in laicité – France’s evolving secularism.

Islamophobia can be hard to combat in France because it is sometimes camouflaged by this notion of laicité. What sets French secularism apart from Anglo-Saxon models is that, over the years, it has pushed religion out of the public spheres and more recently the public practise of Islam has become increasingly difficult. France’s one-way approach to integration means immigrants have to assimilate and leave their origins behind completely.

But one of Lallab’s aims has been to create events in areas Muslims have not really been welcome and would therefore receive greater resistance. The organisers pushed to hold workshops in more upmarket areas where Muslim representation was very poor and people didn’t often meet a Muslim in their daily lives.

“It’s hard but we need to go to places they don’t expect us, that’s how you change the system. If we remain in between ourselves and activists, we’ll never succeed,” says Sarah.

The Lallab founders soon realised that to get access to places and invitations more easily, having a non-Muslim or white ally facilitated things and reassured people they were not an extremist organisation.

“Today in France, we need white non-Muslim women to reassure people. That is the point we’ve reached. This has been shown during workshops too. Some people see my documentary and they are interested, but it is when they see my colleague Justine that they say, ‘Oh I thought you were closed minded,’” says Sarah.

Sarah says they have had to deal with numerous cancelled events, sometimes on the same day, from universities, cultural institutions and town halls.

“At each event, we need to reply to ridiculous questions, prove we are good law-abiding women who are not going to create problems. Things never asked to anyone else trying to book a venue. Yes we love France, no we are not terrorists,” says Sarah.

From the very founding of the organisation, Sarah says they received a wave of hatred online – a potent mixture of racism, Islamophobia and sexism sent via email and through Facebook and other social media platforms.

They hadn’t anticipated journalists also accusing them of wanting to ‘Islamise France’ or of being part of the Muslim Brotherhood or an extremist organisation.

Sarah, who studied Business at university, knew they would have trouble finding funding bodies willing to finance them. This is a common complaint from Muslim organisations in France, where suspicions that Muslim initiatives are working for extremist groups or ‘Islamising’ France run deep within the state. Lallab was therefore designed to be self-sustaining from the start.  

It depends on multiple funding sources, such as events with paid entry, workshops it is paid to carry out in schools, and even membership subscriptions. Sarah says the paid services provided by Lallab cover the ones it offers free of charge.

Moving forwards

“We have many feminist organisations that support us, that protest alongside us, and with which we work hand-in-hand. They make our voices heard in settings it would be impossible for us to have access to,” says Sarah.

Many feminist organisations have started attending Lallab events, reports Sarah, and that has opened discussion. The workshops have also resulted in an increasing number of invitations.

“What really worked for Lallab was word-of-mouth. In each municipality event, there would be professors, directors, and school principals from other cities that would contact their own municipalities and ask them to invite us. So in each city we would have other cities checking out our work,” says Sarah.

Courtesy of Lallab/Instragram

One of its goals is to develop a network of smaller initiatives across France that can work on creating more discussions and debates in their local area.

While Lallab is working on measuring its impact more accurately, the organisation has grown and after a year of working on a voluntary basis, it has two paid staff. Sarah says they also receive a lot of messages after any events from both Muslims and non-Muslims about changing perspectives.

“.. This gave me the courage to start further studies…”

“… With this workshop I realised Muslim women are not everything we see on TV…”

The messages of encouragement have also come from non-Muslims who were given another perspective on the issue.

“Some mayors frankly tell us: come to our city, we need to meet Muslim women from our society. During one workshop, it seemed every Muslim woman in the room took the microphone. They had a lot of different things they had to say. It is a tool for us to reclaim our stories,” says Sarah.


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