We recently read Professor Tammy Gaber’s new book “Beyond the Divide: A Century of Canadian Mosque Design” and found it to be beautiful and impressive — its design brings together pictures, text, and architectural drawings in a clean and easy-to-read layout. Her analysis covers a lot of ground, quite literally. Simerg presented a few questions to Dr. Gaber about her book, with the focus on women’s presence and participation in mosques. She kindly obliged and we are pleased to present the following interview which was conducted via email.
Simerg: You write that your investigation began two decades ago. Please tell our readers a little about your journey, intellectually in that time and geographically across Canada.
DR. GABER: In my acknowledgements I was hinting at the fact that my research on mosques began with my Bachelor of Architecture thesis (at University of Waterloo completed in 1999) for which I designed a mosque in Canada. It was a struggle to find information on the subject and to approach the design as critically as I had any other building type in my education. I was also hinting at my Masters (Cairo University, 2004) in which I examined qualities of design of ‘Western’ mosques and my PhD (Cairo University 2007) in which I examined the historical roots, development and contemporary impact of women’s spaces in mosques. This specific project, the examination of mosques in Canada began in 2015 with a SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) funded grant.
Simerg: Beyond your studies at these important institutions in Canada and Egypt, how far and wide have you travelled as designer, educator and author of a truly beautiful book.
DR. GABER: I travelled to 53 cities to see 90 mosques in the space of 2.5 years while I was full-time teaching — so all travel took place during holidays or study weeks and were focused on the examination of mosque spaces. A large number of the mosques I studied were in converted buildings, some of which used to be other places of worship. As an architecture educator I am very interested in excellent architecture and when I could I would visit other buildings I did.
Simerg: The title Beyond the Divide speaks of an existential search for a more equitable presence for women in mosques. Their points of view are central to this endeavor. You use a captivating term room sometimes with a view. As an architect you classify mosques into those with no view, with a partial view, and with a full view. An astonishing 46% of mosques you studied had no view for women and only 15% had a full view, and the colour coding you use in the architectural drawings illustrates the stark divisions with clarity.
DR. GABER: It was important for me to relay the architectural facts about women’s spaces in mosques with data on the proportion, location, materials and recurrent patterns so that the issue would become very clear.
Simerg: You write about the Ka’ba in Mecca as exhibiting equal access. Men and women have prayed there without separation for 14 centuries and continue to do so. And yet, in the Canadian mosques you have studied, the allocation of spaces is tending towards more separation. Indeed, mosques with equal access have become gendered spaces with women allocated about a third only of the built spaces. Often, the spaces are of inferior quality. Edmonton’s Al-Rashid Mosque began as an equitable space. Not any more. Others like the Sudbury mosque have resisted this change to gendered spaces. The Ismaili jamatkhanas are full view and divided equally by default.
Article continues below
DR. GABER: My apologies, but I am tempted to reiterate all of chapter 7 [of the book] here. It was important for me to relay the architectural facts and that architecture has agency and affects behaviour in both positive and negative ways: spaces that do not welcome women lead to less attendance by women; spaces that welcome women equally not only leads to more attendance but more participation in all aspects of the communities use of the spaces and sustained attendance over generations. Additionally there is a disjunction between women’s ability to use spaces of the mosque and other public spaces like schools or shops — this becomes an accessibility issue.
Simerg: Mimar Sinan from the 16th century is generally spoken of the glowing terms. Yet you uncover this divide in his architecture. His students follow with similar designs. Please explain how this inequity built into stone has become a “tradition” with vocal defenders.
DR. GABER: Mimar Sinan’s mosques borrowed and greatly developed structural forms and ideas inherited from Byzantine architecture (for example Hagia Sophia). It was common in Byzantine architecture to include a designated women’s balcony in the church space. That practice was abandoned in subsequent periods of church architecture but was adopted again, centuries later, by Ottoman mosque architecture including Sinan’s works. The impact of this introduction was very far reaching: during the Ottoman empire hundreds of mosques were constructed across vast geographies placing in stone designated spaces for women that were much smaller in proportions (height and floor area) and made common the cultural adoption that this was the ‘norm’.
Simerg: Apparently, it is new immigrants to Canada from many different countries who are not so accommodating of equitable spaces for women and are pushing for regressive changes. Are the critiques of Zarqa Nawaz and others fostering better counter conversations?
DR. GABER: The spaces for women in the Canadian mosque is an unfolding conversation as users (and mosque governance) modify spaces over time. Additions or subtractions to spaces are a result of these conversations. Zarqa Nawaz’s film, book, and publications have brought attention to this matter which is important. During the exhibition of this research in 2017 at the Noor Cultural Centre many people spoke to me how surprised they were at the range and quality of women’s spaces in mosques. My hope is that by demonstrating the architectural facts of the breadth of mosque spaces in Canada and the impact these spaces have that there can be further conversations.
Simerg: Coast to coast is the term often used when speaking of Canada. However, the third coast, in the extreme north, has two mosques. There is one in Iqaluit (Nunavut) and another in Inuvik (North West Territories) delightfully named Midnight Sun Mosque. Having the North Pole as your neighbour brings its own challenges. Apart from the cold at the extreme latitudes, there are the orientation of the qiblah and fasting in Ramadan. Please could you tell us more.
DR. GABER: I like this phrasing of a ‘third coast’, you are very right! It was incredible to travel to Iqaluit and Inuvik and to meet the communities who created the mosques in each of these northern cities. There are many challenges associated with location and its impact on fasting and prayer — I have outlined in detail in chapter 6 the facts relating to the calculations and the conversations that are influx with respect to adaptation.
Simerg: You write about the disjunction between users and designers. In what areas do you hope your book will contribute to bridging the divide? Can this happen without women in the governance structures of the mosques?
DR. GABER: It is my hope that the survey in my book will demonstrate the inspiring possibilities of architecture to users, governance and architects – and that the agency of each (users, governance and architects) is important and amplified when in dialogue.
Date posted: March 23, 2022.
Purchasing the Book
Tammy Gaber’s “Beyond the Divide: A Century of Canadian Mosque Design” is available for on-line purchase at the publisher’s website McGill-Queen’s University Press (it has more details about the book including its table of contents) as well as Indigo, Amazon, and Barnes and Nobles among other on-line booksellers.
About Dr. Tammy Gaber
Dr. Tammy Gaber is Director and an Associate Professor at Laurentian University’s McEwen School of Architecture (MSoA), where she teaches architecture design and theory courses. Dr. Gaber joined MSoA as founding faculty in 2013 and previously taught at University of Waterloo, American University in Cairo and the British University in Egypt. Dr. Gaber completed a SSHRC funded research project which led to her book Beyond the Divide: A Century of Canadian Mosque Design and has published on gender and architecture with a chapter in the forthcoming Global Encyclopedia of Women in Architecture (Bloomsbury press). Dr. Gaber has also published chapters on vernacular and regional architecture in Habitat: Vernacular Architecture for a Changing Planet (Thames and Hudson) and Diversity and Design: Perspectives from the Non-Western World (Fairchild Publishing), and has two chapters in The Religious Architecture of Islam (in 2 volumes; 2021, Brepol Publishing). In 2019 Dr. Gaber won the Women Who Inspire Award from the Canadian Council of Muslim Women and in 2020 she was awarded Laurentian University’s Teaching Excellence Award for a Full-time professor. During her 2020-2021 academic sabbatical Dr. Gaber completed a two-month academic residency in Finland for her research on Alvar Aalto in the fall of 2020 and was an invited scholar at the Centre for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University for the 2020-2021 academic year.