Men and women in congregational canonical prayers line up in separate rows as a general matter of practice. Although the women’s rows are generally behind the men’s rows, this is not always the case. In the mosque built around the Ka’bah, men and women pray in rows in circular formation around the shrine that may be side by side or may even place women in front of men. In some mosques, women pray in balconies above the prayer hall for men, and in some American mosques women pray in a space alongside that of men.
The reason usually adduced for this practice involves notions of modesty. The Muslim ritual prayer is very physical in nature, involving standing, bowing, and prostrating oneself. During congregational prayers, Muslims are supposed to stand side by side and shoulder to shoulder with those next to them. Many Muslim cultures consider it distracting or immodest to have men and women praying side by side or to have women prostrate themselves in front of men. Additionally, unlike the arrangement in a church where congregants face a sanctuary space with an altar or pulpit at the front, “the sacred space” in the mosque is the area immediately before each congregant. In this scheme, therefore, all congregants regardless of gender and physical positioning within the mosque maintain equal access to sacred space.