Gendered Mosque Spaces

Volume 48, Issue 1 :: Tammy Gaber

Photo: Giuseppe Milo/flickr

Photo: Giuseppe Milo/flickr

With renewed and continual efforts to ensure, regulate, and legislate accessibility in all architectural spaces there remains the curious matter of gendered spaces in contemporary mosques.

A gendered space is the clear demarcation and limitation of each gender who are prescribed allocated spaces through the use of architectural devices such as walls, balconies, separate rooms, separate doors, etc. and often accompanied with explicit signage directing where each gender is allowed access.

In Islam, the Qur’an clearly states that forbidding anyone from entering the mosque is contemptible. All believers have the right to go to the mosque for prayer1 and there is great punishment for those who forbid believers to worship in the mosque.2

Historically in Islam women and men participated fully in mosque spaces, without explicitly gendered spaces as demarcated by architectural elements. Documentation in several ahadith (authentic sayings and actions of the Prophet) support this, indicating clearly that no one could forbid women from going to the mosque3 and outlining accommodations made for women to participate.4 As well in the earliest ahadith collections (8th-9th centuries, CE) are anecdotal examples of the arrangement of men in women in performing ablutions (wudu)5 and prayer together –which noted expected behavior, not spatial demarcations. In subsequent ahadith collections, interpretations were added, some of which encouraged women to pray at home instead of the mosque, such as the 13th-century collection of Ibn Jawzi.6 Popularizations of these interpretations were paralleled in regional developments of mosque spaces.

Architecturally, in the earliest of mosques including Medina, Fustat, Basra, and Kufa singular spaces were designed without physical elements to divide the genders. The house of the Prophet’s mosque in Medina was built without any type of architectural division of space as noted in several ahadith7 and in architectural reconstructions by scholars.8 At the Meccan Sanctuary there existed and still exist spaces for both men and women to worship and perform Hajj without spatial differentiation based on gender.

A mosque in Kingston, Ontario, designed in 1996 as a single worship space for men and women, has since been crudely divided with a makeshift barrier of bookcases obstructing views.

A mosque in Kingston, Ontario, designed in 1996 as a single worship space for men and women, has since been crudely divided with a makeshift barrier of bookcases obstructing views.

‘Tradition’ of Exclusivity

However, in certain regions there emerged architectural designated areas for women in the mosque. Possibly the most influential on this development was the Ottoman proliferation of a new mosque typology heavily related to the Byzantine Hagia Sophia. Elements such as the composition of plan, arrangement of domes and the gynaeceum were absorbed and modified in subsequent Ottoman design of mosques in Istanbul and throughout the Ottoman empire. The Byzantine gynaeceum, a place designated for use by women, quickly became the norm for designating gendered usage of mosque spaces and was an element that architects, such as the famed Mimar Sinan, freely modified to suit compositional purposes regardless of the impact that reduced areas, visibility, and access would have on the act of prayer.9

As the norm of gendered mosque spaces spread throughout the Islamic world, other methods for segregating women were developed. In the past century mosques that originally did not have separate spaces for men and women have had additions such as walls or screens made by contemporary local users and by governing bodies who have installed changes to these spaces.10

There are varying contemporary institutional recommendations such as official fatwa from Egypt and Turkey suggesting separation but from behind a latticed screen11 to required audial and visual inclusion (noting that separation was “Bid’ah” [invention] that has no evidence in the Qur’an or authentic Sunnah) in fatwa from Saudi Arabia and the Fiqh Council of North America.12

The multitude of architectural approaches to clearly demarcate spaces for women and men in the past century has not only increased in numbers, but in variety as well. Not only are various types and proportions of balconies used to allocate specific spaces for women to pray in the mosque, but also separate rooms to the side, behind, or below the main space (often with little or no visual connection) as well as various opacities, materials, and heights of screens to divide a main space. Few mosques choose to exclude women entirely, but very few allow for all members to enter the same space and divide themselves without any type of architectural element.

