Inspiring women: Zahia Ziouani – conductor

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Zahia-Dyhia Ziouani, a 36-year-old French-Algerian woman of Kabylian background, could have settled with becoming the youngest female conductor. She has, however, been driven to many more successes thanks to her energy, her desire to give back what she has received and her certainty that only education can solve today’s issues of violence and social integration.

Indeed, not only has she founded her own symphony orchestra, ‘Divertimento’, but also a music academy of the same name for children of all backgrounds. Ziouani’s premise is that classical music can gather, share, unite and drive intergenerational social diversity. Returning to her incredible destiny.

We met Zahia at a lunch held by Génération Femmes d’Influence following her being awarded the Prix Coup de Coeur on 8 December 2014.

Cliquez ici pour lire cet article en français.

Zahia Ziouani: her journey

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Arriving in 1960, Ziouani’s parents settled in Seine-Saint-Denis. Coming from a simple background, her father introduced his love of classical music to his children from a very young age by making them listen to it and attend concerts. Ziouani’s twin sister is also a musician, who plays and teaches the cello.

Our social origins did nothing to prepare us for the job I now have.

Ziouani’s first passion was the classical guitar, and then at 12 years of age she became a violist in order to play in symphony orchestras. Playing the viola allowed her to be seated in the middle of the orchestra, right in front of the conductor. She was able to leisurely study him and his practice.

You are not authorised to think about becoming a conductor she says.

Nevertheless, if her teachers ever tried to discourage her from these growing aspirations, Ziouani thought of her mother and grandmother, both of whom fought in Algeria for womanhood and women’s rights. In light of this, Ziouani asked, ‘Why not her?’ At 16, she was picked out by the conductor’s Romanian assistant Sergiu Celibidache (1912–1996), who introduced her to the master. Ziouani presented to him the first movement of Bruckner’s ninth symphony.

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Historically, female conductors are even rarer than female composers, with around ten recognised between 1789 and 1914. The role of the conductor was opened to women during the twentieth century, where it had in the past been reserved for men.

Many generations of women have since led orchestras, starting from Nadia Boulanger and Jane Evrard to more modern leaders, including Marin Alsop, Claire Gibault, Susanna Mälkki, Nathalie Stutzmann and Laurence Equilbey. The fact that women can lead a successful career as a conductor [in France], however, is still the subject of debate. Furthermore, there is no longer a female musical or opera director in France.

Zahia assimilated into her male-dominated class, stating that “women never lasted longer than 15 days in my class!” Despite this, she stayed for a year and a half.

At 18 years of age, the big adventure began. Qualified in music analysis, orchestration and musicology from the University of Sorbonne Paris IV, Ziouani won several conservatorium prizes for viola, classical guitar and chamber music.


MyFrenchLife™ - Inspiring women: Zahia Ziouani - D'une rive à l'autre - MyFrenchLife.orgTo develop her art, the conductor must practise.

For a while, however, being a conductor was merely the second part of Ziouani’s career, coming after the role of musician and composer. Not only was she young, but she was also a woman – and therefore had to work harder than a man.

In 1997 Ziouani established her own symphony orchestra, Divertimento. This allowed her to exercise and improve her skills. 70 musicians from the Seine-Saint-Denis, Paris and general Région of Île-de-France now participate in the orchestra.

Ziouani has hoped to promote the integration of women behind all music desks and create parity, especially seeing as certain instruments – such as trumpet or percussion – were traditionally reserved for men. Moreover, she wants to play new and innovative music in the grand concert halls, while leaving the classical music for public places, such as the suburbs or even prisons. This allows all members of society to access symphonic music.


Zahia Ziouani’s accomplishments include orchestra performances at numerous festivals in Algeria, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Poland, the Czech Republique and Russia. She has been invited around the world to conduct orchestras, she has written novels and has been awarded many prizes. Despite these successes, Ziouani holds closest to her heart the fight against misery and also giving everyone access to music.

Her Divertimento Academy, founded in 2008, has as its main objective the aim of establishing social ties through the playing of orchestral music. The Academy achieves this by welcoming and accepting dozens of young beginner and experienced musicians.


Her message

It is vital to believe in one’s ambitions!

For children with less of a chance of reaching their own ambitions, education plays a significant role.

Big inequalities exist in funding; do not wait for other tragedies to occur but be urged into action by the momentum which shakes our country.

For this, money is necessary, as well as finding private partners and convincing the government to release funds.

Can you help Zahia Ziouani by spreading the word of her mission? What are some other exceptional causes you support? Let us know in the comments below

Inspiring women: collaborative partnership with

[This article was originally written in French by Author: Marie-Hélène Cossé]

Here at MyFrenchLife™ we have pleasure in announcing our collaborative partnership with French site to produce this new series: ‘Inspiring women’.
This article first appeared on and we have translated it into English for your added pleasure: publishing in both, French and English

Mid&Plus takes a decidedly positive view of women in the world and produces wonderful portraits of inspiring women.
This collaboration enables you to read this series of inspiring life stories in French and in English here on MyFrenchLife™ – MaVieFrançaise® magazine and also to visit for further inspiration and read about Fondatrice Marie-Hélène Cossé.
We hope that you enjoy it.

Meet these ‘Inspiring women’: Spirit . Strength . Stories
Marie-Hélène Cossé – founder of MidetPlus
Claire Basler – artist
Alix Baboin-Jaubert – pilgrim
Tina Kieffer – journalist
Virginie Taittinger – femme chamenoise
Hannelore Cayre  author+
Zeina Egho – face of exile
Catherine Soulas-Baron – French etiquette

Zahia Ziouani’s décorations:
1. Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite (December 2008).
2. Officer de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (January 2014).
3. Prix Coup de Coeur Femmes d’Influences.
4. Prix de l’Audace artistique et culturelle (2015)
Image credits:
1. Header image, via pixabay.
2. Zahia Ziouani, via Forum d’Avignon.
3. Zahia Ziouani accepting Le prix de l’Audace artistique et culturelle 2015, via wikimedia commons
4. D’une rive à l’autre, via Orchestre Symphonique Divertimento.
Du classique dans nos quartiers: Zahia Ziouani at TEDxConcorde 2012,
via TEDx Talks
Translated by Artemis Sfendourakis.

About the Contributor

Judy MacMahon

Experience FRANCE beyond the CLICHÉ with MyFrenchLife is for Curious Savvy Francophiles wherever you are. Meet Francophiles in France, online, and/or wherever you live. You’re very welcome to join us - Judy MacMahon -

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