Sacred Space? Women’s Places and Spaces in Contemporary American Mosques

Saturday, Dec. 10, KARAMAH hosted an art exhibit and lecture by architect Maryam Eskandari. Ms. Eskandari is a graduate of the Harvard-MIT Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture. Her work varies, but her passion is the design of sacred space.

The event opened with a viewing of some of the photos from Ms. Eskandari’s gallery of sacred spaces in 130 American mosques. The selection was a small part of a larger project documenting worship space, and particularly women’s spaces, in all of the 1,500 mosques across the country. Attendees were immensely moved by her photos, many of which were purchased in a silent auction.

Following the viewing, Ms. Eskandari gave a lecture breaking down the two “problems” she encountered in her research. The first was that of the American Muslim identity. Ms. Eskandari reflected on immigrant nostalgia seen in many mosques around the country– mosques with towering minarets or domes reminiscent of the Masjid Aqsa in Jerusalem. She encouraged breaking out of this pattern and allowing the natural formation of an American mosque, such as the recent construction at Ground Zero in New York, which forges the American Muslim identity with a design unlike any other seen in the Middle East, North Africa or South Asia.

Ms. Eskandari then moved to the second problem: gender equality in sacred space. She discussed the transplanted idea that women’s participation in the mosque is secondary to men’s, as well as the notion that women do not require as much space because they menstruate and perhaps would not attend the mosque during this time (though this belief varies in fiqh). Ms. Eskandari explained women’s feelings of inequality in the mosque because of lack of access to the imam, lack of equal space (both in quality and quantity), and lack of access even sometimes to the main entrance of the mosque. She appealed to the Prophet’s mosque in Medina as an example to be followed, having encouraged and practiced gender equity of worship space in a way that is centuries ahead of many contemporary American mosques. Ms. Eskandari cited the powerful feeling of unity and equality felt by Muslims as they make tawaf together at the Ka‘ba as a unity that Muslims should strive for in all their spaces of worship. Finally, she challenged the guests to possible solutions for providing equal and equitable spaces in mosques for both genders that take into account the reach of the gaze, access to the imam, and the comfort of all parties, as well as adherence to Islamic principles and fiqh.

Ms. Eskandari closed with sharing some of her other projects, including a restoration of a mosque in New Delhi with UNESCO, and an eco-friendly, sustainable, pluralistic mosque in the Sudan that shares space with its Christian brothers and sisters.

Her lecture was met with much enthusiasm by the audience, as well as many insightful questions that addressed topics from intra-faith engagement to the ways we can engage imams and other religious and community leaders on the issue of equitable worship space in a manner that is non-confrontational and that brings about gradual, lasting change. KARAMAH plans to hold further events and workshops to address these concerns and to continue the dialogue on pressing issues facing the community.

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