In North America, and specifically Canada, the history of mosque construction goes back nearly a century, with the first mosque, Al Rashid, built in 1938 in Edmonton, Alberta.13 In the century since, over a hundred purpose-built and repurposed mosque spaces have been created across the country. Al Rashid remains a singular space used by all members of the community. However, in the majority of mosques in Canada there exists the alarming trend to either add architectural elements to clearly divide the genders or to design distinctly separate stages.

Architectural Dilemma of Exclusivity

There are a number of problematic issues regarding this situation, most notably the creation of barriers in spaces – an instituted lack of accessibility. The veil of perceived sensitivity (and political correctness) for presumably quasi-religious edicts that require segregated spaces has somehow superseded fundamental human rights to have full un-barred access to spaces. It has also superseded fundamental Islamic rights of equality and accountability – creating an architectural dilemma. This clearly architectural issue has been repeatedly critiqued by a number of activists including Zarqa Nawaz, Asra Nomani, Shahina Siddiqui, Amina Wadud, and others.

Nawaz’s documentary film “The Mosque and Me”14 unraveled the frustrations of women in Canada and the United States with separated prayer areas – and how the prayer areas designated to women was so disconnected from the main space (and service) that women were frustrated and made to feel subordinate in these places of worship.

Nomani, who was also in Nawaz’s film, has used various media to highlight her struggle and quest to have equal access to her hometown mosque in Morgantown. In Nomani’s book, Standing Alone in Mecca, she outlines “An Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in Mosques,” which includes 10 concise points – the first four of which are clearly architectural, including the right to enter the mosque, to enter through the main door, to “visual and auditory access to the musalla [main prayer space],” and to pray “without being separated by a barrier.”15

Siddiqui created a booklet with the support of several prominent Islamic councils and societies in North America16 entitled “Women Friendly Mosques and Community Centers Working Together to Reclaim our Heritage,”17 which is freely accessible in digital form online. The booklet was intended as a guideline and a clear call to mosque leaders to address this issue of women’s accessibility to the mosque. Siddiqui outlines several points in regard to “Access to Masjid Facilities” including the need for “dignified accommodations for women,” designated spaces for women in the main prayer hall, and access to all functional spaces of the mosque. Siddiqui follows this with requirements for complete access to program planning and to mosque governance and management.

Wadud is an Islamic Studies scholar and professor who has published Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective18 and in 2005 led a congregation in Friday prayer in New York. In her proactive scholasticism and desire to address to community she has also highlighted a critique of mosque spaces. In her book Inside the Gender Jihad Women’s Reform in Islam, Wadud notes that:

The mosque reflects aspects of gender relations and conflict…. It is not uncommon for stricter gender separation to exist within the mosque, especially here in the USA and other minority Muslim communities, than is ever sustained at any other place outside the mosque. Within the sacred space of the mosque, gender disparity is almost always reflected, and sometimes a mosque seems to prove itself genuine by increasing these rituals of separation.

Wadud goes on to note that flexibility in mosque design and usages allows for “longevity and advancement of Islam” and “makes the mosque an important site to initiate change and mark transitions in the context of the Muslim community.”19

Many other activists have voiced these same criticisms and more. None of these women are architects, yet the critique is architectural. However, the principles of contemporary mosque design are rarely discussed in architectural circles or forums and if they are the realities of full accessibility are often ignored. The disjunction between user dialogue and designer is clear.

View of women’s area with glass railing above men’s area, in the Masjid al Salaam in Burnaby, British Columbia, designed by architect Sharif Senbel in 2008.

View of women’s area with glass railing above men’s area, in the Masjid al Salaam in Burnaby, British Columbia, designed by architect Sharif Senbel in 2008.

Mosques of Inclusivity

The landscape is not entirely bleak, however. There are moments of proactive change made by both patrons/community members and by architects. Of note are four mosques in Canada representing not only a span of region and building typology but also of demonstrating the impact of proactive roles played by architects and patrons/community members.

