A downtown Los Angeles mosque that forbids men from attending may be the first of its kind in the United States.

The Los Angeles Times reports (http://lat.ms/1JX216f ) that more than 100 women gathered Friday at the interfaith Pico-Union Project for the inaugural prayer marking the launch of the Women's Mosque of America, a nonprofit hoping to create space where Muslim women can learn and connect with other women.

"Muslim women haven't had a forum," Yasmeen Ruhge, a cardiologist from Pasadena, said as she waited for the service to begin. "When we go to the mosque, we have to sit on one side. Not that we aren't equal, but this gives us a freedom to talk as all women and create an independent role."

Female-only mosques may exist in China, Chile and India, but Muslim leaders say this could be a first for the United States. A 2011 study says about two-thirds of American mosques use a divider to separate men and women during morning prayers. The number may be higher for Friday prayers.

Such mosques allow women greater opportunities to ask the imam questions afterward. On Friday a female speaker addressed women's issues and held a discussion circle after the service.

Although the prayer space is only for women, other events and classes will be open to men.

"When only half of the membership is contributing to the success of the whole, we're not going to be as well-off as we could be," said M. Hasna Maznavi, who started the organization with Sana Muttalib.

Often women spaces in many mosques aren't as appealing or accessible as the areas for men, and women are forced to enter through side or back doors to reach their areas, Muttalib said.

Experts say there's been a growing call over the years for female empowerment in the Muslim community to help change public perception of the faith.

"One of the major ways that Islam is 'othered' — one of the major stereotypes — is how they treat women," said Ruqayya Khan, chairwoman of Islamic studies at Claremont Graduate University. "But there is a rich history of women in Islam, and it's often kind of sidelined or buried."

___

Information from: Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/