Contents and preface

Segregation of Women in Islamic Societies of South Asia and its Reflection in Rural Housing
- Case Study in Bangladesh

© Tasneem A. Chowdhury

School of Architecture
McGill University
March, 1992

A Thesis submitted to the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Architecture


In Islamic societies, religion plays a significant role in shaping the home and the environment. An important feature of the Islamic culture is the segregation of women from males other than next of kin. This aspect has given rise to the separation of domains for men and women, both in the home and the neighbourhood. And this duality of space in turn reinforces the seclusion and segregation of women.

This thesis studies this phenomenon in rural settlements in South Asia in regions where Muslims predominate and also in non-Muslim areas influenced by centuries of Muslim rule. The living patterns of rural women and how they use and perceive their local space formed the focus of the study.

A field study was undertaken in a rural community in Bangladesh. Gender segregation norms and the resulting spatial organization of dwellings of different socio-economic groups were studied and compared. An important premise of the study is how the poor manage to integrate their faith and Islamic customs in their living environment.


Dans le sociétiés islamiques, la religion joue un role considérable dans la facon que l'environnement et le domicile sont formés. Un aspect important de la culture islamique est la ségrégation des femmes et des hommes à l'exception de la famille immédiate. Ce fait donne naissance à la séparation des domaines des hommes et des femmes au foyer et en dehors de celui-ci. Cette dualité de l'espace renforce par conséquent la séclusion et la ségrégation des femmes.

Cette these examine ce phénomène dans les habitations de l'Asie du Sud, soit dans les régions avec les grandes concentrations de musulmans, soit aux lieux non islamiques influencés au cours des siècles par l'autorité islamique. Cette étude se fixe sur le comportement d'habitation des femmes rurales et l'utilisation et la perception de l'espace qui les entoure.

Une enquête sur le terrain a été entreprise dans une communauté rurale du Bangladesh. Les normes de la ségregation des hommes et des femmes avec comme résultat l'arrangement spatial des habitations en fonction de différent groupe socio-économique ont été étudiés et comparés. Une prémisse importante de cette étude est de savoir comment les pauvres parviennent à intégrer leur foi et les coutumes islamiques dans leur environnement domestique.

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Table of contents



List of Figures

Part I - Research Area and Literature Review

Chapter 1: The Research Area

1.1 Introduction 1

1.2 The Research Problem 1

1.2.1 Rationale 2 1.2.2 Scope 2

Chapter 2: Understanding of Islam

2.1 Introduction 4

2.2 Segregation of Women in Islam 5 2.3 Relevant Teachings in Islam 6

2.4 Women's Domain in the Islamic House 7

2.5 Summary of Findings 9

Chapter 3: Purdah and Rural Housing in South Asia

3.1 Introduction 10

3.2 Islam in South Asia 10

3.3 Purdah 11

3.4 Effects of Purdah 14

3.4.1 Status, Role & Lifecycle Changes 14

3.4.2 Social Class, Status & Purdah 17

3.4.3 Division of Labour 19

3.4.4 Women's Work and Income 20

3.4.5 Access to Institutions 22

3.4.6 Women's Social Networks 23

3.5 Rural Housing 24

3.5.1 Elements of the House 25

3.5.2 Evolution and Organisation 28

3.5.3 Organization of the Village 29

3.5.4 Purdah and Public Space 30

3.6 Summary of Findings 33

Part II - Case Study

Chapter 4: Field Research Strategy

4.1 Introduction 35

4.2 Choice of Locale 35

4.3 Research Site 36

4.4 Research Methodology 37

4.4.1 Selection of Sampling Unit 37

4.4.2 Focus of Study 39

4.4.3 Data Collection Tools 39

4.4.4 Constraints of the Study 40

4.4.5 Methodology for Analysis 41

Chapter 5: Case Study: Findings and Analysis

5.1 Introduction 42

5.1.1 Bangladesh - Background 42

5.1.2 Islam in Bangladesh 43

5.1.3 Bangladesh Rural Settlement Pattern 43

5.2 Setting for the Field Study 44

5.3 Analysis of Findings: The Physical Environment 46

5.3.1 The Settlement Pattern 46

5.3.2 Public Space 48

5.3.3 The Homestead 48

- Organisation 49

- Elements 50

5.3.4 Building Process and Rituals 55

5.3.5 Examples of Homesteads 56

5.4 Women's Separate World 61

5.4.1 Separate Roles 61

5.4.2 Purdah Practices 61

5.4.3 Purdah and Status 63

5.4.4 Women and Folk Religion 64

5.4.5 Women's Work 65

5.4.6 Gainful Employment 66

5.4.7 Access to Institutions 68

- Legal Services 68

- Marketing 68

- Credit 69

- Healthcare 70

- Education 70

5.4.8 Women's Social Networks 72

5.4.9 Lifecycle Rituals 74

5.4.10 Women's Cognition of Surroundings 76

5.5 Poverty and Space Use 76

Chapter 6: Conclusions

6.1 Introduction 79

6.2 Summary of Research 79

6.3 Comparative Analysis 79

6.4 General Reflections 81

6.5 Significance of the Study 83

6.6 Steps for Further Research 84

Glossary 85

Bibliography 86

Appendix 1: Interview Guide 91

Appendix 2: General Activity Cycle 92

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The list of people who helped me in undertaking this study is long and spans two continents.