The community at Kingston, Ontario and the mosque board insisted on maintaining full accessibility for women during the design phase of the mosque in 1996. The architect, Gulzar Haider, who had designed a number of other mosques on the continent20 designed a singular space where women were expected to pray at the back, without any kind of dividing wall – their space was highlighted by placing the vertical element of the minaret above their space. In Haider’s subsequent mosque designs he pursued various methods of integrating women in the main space without the use of physical dividers.21 Surprisingly, a change in mosque board membership in recent years prompted the addition of a small, completely separate space for women with no visual connection to the main space. Thus, proactivity is needed not only in the design and construction phase on the part of patrons and the architect, but to be continually considered.

The community in Sudbury, Ontario and the prominent voice of long-time Imam Abul Haq Dabliz and his wife guided the local architect to the design and construction in 1994 of a singular space for men and women – without physical divisions.22 Here, women are expected to pray behind the men in the open singular space; however, during non-worship activities such as learning sessions, weddings, and dinners there is respectful mixing of genders in the spaces.

The patron, Hassanali Lakhani, purchased the previously used Japanese cultural center in North York, Ontario and requested the original architect, Raymond Moriyama, who designed it in 1963 to repurpose it as a mosque and community center in 2003. Lakhani insisted on a singular space for men and women to pray in23 and the result is an open room where women are to pray on the right side and men on the left, separate by only a space between their carpets.

Architect Sharif Senbel has designed and constructed a number of mosques in British Columbia (one of which won a Faith & Form/IFRAA Design Award). His frustrations with the board of one his earlier mosque projects who insisted on clear separation of men and women resulted in his proactive approach of teaching the community and boards of subsequent projtects the history of mosque design and inherent freedoms and possibilities in design beyond cultural preconceptions.24 He continuously sought design solutions that would allow women to have full visual and aural access to the main space. The 2008 Masjid al Salaam in Burnaby is an example where Senbel designed a mosque space with a women’s level above – nearly equal in size to the men’s, separated by a completely clear glass railing. Although the spaces are still separated by level, the architect made all efforts to allow for inclusion.

The voices of users and architects need to be parallel to ensure that the rights of full accessibility and inclusivity in mosque spaces are designed, maintained, and become the norm. How the community organizes itself internally during prayer or other activities should be a social construct, not an architecturally limiting one. Mosques with architecturally segregated and often subordinate gendered spaces do not reflect religious edicts or inherent human rights of equality and accessibility outlined in Islamic religious texts. Instead, they demonstrate in architectural form the prejudices of human beings, and should be removed.

