PARIS (AFP) - Kneeling on prayer rugs in front of dozens of worshippers, Eva Janadin and Anne-Sophie Monsinay offered prayers and a sermon in an unusual Paris ceremony earlier this month, a scene they hope will soon become more common at mosques across France.
It was the first time female imams had led Muslim prayers in the country, despite having Europe's biggest Muslim population, at an estimated five million to six million people.
Neither woman wore a veil and one wore jeans for the French and Arabic-language ceremony which was also attended by a rabbi friend and Protestant guests as well as a female imam from Berlin.
Women and men prayed side by side, breaking with a convention of relegating women to separate spaces or rooms where they often cannot be seen.
"Many Muslims, both women and men, have a real desire for emancipation and liberation," said Janadin, 30.
She and Monsinay, 29, converted to Islam around 10 years ago, and have shaped their project in part on Sufi values that encourage spiritual introspection and tolerance.
Monsinay said she grew up in a Catholic family before turning to atheism, but later discovered the Quran. "I had a very strong connection with the text," she said.
But both women were unhappy with the traditional separation of men and women in mosques.
They recently secured several thousand euros from a fund-raising campaign to rent different venues once a month for the coming year for their avowedly "progressive" project.
"It's possible to plant the seed for an alternative model," Janadin said.
It has not been easy in a country that has suffered a string of deadly Islamic attacks since the Paris terror attacks of 2015, in which some 250 people have been killed.
"The hardest part was finding a venue," Monsinay said. "There is probably some reticence when they hear the word 'mosque' and everything associated with it. Even though it's simply a place to pray."
Another French woman, Kahina Bahloul, is also looking to open a mosque where men and women pray together, ideally in Paris, and recently launched a crowdfunding campaign.
She envisions a site "which would allow us to organise things as we want, but also to initiate a work of theological reflection", Bahloul, a doctoral student of Islamic studies at the prestigious Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes college in Paris, told AFP.
"You have to give women a respected place," she added.
So far, however, Bahloul's requests to rent venues have been refused, and despite expressions of support for her project, the 40-year-old says she has also had "a few threats" by both men and women opposed to it.
Even though the three women argue that nothing in the Quran or other Muslim teachings says women cannot be imams, the role has long been reserved almost exclusively for men.
"The traditional texts aren't against women being imams - it's competence that counts, not gender," agreed Tareq Oubrou, an imam in the south-western French city of Bordeaux.
But he acknowledged that "sociologically, mosques remain very conservative".
The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) has said it is looking into the question.
"Our imams are studying the texts to see if there are solid arguments for the wish expressed by these women to be able to lead prayers," said Dalil Boubakeur, interim director of the CFCM and head of the Grand Mosque of Paris.
Female imams have been active in the US since 2005, and women are leading prayers in countries including Denmark, Canada and Britain.
But the idea of putting women front and centre is still anathema to worshippers at many mosques worldwide.
'IN THE RIGHT PLACE'
For Didier Leschi, president of the European Institute of Religious Sciences in Paris, "Islam today is generally reactionary, and there isn't a sufficient model for countering its conservatism". It's an observation shared by several of the 60 or so people who gathered for the prayers led by Janadin and Monsinay.
"Traditionally in a mosque, you have to find the room for women, you can feel people looking at you, judging you," Afida, a 41-year-old who works in marketing, said after the service.
"Here, it's the first time I feel like I'm in the right place," she said.
For Mustapha Chaqri, 35, the Saturday service marked a "symbolic return to an original Islam".
"Islam makes no difference between men and women," he said.
In the meantime, Janadin and Monsinay say they will continue their search for a permanent venue for their monthly calls to prayer.