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The role of women in Islam has been furiously debated, especially in Turkey. And in that country, several Muslim women have quietly reached a new milestone. NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Istanbul on female artists who are helping build a mosque.

IVAN WATSON: For centuries, Istanbul was the seat of the caliphate, the capital of the Islamic world and home to hundreds of magnificent old mosques. Now this city of countless domes and minarets is about to get a unique new addition. Zeynep Fadillioglu is one member of a team of interior designers and architects overseeing the construction of the Sakirin Mosque.

Have you ever designed a mosque before?

Ms. ZEYNEP FADILLIOGLU (Turkish Interior Designer): No. No, it's the first time. And I think I don't know of any other person, a woman, who has designed a mosque before.

WATSON: Tall and fashionably dressed, with long blond hair, Fadillioglu is better known in Turkey as a figure from the country's cocktail-sipping jet set. She made a career decorating restaurants, boutique hotels, and homes for the very wealthy. In the mosque, Fadillioglu is putting a contemporary spin on religious art from the Ottoman era.

Ms. FADILLIOGLU: Calligraphic art is our main art in Islam. And the dome, of course, has got prayer calligraphy. And it's like a belt running in the dome.

WATSON: The designer has brought in other female artists to help around the project. Beneath the mosque's 130-foot-diameter dome, a woman named Nahide Buyukkaymakci instructs a worker on how to hang dozens of blown glass raindrops from an asymmetrical bronze and Plexiglas chandelier. The glass drops are inspired by a prayer that says Allah's light should fall on you like rain, Buyukkaymakci explains. Even though I'm not really a practicing Muslim, she adds, this is a very special project for me, because it's the first mosque to be designed by women.

Professor ALI KOSE (Psychology of Religion, School of Theology, Marmara University): Traditionally, the mosque is thought to be a place for men only.

WATSON: Professor Ali Kose studies the psychology of religion at Marmara University's School of Theology. He says women played a much greater public role in mosques in the days of the Prophet Muhammad, but that role deteriorated over time.

Professor KOSE: Islamic societies, by time, have become male-dominant societies. And this affected every part of life and also affected the religion, as well.

WATSON: Istanbul's Mihrimah Sultan Mosque was built in 1547 in honor of a daughter of the sultan. Muslim women are allowed to attend prayers here in specially designated women's sections. They are ushered with their children to a small, curtained-off area in the back of the mosque. Meanwhile, the men kneel in front on a vast carpet enjoying an unobstructed view of the mosque's beautiful stained-glass windows.

(Soundbite of women speaking Turkish)

WATSON: After prayers, a woman named Deniz Urash and her mother complain that the women's section is too small and crowded. It would be nice if they made more room for us to pray, Deniz says. Designer Zeynep Fadillioglu says in many Turkish mosques, the women's sections have suffered from neglect.

Ms. FADILLIOGLU: I have been to some mosques of that sort, and that disturbed me. So I prefer the women to use the mosque as much as the man, if they want to, of course, and the same way.

WATSON: As workmen paint and sand this new place of worship, Fadillioglu vows to make the second floor balcony, where the women will one day pray, every bit as beautiful as the men's part of the mosque. Ivan Watson, NPR News, Istanbul.

BLOCK: And you can see photos of the mosque at our Web site, npr.org.

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