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Architecture Reveals the Aspirations of its Creator

Dawn's picture

Dawn Hathaway

November 14, 2008

Critical Feminist Studies

Professor Anne Dalke

Architecture Reveals the Aspirations of its Creator

Modern city planners have developed a new appreciation and respect for architecture of the past and have become set on the idea of reproducing it directly in today’s cities. Unfortunately, most who attempt this do not realize the implications of what they are doing. There is a lot more to the physical form of a city than meets the eye. It is important to be critical of those who over generalize their thinking about city classifications. City planners in many Islamic cities have succumbed to this type of thinking, which is extremely unfortunate, because they are ignorant of the social ramifications of what they propose to build. They must be open to understanding the processes that shaped Islamic cities, and not just focus on the replication of the historical aesthetic.

The physical structure of the typical Islamic city was very dependent on social structure. The people had very strong ideas about how different groups of people should interact, and they reinforced everything well. The built environment was created in order to emphasize these social ideals. One important factor that contributed to the heart of a lot of historic Islamic architectural plans was the status of women, particularly in terms of gender segregation. In fact, it has been suggested that the division between male and female space is the most important defining characteristic of the Islamic city.

Gender segregation was used in architecture in extremely obvious ways, because there were features built into the structure that were meant to physically shelter women from the unwanted and improper attentions of men. The most common elements were used in order to visually segregate men and women. For example, entryways between areas would be crooked, so men looking in could not see the women, but women could see the men outside from their private space. Lattice-wood screens were used to obstruct vision into a secluded area where women would be kept as well. Exterior doors on buildings would not face doors directly on the opposite side of the street, so unwanted contact between the sexes could be better avoided. Windows were also set to concrete specifications, because it was crucial to make sure that women could see men, but men could never see women (Abu-Lughod).

Spaces within the city, though mostly within and around the home where males and females would have the closest interactions were defined by gender segregation. Different architectural features helped to define spaces that were public, private and semi-private. Men traveled how they pleased through the public space – they owned the public space (Abu-Lughod). Women could, of course, move through the public space, but their movement was limited and they would have to be veiled. Even though they were in public they were still required to stay out of the sight of men. The semi-private space would have the most meeting and intermingling between women and men that they were not connected with, because it was generally the barrier between the public and private. It would have the most telltale architectural features, a courtyard with a crooked entryway for example, in order to guard women from the male gaze as much as possible (Abu-Lughod). The women were generally expected to spend most of the time in the private space, therefore not really having a true presence in the public world of society. In the private space, women would interact with each other and the men who were in certain relationships with them. This space distinction was then able to keep women away from the public eye and from being able to participate in the public realm of society.

Attempts to recreate any sort of historic architecture without an understanding of the processes that created it in the first place is completely inappropriate. Sensitive understanding of the social structure is necessary for planners who want to plan cities that are consistent with the best cultural traditions of Islam, continuing the design that is aesthetically pleasing without being harmful. Those looking at the issue from a feminist perspective would want to be sure that any sort of historical revival did not replicate the gender segregation of the architecture that would fully reinforce gender discrimination in society. Modern Islamic cities use better planning strategy and government oversight than historic Islamic cities without destroying the best aspects.

It could also be beneficial to compare the use of gendered architecture in Islamic culture with an example of gendered architecture in Western culture in order to gain a better understanding of the power that the built environment can hold. The best example here is the women’s college. Historically, in the United States, the separation of gender wasn’t as obviously built into the physical space, but spatial segregation was understood. However, the environment at a women’s college does not require spatial segregation. Women can access all spaces, and therefore gain an experience of not being restricted. Today, women are less spatially restricted in Western culture, though some students at women’s colleges still feel the need to have the all-female space, because they feel less restricted or inhibited there.

