In October, Dr. Tammy Gaber exhibited documentation from her project—funded by an SSHRC Insight Development Grant—Beyond the Divide: A Century of Mosque Design and Gender Allocations at the Noor Cultural Centre in Toronto. Also on display was a series of multimedia collages Dr. Gaber developed called Room Sometimes With a View, depicting the experiences of women in spaces of prayer. This exhibit was put on in partnership with the Canadian Council of Muslim Women with support from the Noor Cultural Centre and Laurentian University.
Beyond the Divide: A Century of Mosque Design and Gender Allocations explores the construction of mosques across Canada and the relationship between gender and space in Islamic places of worship. In the past two years, Dr. Gaber has traveled to 53 cities in Canada and documented 90 mosques; from as far north as Inuvik and Iqaluit to the Western and Eastern coasts of the country.
For example, Dr. Gaber visited a mosque in Kingston that was originally built as a shared space of worship, but was later altered to divide it into sections for use by the different genders. This division obstructs the view, making it difficult for women to see and hear services and causing them to be largely excluded.
Compare this to another mosque Dr. Gaber visited, this one in Burnaby, British Columbia. The Masjid al Salaam was always designed to have separate spaces for men and women—but the railings edging the women’s balcony are glass, making it much easier to see and hear the services below and allowing the women to be somewhat more included.
And then, of course, there are mosques that were never divided at all. One of the mosques Dr. Gaber visited was the oldest in Canada, Edmonton’s Al Rashid, built in 1938. This mosque, still in use, remains a shared space of worship, where people of both genders can see, hear, and participate equally in services and events.
Whether a mosque is divided or not—and how the mosque is divided—is an issue of accessibility. In many areas, Muslim women are frustrated with the varying levels of exclusion—which are not mandatory according to the Qur’an. Dr. Gaber’s work highlights these divisions and frustrations, and advocates for greater inclusivity when designing mosques, so that any divisions are those of social convention rather than physical exclusion.