Making space for women transcends architecture

Design factors and attitudes mean that not everybody has equal access to public spaces, says Shelina Janmohamed

The stunning Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco, has the world’s tallest minaret. Fadel Senna / AFP
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Design factors and attitudes mean that not everybody has equal access to public spaces

There are a lot of things I’ve been told women can’t do. Climb Mount Kilimanjaro (I did), drive a convertible car (I have), be part of the boys’ club where all the decisions are made (wrong gender, no chance).

Sometimes it’s not even physical barriers. Sometimes it’s the comments that assail you, along with the leering and the shaming. Verbal barriers induce self-censorship and fear of space.

If you’ve never experienced anything like this, then you are most probably a man. For a woman, free safe access to public space is not a given.

Access to public space has a profound impact. It limits women’s access to resources, to influence, to just going about daily life. It affects their sense of being part of the community.

I felt this acutely after recently visiting the breathtaking Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. This exquisite structure, with the world’s tallest minaret at 60 metres, is built on a promontory on the Atlantic Ocean. It is subtle, imposing and inspiring in equal measure. Inside the vast hall there is space for 25,000 worshippers and for 80,000 more in the grounds.

The women’s section is a grand balcony, suspended above the main prayer hall. Its walls are intricately carved wood. I felt heartened at the thoughtful entrance to the space, its size and the escalators to offer ease to those who cannot walk – all far too often overlooked in many mosques which don’t even have spaces for women.

Once inside the balcony – despite its beauty and size – I was separated from the main congregation and the energy generated by the prayer space. I could have been anywhere.

This was a visceral emotional response, feeling isolated and excluded from the main energy of the space.

The way space is arranged has a powerful emotional and spiritual effect on the individuals who are siphoned off. Those who do not experience such exclusion are oblivious to its effects; they also continue to plan for community matters with those excluded as an afterthought – if at all.

The most common explanation for separating women is a lack of space. But mosques are getting larger – and this was certainly the case here: a vast space with barely two rows of people.

Why could women not be accommodated into the main prayer space, to assert the very togetherness of community that is the point of the mosque?

Other reasons are given – distraction between genders during prayers, whether women themselves want a separate space, noisy children (although aren’t they men’s responsibility too?) and discussions around whether women should be in the mosque at all.

To be clear, this is not an argument about mixed prayers.

All these counterarguments miss the point: it is not useful to deny these feelings by counterarguing that women shouldn’t feel this way. They do. And the way that space is structured is the cause of it.

Being separated in a way that you cannot see, cannot feel, cannot connect, has a profound impact on your sense of self and your connection to the community.

The first step is to recognise that the use of space reflects deep ideas about social structures and who is less or more important. Then we need to understand the effect that spatial structure has on those using it, not by berating them, but by listening. Only then can we create spaces that are safe, enjoyable and fulfilling for everyone who has a right to them.

When it comes to mosques, which are the heart of communities and spirituality, these structures should be the pioneers.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World

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