Bryn Mawr is a perfect example to look at in terms of how the physical space was constructed in order to reinforce the values of the college. Gender spatiality played a large role in the design over time. When Bryn Mawr was first established, the original design of the campus looked a lot like Smith College, which was already established as a successful women’s college. The Quaker directors wanted it to function as a female Haverford, and used the layout from Smith complete with plain Quaker architecture. Taylor Hall, known as the “Quaker Lady” is a good example of the sort of architectural style that was originally expected to define Bryn Mawr’s campus (Horowitz). However, Bryn Mawr was established at a time when educators of women started to hold different values. They were eager to prove that women were the equals of men and wanted to challenge the patriarchy. Following this tradition, M. Carey Thomas arrived and established a graduate school at Bryn Mawr. She also began a new stage of women’s college architecture which “gave no clue as to the gender of its student body.” Thomas had a vision of “a bright wood fire always burning, dark crimson curtains and furniture, great big easy chairs.” Her interior design was similar to the typical men’s club of that time (Horowitz). She overruled the Quaker board and insisted that Bryn Mawr rival the best men’s college in appearance. Therefore, she helped to create a “collegiate gothic” for the women’s college. Thomas Hall is the best specimen of her creation. Thomas Great Hall even fits her interior expectations as well (Horowitz). The question of dormitories was brought up as another gender dependent design. Men’s dorms were consistently designed with multiple entrances, so the men could come and go freely, as men were wont to do with any space at the time. On the other hand, women’s dorms were given main entrances that directed students past “watchful housemothers” (Horowitz). Bryn Mawr seems to embody the best of both worlds. Most of the dorms have a somewhat ornate main entrance, but have several side entrances around the building, so the women who live there are given free movement. The architecture of Bryn Mawr College has been widely studied as one of the best examples of a space suited for women’s higher learning. It is very interesting, because the school was originally built as an imitation of an existing institution, but soon became a leader in the field.

A question that can be raised is: can it happen again? It certainly seems that way. A women’s college built on similar fundamentals as the ones that exist in the United States could become a leader in the building of a physical space that transcends gender segregation and discrimination in a place like an Islamic region that is highly focused on using architectural features to determine gender roles. Forward thinking places like women’s colleges are the ideal institutions to build there. There have been arguments made otherwise, because people believe that the women’s college reinforces gender segregation, but that is not necessarily the case. It is true that men and women are not interacting, but it would take a lot to counteract all gender segregation at that level in Islamic society. If one looks at how cities are physically constructed, even though men and women can interact, the binary in terms of gender roles is severely upheld – women are physically excluded from the public space. In Islamic culture, the only places that women do not have to hide or be hidden are collective women’s spaces. For example, before weddings, women gather in an all female space to unveil and show off the gorgeous gowns that cannot be seen in public. Another example of a collective women’s space that goes a step further than just putting women out in the open is the women’s college (Abu-Lughod). There women have access to equal education and would be present key players in a public space. That is where the decision making starts for these women. Women’s colleges would be able to empower women and give them status, a new role in the public sphere, which is an important step to take before gender integration and breakdown of the gender binary can be addressed.

The women’s college would be a leader in proactive architecture for the space it would create for women. It would have to involve the sensitive city planners who have a clear understanding of the process of a city. They could use some historical models of the Islamic city. After all, they have aesthetically beautiful buildings. They would have to make a conscious effort to only replicate features that are not harmful to the social goals for which the space would be used. They would not want to replicate the closed off, fortress-like structure that trapped women away from the public eye and more private roles. The more open, all inclusive architecture that can be seen in western women’s colleges would be a better example to work from. The space would not have to be westernized, it would just need to use the ideas that were incorporated for the very purpose of the development of a collective women’s space. Thomas’ ideal of the gender neutral should be striven for, because it would begin an ideal of equality. The physical space of a women’s college is the perfect starting point for Islamic society to explore a fluctuation in gender roles.


skumar's picture

Architecture of a woman's college


I love that you included BMC's architecture. Hmm... so what if BMC's admissions policy does in fact change to accept a more marginalized population (including gay men), what changes are necessary architecturally, do you think? Any at all?

Anne Dalke's picture

Proactive Architecture


Your paper forms a rich compliment to three others written by your classmates on practices of gender segregation; see Veiling in Persepolis, Female Veiling in Iran, and Veiling in the United States for divergent explorations of the empowering nature of separation. Your description of Islamic architecture (about which I know nothing) is fascinating to me; I'm intrigued--and want to know more--about aesthetic designs that incorporate crookedness, indirection, and "not-seeing-or-being-seen" as part of a social mandate to keep the genders separated.

It's actually not entirely clear to me throughout whether, by your lights, gender segregation necessarily means gender discrimination. At several points you say, fairly explicitly, that it does; but at several others, you seem to imply otherwise-- for instance, when you develop the paradox that lies @ the heart of your account: that in a restricted space, women can find themselves less restricted (which is of course also @ the heart of the conception of a women's college, whether in this country or the mideast). Also, when you say that the "only places that women do not have to hide or be hidden are collective women's spaces," and that it is there that they can acquire a "new role in the public sphere," I'm a little confused about whether you are presenting women's colleges as private, semi-private or public spaces. And I'd like to hear you expand a little on your closing assertion that Thomas' ideal of the "gender neutral" should be striven for. How imperialist is that gesture, if addressed to a culture where gender segregation has religious sanction and social purpose?