The Veiling Architecture: The Gender Imbalance in Architecture Seen Through The Mashrabiyya

The veiling architecture or the architecture of the veil. This is how the public opinion usually qualifies any design that uses the principle of the mashrabiyya nowadays. The mashrabiyya is a wooden lattice screen placed in front of the windows in traditional Arab houses, which allows the inhabitants to see without being seen. Mainly brought by the orientalists to the occidental world during the 19th century, this new device did not come alone. It has been shadowed by the image of a beautiful wooden prison for the Muslim women and this received wisdom did not fade by then. Often compared to caged birds, the woman seems to be subjected to the space and architecture that surround her. However, one can wonder: “Why is this architectural element, usually described as a second veil which allows the woman to freely transition from the outside to the inside, perforated if its main purpose is to hide something or someone?” Is the mashrabiyya really veiling the woman or it is actually revealing the power that she embodies? 

As a matter of fact, the perforations are what constitutes the heart of the mashrabiyya. Indeed, it is this game between the holes and the wooden material, the light and the shadow, that differentiates it from a simple wall, or a window. In this respect, some of the names given to this device directly refer to its openings as in Yemen “takhrima” which means full of holes or in India and Pakistan Jaali which designates the mesh of a net. Moreover, this complex corbelled oriel confers the specificity of the mashrabiyya by allowing whoever is behind it to see without being seen. It is through this very paradox that this device seems to be giving the power to anyone that stands within it. As the panoptic of Bentham, it dissociates the fact of seeing and the one of being seen. By breaking the sight’s reciprocity, the mashrabiyya builds a divine eye that controls the exterior. In a certain way, by being associated with the woman, it completely reverses the traditional  gender segregation by allowing the woman to occupy the man territory by overhanging it with the gaze. It gives her a total supervision of the street and thus the city since her eye can circulate where her body cannot. Her authority is highlighted by Malek Chebel (2013, 171) who recalled that the woman has an indisputable expressiveness, if only we place ourselves from within to observe it. She leads the real life of the family and more expansively the destiny of society. Nevertheless, it is more the possibility of being permanently observed that generates the real power of the mashrabiyya and disturbs the passers-by.

Nevertheless, one cannot reduce this apparatus to an architectural control tool that separates the interior of the exterior, the men from the women. Indeed, deprived of sight, the passerby is eventually forced to appeal to his other senses in order to compensate for this temporary blindness and  uses all the faculties that allow him to connect with another ( Tanella Boni 2001). The subject is on the lookout of any sound, any smell or movements that can help him figure out what is happening behind the mashrabiyya. Undoubtedly linked to sight, it however seems to invest the whole body and its relations with its surroundings. Neither open, nor closed, half-full, half-empty, this architectural lace seems to take place in a kind of between-two worlds, between oneself and another. Acting more as a threshold than a limit, it preserves the intimacy of the inhabitant in the same time as it is  revealing a dialogue, an inquiry of others and the curiosity that animates it. Moreover, the role of the mashrabiyya in creating relationships is perfectly illustrated in the Arab literature as a large number of famous love stories starts around this woody weaving which appears as an exchange interface more than a strict and confining limit. The main purpose of this present article is to outline the possibility that the mashrabiyya is one of the architectural devices that need to be freed from the stereotype that constrains it and shatters all the binary and dichotomous logic that sets it. This device sketches out the possibility of a third area (Winnicott 1971) that does not belong to the interior nor the exterior, habitable by the gaze of anyone that looks through it.

Not to mention that the typecast endured by the mashrabiyya is majorly fed by the fascination of the foreigner and the fantasies that the orientalists carried on Egypt and the Arab civilizations in general, this architecture feature seems to be veiling a bigger issue. Whether it is the image of the Muslim woman in the world but also, and most importantly, how the architectural environment is mostly dominated by a man-sighted vision that can freeze such a device in a false stereotype. In fact, the scientific team of the Egyptian expedition organized by Napoleon Bonaparte was composed of 167 scholars, all men. The travel narratives that emerge from this campaign made a strong contribution into building this archetype, fantasy of the Oriental captive woman. This very particular myth became part of the systemic representation of the mashrabiyya, making them into two inseparable notions. Would it have been any different if women had also been part of this re-transcription? If we certainly cannot go back in time, we can still puzzle how this device has not been re-examined throughout the lens of  social representation. In point of fact, in the present climate of the 21st century, the mashrabiyya has been brought back to light and re-used for its environmental values but still can get rid of the segregating label.

In a nutshell, we cannot directly link the excessive misinterpretations of the Mashrabiyya to the lack of women representation in the architectural field, but we do think that it arises the gender imbalance that prevails in it. In 2016, according to the MAF (Mutuelle des Architectes Français) only 10 % of studio architecture directors were women although female students represented 60 % of the architecture students in France. Few of the actual graduates really pursue this field and those who do so remain hidden by the industry. However, the way of understanding and qualifying the architecture itself is betraying this issue. As the mashrabiyya, which may be in reality revealing, in its very own interpretation, the gender imbalance that runs the architecture world. This may showthat it is time to re-actualize some architectural concepts and analyze them through the feminine prism. 


Sources

  • BENTHAM, Jeremy. 1780 , Le panoptique, Paris : Belfond.
  • BONI, Tanella. 2001. « Regard humain, regard inhumain, regard de proximité », in Diogène n°193 , Presses Universitaires de France.
  • CHEBEL , Malek. 2013. Le corps en Islam, Paris : Quadrige.
  • DEPAULE, Jean-Charles. 2014.  A travers le mur, Paris : Parenthèses.
  • WINNICOTT, Donald. 1971, Jeu et réalité. L’espace potentiel, Paris : NRF Gaillimard. 

About the author:

Zineb Bennouna is a 23 years old Ph.D. candidate in Architecture and Heritage studies at the University of Paris Diderot and the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Paris Val de Seine, she grew up in Morocco where she learned to see architecture through the prism of history and the vernacular. She strongly believes in the uses and efficiency of traditional devices in the contemporary architecture especially the Mashrabiyya which has ecological, functional and aesthetic benefits. The main purpose of her research is to free this device from all the stereotypes and mis-interpretations that the Orientalism movement has anchored in the minds and to prove that intimacy is not opposed to hospitality. She truly hopes that, one day, the Mashrabiyya will not be veiled anymore by other “concepts” and will be adequately referred to on the architectural scene.

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