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Mosque modern

A Turkish designer brings a woman's touch – and perspective – to the interior.

By Carol StricklandContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 3, 2009

A first: Designer Zeynep Fadillioğlu stands inside the Şakirin Mosque, Üsküdar, Turkey, at its opening in May. Her role as designer was a breakthrough for women.

Murad Sezer/Reuters

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Istanbul, Turkey

The keening cry of a call to prayer mingles with the screech of seagulls in Üsküdar, across the Bosporus from Istanbul. Worshipers hurry to the recently opened Şakirin Mosque, which resembles a futuristic fantasy with its sleek dome and rocketlike minarets. Inside, the décor is similarly radical. The mihrab, or niche to indicate the direction of prayers, is not only bright turquoise, it's shaped like a shell. The minbar, or stepped pulpit – instead of the usual carved stone or wood – is acrylic. Most radical is the fact that the interior design was created by a woman, a first in mosque architecture.

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In creating the design, Zeynep Fadillioğlu, an elegant Turkish interior designer, considered more than aesthetics. As she told the Hürriyet Daily News, an English-language newspaper in Istanbul, "When designing this mosque, I had the women in mind."

A little background: Women not only have to cover their heads when entering a mosque, they must retreat to a segregated section to pray. This area is often cramped, hidden behind a screen at the rear, or sequestered in a gallery upstairs. According to "The Contemporary Mosque," co-written by Renata Holod and Hasan-Uddin Khan, while men pray shoulder to shoulder beneath the huge dome, "rarely has there been any expectation that there would be parity in the amount of space assigned to men and women."

The mezzanine for women in the Şakirin Mosque is much smaller than the men's area, but Ms. Fadillioğlu took pains to make it luminous. From the upper level, one has a clear view of the beautiful chandelier, with its dripping blown-glass globules, reflecting a prayer that Allah's light should fall on worshipers like rain. Fadillioğlu told the newspaper she relished the chance to design the mosque, "especially at a time when so much is being discussed wrongly: of Islam not allowing women to have equal rights...."

A first indeed. But is it one small step for a woman, one giant leap for womankind? Not exactly. Women have equal rights under Turkey's secular Constitution, but, even in this groundbreaking mosque, not equal access. Changing the subordinate location allotted to women "must come from changes in the role of women in a traditionally male-dominated society," as Ms. Holod and Mr. Khan conclude in their book.

The architect of record for the Şakirin Mosque is Hüsrev Tayla, a man. Given that the student population in Turkish architecture schools is 50-50 male-female, how equal are opportunities in the Muslim world?

"There's a lot of room for improvement for a woman's place in the profession," says Esra Akcan, who received her architecture degree in Turkey. She attributes women's career problems to "the fact that women are still trying to balance their family and professional lives" and to the lag in supportive social institutions. Yet Ms. Akcan, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, insists, "I don't see a big difference in the West and the Muslim world. It's a problem for women in general."

Experts on the status of female architects agree. Contrary to what might be expected, women – whether they wear head scarves or miniskirts – have a tougher time advancing.

Mary McLeod, professor of architecture at New York's Columbia University, blames the "starchitect" system that glorifies men and includes only one woman, Zaha Hadid. "For the most part, women are not stars in the Rem Koolhaas/Frank Gehry mode, and because of that, they don't have as much panache for the big glitter jobs."

Professor McLeod says, "It's very hard for them [women] to get skyscrapers or museums or large-scale institutional work." Instead, their commissions are mainly for residential designs.