Is it true that any given space is either male or female designated? Does architecture strive to obscure the boundaries based on gender, or is it the other way around? An article written by Minoosh Sadoughianzadeh titled ‘Gender Structure and Spatial Organization: Iranian Traditional Spaces’ musters the courage to answer some of the intricate questions. It sheds light on the structure of macro-societal systems, perception of gender-based spatial distinctions in architecture and the ideas that govern the material, non-material and social construct of Iran. Of all the countries in the Middle East, known for their patriarchal norms and practices that establish male superiority in some form or the other, the article draws attention to the social dynamics of the communities that are well-embedded in the architectural make-up of traditional spaces in Iran.
The writer takes the readers through the social fabric of Iran, undeniably reflected in its architectural appreciation of traditional spaces, profoundly exploring the causes, effects and events that shaped its culture which in turn shapes its structure, vis-à-vis the material and non-material aspects. It is rightly said that whatever ideas and elements the society conspires, the architecture of that space indubitably transpires. This is eminently pondered in the topic that is discussed through the given article on gender-based spatial associations. Where do the women of the house carry their routine activities and where do the men seek refuge and company of their brethren? How does one determine the gender structure (social construct) and spatial organisation (physical construct) of any given space?
By merely exploring its social dynamics and the areas where the users of the spaces have been rendered by the architectural manipulation of a society’s material understanding.
Now, this underlying concept with extensive study and detailed analysis has led the writer to categorise the traditional houses in Iran into two spatial formats, namely Introvert and Extrovert.
The two forms not only vary geographically but also on the basis of flexibility and equality provided to both the genders in terms of space usage. While the Introvert Traditional houses are found in the central plains of the country, the latter finds itself mostly planted on the northern hilly slopes and outskirts of the central areas.
The architecture of the ‘Introvert Spatial form’ takes a dive into exploring the deep-rooted patriarchal system and is relentlessly exhibited in the shaping and inhabitation of houses, public and private spaces, outside and within. As the name suggests, the focus of the spatial elements is retained within the four walls of the structure, right into the central courtyard. Its configuration is indrawn with no substantial connections to the outside.
A sharp demarcation of spaces as public and private marks them as male and female places, with men occupying the openings in the public domain and females being concealed and restricted to the remote inner areas. The women in the regions are deprived of their privilege of being exposed to the outside and face strict regulations and rules that render them invisible in public areas beyond the limitations of their homes. The social obligations and the rigid architectural manifestations both dictate a woman’s rightful place, i.e. to be unethically preserved within the privacy of their home and establish an unequal discipline of gender authority and superiority. Just like practising the act of continually concealing women’s identity outside of their ‘rightful’ boundaries, the introverted architecture covers and hides what is behind its walls. Sadoughianzadeh writes about complete detachment and alienation that is experienced in terms of social and spatial connection by further describing the visibility and perceptibility being veiled from public view.
On the other hand, the Extrovert Spatial form is nothing like its counterpart from the central plains in Iran. In fact, the rigidity in terms of public and private spatial associations is massively diminished and almost disregarded. The geography of the slopes and hills allows engagement of both men and women in farming and animal husbandry, which in turn narrates an entirely different cultural story. A story of equality where both the genders actively engage in household and work matters and hence transcend the societal obligations of being restricted to any spatial organisation in particular.
The traditional extrovert house has windows and doors opening into the courtyards and enjoy complete visibility and transparency, including the women who usually occupy and carry out their activities in the balconies overlooking the yard. The concept of organisation of spaces based on public exposure is non-existent in these areas, and the writer points out the discrepancies between the two spatial establishments.
The writer reflects on the role society has to play when it comes to gender-based social approach, spatial organisations, changing nature of spaces, the connection between material and non-materiality of elements, and most importantly- the possibilities and limitations of all. As is observed, architecture and society can never be independent of each other. With one dictating the conception of the other, the two are intricately interlocked and give birth to the ideas which in turn keep shaping the other in a perpetual cycle of constructs and spatial obligations. For an idea to undergo a positive change, it is imperative that its counterpart undergoes necessary alterations to allow the modification of the other.
Progress is beyond discrimination and to achieve it; one must understand the elements that stand in its way. With a bold attempt to draw attention to one such difference through the text of this mindful yet simple article, Minoosh Sadoughianzadeh paves the way for a sense of deeper understanding, proposing a change that is certain and ardently awaited.
Gender Structure and Spatial Organization: Iranian Traditional Spaces
By Minoosh Sadoughianzadeh