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.
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.
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.
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."