  1. The Qur’an. Intrepretation of the Meanings in the English Language. Trans. Muhamed Mushin Khan and Muhamed Al-Hilali. (Riyadh: Durussalam Publishers and Distributors, 1999). Chapter 7: Verse 29, Chapter 7: Verse 31.
  2. The Qur’an. Interpretation of the Meanings in the English Language. Trans. Muhamed Mushin Khan and Muhamed Al-Hilali. (Riyadh: Durussalam Publishers and Distributors, 1999). Chapter 2: Verse 114, Chapter 8: Verse 34, Chapter 22: Verse 25, Chapter 48: Verse 25.
  3. ‘That the wife of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, used to ask him for permission to go to the mosque. He would keep silent, so she would say, ‘By Allah, I will go out, unless you forbid me,’ and he would not forbid her’.  Ibn Anas, Malik. ‘Book of Qibla,’ Al-Muwatta.Translated by Aisha Abdel Rahman and Yacub Johnson. (London: Diwan Press, 1982).
  4. ‘The Prophet (PBUH) said, “When I stand for As-Salat (the prayer), I intend to prolong it but on hearing the cries of a child, I cut it short, as I dislike to trouble the child’s mother.’ Imam Bukhari. Summarized Sahih al-Bukhari. (Arabic- English) . Trans. Muhamed Muhsin Khan. (Riyadh: Maktaba Darussalam Publishers, 1996). The Book of Adhan (10:420).
  5. ‘During the lifetime of Allah’s Messenger (PBUH) men and women used to perform ablution together.’ Imam Bukhari. Summarized Sahih al-Bukhari. (Arabic- English) . Trans. Muhamed Muhsin Khan. (Riyadh: Maktaba Darussalam Publishers, 1996). Book of Wudu (4:146).
  6. ‘Women are allowed to go to the mosque, if she fears disturbing the minds of men, it is better for her to pray at home’ Ibn Jawzi. Ahkam al Nisa [Arabic: ‘Rules Governing Women’], (Cairo: Al Maktaba al Tawfiqqiyah, 2002) Chapter 24, section 1. pp 46-49.
  7. Ibn al-Hajjaj, Muslim, ‘The Book of Prayer’, Summarized Sahih Muslim. Translated by Al-Hafiz Zakiuddin Al-Mundhiri. (Riyadh: Darussalam Publishers, 2000) (5:236), 160-161.
  8. Creswell, K.A.C. Early Muslim Architecture. (New York: Hacker Publishing, 1979). pp 1-28.
  9. Sinan described in prose the construction of several projects including Friday mosques such as the Shehzade mosque, Suleymaniye and the Sultan Selim mosque. Sinan pens his poetic imagery of paradise like elements: ‘The building gradually emerged from the ground and its domes raise up their heads like bubble of the sea of elegance…each of the joy-giving galleries was [like] a delight increasing excursion spot’ “Tezkiretu L-Bunyan” (Record of Construction) in Crane, H., Akin.S. (Trans). Sinan’s Autobiographies: Five Sixteenth-century Texts. (Brill Academic Publishing, 2006). Pg. 117.
  10. Gaber, Tammy. “The Space and Place of Women in Mosque Architecture: Between Realities and Misconceptions,” (Doctorate of Philosophy Dissertation, Cairo University, 2007)
  11. Dar al Ifta, Electronic mail response to author, Jan 11, 2007; Diyanet İşleri Başkan Yardımcılarıt. [Turkish: ‘Legal Opinions of the Higher committee of Religious Affairs’], Presidency of Religious Affairs of the Republic of Turkey. http://www.diyanet.gov.tr/english
  12. Ibn Baz, Ibn Uthaimeen, Ibn Jebreen. Saudi Arabian Fatwa: Based on Tataaqi Islamiya by a Group of Honorable Scholars. (Riyadh: Al-Baraqawi, 2006) Siddiqui, Muzammil. ‘Fatwa Bank, Living Shari’ah”. The official Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA) Islam Online. www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?pagename=IslamOnline-English-Ask_Scholar. Accessed September, 2006.
  13. Hamdani, Daood. The Al-Rashid: Canada’s First Mosque 1938. Ottawa: Canadian Council of Muslim Women, 2010.
  14. Nawaz, Zarqa. Me and the Mosque. Film. (Toronto: National Film Board of Canada, 2005)
  15. Nomani, Asra. ‘The Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Mosque’. Standing Alone in Mecca. (New York: Harperone, 2005). Appendix A, page 292.
  16. Council on American Islamic Relations – Canada, Islamic Circle of North America, Islamic Society of North America, Muslim Alliance in North America, Muslim Association of Canada, MSA – National.
  17. Shahina Siddiqui. Women Friendly Mosques and Community Centers. Islam Awareness, 2001. pg 12 http://www.islamawareness.net/Mosque/WomenAndMosquesBooklet.pdf
  18. Wadud, Amina. Qur’an and Women, Rereading the Sacred Text from a Women’s Perspective. (Oxford University Press, 1999).
  19. Wadud, Amina. Inside the Gender Jihad: Women’s Reform in Islam. (Oneworld Press, 2006).
  20. Islamic Society of North America (1983), University of Arkansas Mosque (1984), Bait ul-Islam in Toronto (1992). See: Holod, Renata, Hassan-Uddin Khan. The Mosque and the Modern World. Architects, Patrons and Designers since the 1950s. (London, Thames and Hudson, 1997) pp. 218-224
  21. At Islamic Academy in Edmonton and for the University of Miami Coral Gables Islamic Centre Haider worked out the gender division of space by way of a 3’6” raised floor for women. Gulzar Haider, electronic mail correspondence with author, Feb 19, 2012.
  22. Abdel Hak Dabliz, interview by author, Sudbury, ON, August 16, 2013.
  23. Raymond Moriyama, interview by author, Sudbury, ON, November 20, 2013.
  24. Sharif Senbel, interview by author, Vancouver, BC, August 30, 2012.