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Mosque modern

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

(Page 2 of 2)

Ms. Hadid, the first woman to win a Pritzker (called the Nobel Prize of architecture) in 2004, is the exception, with commissions for museums, concert halls, and skyscrapers in Europe and the Middle East. "But had she not had a world profile," according to Holod, a professor specializing in Islamic architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, she wouldn't get big-ticket jobs.

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Holod, too, sees no difference in women's professional opportunities in Islamic countries and elsewhere. Husband-and-wife firms do well, she says, as do "people of class and privilege."

Apparently, "location, location, location" comes down to where one is located on the socioeconomic ladder, which relegates women to lesser roles. "Very large projects worldwide go to men," Holod says.

Farrokh Derakhshani, director of the Aga Khan Award in Architecture, which gives prestigious prizes for contemporary Islamic architecture, has surveyed the scene for years. Many women architects are in teaching positions in Islamic countries, he says, but the practitioners tend to be relegated to residential jobs, historic restoration, and interior design.

Faryar Javaherian, who organized the first International Women Architects Conference, held in Iran in 1976, agrees that even though women in Iran represent 60 percent of the student body and are very active in architecture, "it is true that, generally speaking, the 'big' projects go to the men." She herself is renovating the Railroad Museum in Tehran.

With oil-rich Gulf cities like Doha, the capital of Qatar, and Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates rapidly transforming through glitzy skyscrapers and opulent museums, does this building boom offer jobs for women? Again, the "celebritect" Hadid and husband-and-wife firms have the edge. A well-connected Swiss firm headed by the couple Sébastien de Rham and Ursula Xirinachs is building the deluxe Acacias Avenues consisting of towers and villas in Dubai. The hot New York firm Asymptote, headed by Hani Rashid and his wife, Lise Anne Couture, have an eye-popping luxury hotel and 40-story tower sprouting in Abu Dhabi.

Farshid Moussavi, partner with her husband in the London firm F.A.O., has built a shopping center in Istanbul and is interviewing for a project in Abu Dhabi. "I have never felt that I'm compromised to be a woman practitioner in the Middle East," she says.

When prominent architects Denise Scott Brown and her partner, Robert Venturi, attended an international conference in Istanbul a few years ago, they were mobbed by young, bluejeaned architects, including young women wearing head scarves. "Don't assume from their head scarves that they won't be feminists," Ms. Brown says.

Although women may be relegated to the rear of the mosque or the lower echelons of architecture, Brown feels progress is possible: "I can imagine there's more change rumbling in the Arab world than is apparent from the outside. I believe women are making opportunities for themselves."