Chapter 1: The Research Area

Women's Domain in Islamic Housing

1.1 Introduction

The physical environnment of any society is a complex product of many variables such as geographical features, climate, resources, culture and technology. An individual dwelling unit reflects all these features. In Islamic societies, religion is an additional aspect; in fact, it is often the governing factor in the design of the built environment.

A significant feature of the Islamic culture is the segregation of women from male members of society other than next of kin. This influences the female pattern of activity and movement, both in the home and in public areas. The organisation of space in the Muslim home reflects this particular pattern. Consequently, there is a general separation of male and female domains in individual homes in almost all Islamic societies. This duality of space in turn reinforces the seclusion and segregation of women. This study attempts to examine this socio-physical phenomenon in a particular setting - the complex and diverse Islamic societies of South Asia.

1.2 The Research Problem

The Islamic societies of South Asia are among the least urbanised regions in the Islamic world. The Muslim world, for various reasons, is largely a part of the underdeveloped, non-industrialised world with a very high percentage ofrural population (more than 70%). The rural populace arrange and order their physical environment in accordance to their societal regulations and cultural needs, which are a combination of their religious faith and local traditions. These often are quite distinct from urban cultural patterns.

This thesis explores the segregation of women and the resulting spatial arrangement in rural settlements in South Asia. South Asia is an area where Islam has a distinct regional character which influences this phenomenon to a great extent. Poverty, the blight of this region, also plays an important part in shaping both societal standards and the living environment. With the help of a case study in rural Bangladesh, this thesis examines in detail the response to religious regulations and cultural constraints in rural housing, taking into consideration the very serious issues of poverty and lack of resources prevailing in rural areas. Can poor rural families "afford" to follow religious and societal regulations in the design of their homes? Obviously, they have fewer architectural elements to effect the seclusion and segregation of women; what adaptations, if any, do they make to reach a solution? Their situation is also compared to that of the wealthier segments of rural society, to ascertain the relationship and interaction of economic situation and religious faith and its expression in the built environment.

1.2.1 Rationale

Urban societies in the present Islamic world are in a state of transition. "Modern " and "western" values, both in societal behaviour and the built environment, are slowly being absorbed in the urban fabric. Increasing female employment and crowded housing conditions have served as an effective (if not crucial) means for dismantling the spatial barriers between the sexes. But these changes affect only a relatively small percentage of the total Islamic population. The overwhelming majority of the Islamic world live in ruralareas, where even though most of the rural population live in abject poverty, people cling to age-old customs and traditions. Unlike urban areas, change is slow to be adopted. It seems especially important to study a situation that affects such a large number of people.

1.2.2 Scope

To understand how people use and organize a dwelling and its surroundings, all the forces that shape the human habitat need to be addressed. This study, however, is concerned only with the practice of segregaton of women, and how it affects the house and the settlement. It is limited to the analysis of this factor occuring within the framework of a rural community.

The study was approached by focusing on the living patterns of rural women. As gender segregation has far-reaching effects in every rural woman's life, women's activities, role and status in society, lifecycle changes and mobility are addressed as these directly affect space use. An appraisal of the other conditions and factors which affect rural housing is beyond the scope of this study.

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