Designing women’s prayer spaces: expansive, open, and front-facing

30414826_1623268484386829_1018598884915544064_nThis weekend I visited the Islamic Foundation mosque at Villa Park. I was attending a Qur’an reading for the soul of Dr. Arif Azam, father of my dear friend Hina. My husband and daughter and I entered the mosque and then separated to go to the men’s and women’s prayer areas. (Ah well, I thought.) When I went upstairs and looked to the expansive women’s prayer space, I thought, well, it’s certainly large.

Then as Hina talked with me and another friend, she said she would go down to say salam to the guys. I thought, oh okay, we now have to go down the stairs in the middle of the building and enter the men’s area via that journey. Instead, she stepped forward to the women’s balcony –

What? I thought, are we going to jump?

Suddenly I realized that the women’s balcony, which jutted forward proudly over the men’s prayer space, also looked outward as to share the light and the front-ness of the main area.

You see, most women’s areas have a back-ness to them. Hide in the back, separated from the main area. This prayer space is open to the glass front of the mosque. So it appears to share fully in the main space (even if it is above and somewhat in the back.)

My friend Hina kept walking. I confess I was disoriented. This is not a design I’ve encountered before. There is a staircase that leads from the FRONT of the women’s area/balcony. I can just imagine some of the people crying out ikhtilaat! danger! Again, there is a front-ness. A fearlessness. There is a defiance about this staircase. It flows down gently into the men’s prayer room, and makes for easy communication and a merging of the entire community. Kids can also go from parent to parent.

Where most mosques demarcate men’s and women’s spaces and block off entire areas, making separate directions and trajectories, this one connects, merges, creates a single direction. With its clever use of clear glass – clear glass – it also creates an illusion of total space, despite the separate areas.

We went down the staircase and our families joined together, we talked, our kids gathered around us. We were men and women and girls and boys in one space, and the world did not come to an end. When we were done, we returned upstairs to complete our prayers.

Oh, and by the way, I heard that the mosque’s award-winning design was the product of a woman’s mind. I’d like to give her proper acknowledgement but am still trying to track down the designer’s name. 30262032_1623268514386826_1558040485166055424_n.jpg

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