I would like to start by thanking the people of Bajitpur and Shadashivpur who took me into their homes and their hearts and so generously shared their time, their thoughts and their perceptions with me. In the short time that I spent with them, I learnt far more than than what is spelt out in this thesis. I thank them humbly for teaching me not only about village life but about life itself.

My affinal family in Bajitpur looked after my every need and nade my stay as comfortable as possible. I thank them for their hospitality and love. I would like to specially mention my sisters-in-law Mrs. Aziza Zaman, Mrs. Sina Chowdhury and Mrs. Nilu Chowdhury. Mrs. Zaman accompanied me on the trip and cared for me throughout. Mrs. Sina Chowdhury was my guide and my constant companion during the actual field-work. She and Mrs. Nilu Chowdhury introduced me to all my respondents, and the good-will that they possess in the villages ensured cooperation and acceptance for me. My parents-in-law, although they do not live in the village, organised my trip, arranged necessary contacts and information and went to great lengths to ensure that I faced the minimum of obstacles.

Prof. Imamuddin, Dean of the Faculty of Architecture and Planning in Dhaka provided me with valuable insight and guidance in different aspects of my field research. Dr. Salahuddin of BRAC and Prof. Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, shared with me their experiences in rural development for women. I am grateful to all of them for taking time off from their busy schedules to accommodate my countless questions. Mr. Tazemul Haq, Zonal Manager of the Grameen Bank in Rajshahi also furnished me with important information and kindly allowed me to accompany him to visit some of their rural housing projects.

I gratefully acknowledge the help and guidance of my Thesis Supervisor, Professor Vikram Bhatt. His encouragement and support enabled me toovercome the difficulties that cropped up periodically. He provided me with valuable guidance in defining the scope of this study and developing its structure. Professor Annemarie Adams guided me to several studies which were important to my research. Her insightful criticisms of the final draft helped to correct several shortcomings. Professor Andre Casault's comments and advice also helped to clear up some inconsistencies. Discussions with Jesus Navarrete taught me much about both desk research and field research. Ms. Maureen Anderson and Ms. Marcia King often went out of their way to help me in difficult situations. I am grateful to all of them.

I am indebted to the the Humanities and Social Sciences Research Grants Subcommittee of McGill for financing my field research in Bangladesh.

My parents offered their constant support and help whenever I needed it. Their encouragement and love have always been a source of inspiration for me. My heartfelt gratitude to my mother and to my sister Neela for caring for my son while I was away at field research.

Lastly, I would like to thank the three people who perhaps contributed the most to making this study a reality - my husband Muneem and my two children, Siham and Shaheer. I am grateful for their patience, love and support while I was a full-time student and an often part-time mother and wife. But for my husband's support, both emotional and practical, this study could not have been completed. I dedicate this thesis to him.

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This study evolved from two personal interests : As a woman I share the concerns of women everywhere, specially from my part of the world. As an architect I am interested in how people interact with space and how living space is moulded by living patterns.

The study involved a literature review which spanned many disciplines: architecture, anthropology, ethnography and religious studies. Although I found a wealth of material relevant to my topic, the main focus, i.e. women's use of space, was neglected in many of the studies or treated as secondary. It became evident that I would need to undertake an original field study in a rural area. I chose my husband's ancestral village, with which I was already familiar.

In many ways this study has been a personal journey to my roots. It revealed to me facets of my own society of which I was only dimly aware. It was not always possible to maintain a professional detachment during the fieldwork. I would often feel emotionally overwhelmed to find myself in such idyllic yet often traumatic surroundings. Yet I never failed to be struck by the forbearance, strength and natural dignity of the village women as they went about their daily life. I learned a great deal and I hope I was able to translate this knowledge effectively. I like to believe that my own background may have helped in a clearer interpretation.

The thesis is organised into two parts. The first part describes the research problem and literature review and the second part deals with the case study. There are altogether six chapters:

Chapter 1 introduces the reader to the concept of the women's domain in Islamic societies. It describes the research topic and discusses its scope.

Chapter 2 gives an insight into Islam as a religion, its teachings regarding segregation of women and its general application in housing.

Chapter 3 reviews the literature relevant to the study in the context of South Asia. It deals with the segregation and status of women in rural South Asia, and how they influence female activities and hence space usage. It acts as a frame of reference for the field research.

Chapter 4 focuses on the background of the case study and describes the methodology adopted for the actual field work.

Chapter 5 discusses findings from the field study and attempts analytical description of the data. It describes and contrasts the spatial configuration of the dwelling units of the different socio-economic groups. It also discusses the living patterns of rural women and the resulting use of space.

Chapter 6 summarizes and interprets the general findings of the study. It compares the dwelling forms of different socio-economic groups and evaluates the performance of the survey dwellings both in reflecting and reinforcing societal norms of segregation. The significance of the study is stated and next steps for research is suggested.

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List of figures

Fig. 1. Contemporary Muslim Areas (After A.S. Ahmed, 1988)

Fig. 2. Separate Zones in Arab Tent (Source: Bahammam, 1987)

Fig. 3. Marsh Arab Reed House (Source: Lorne, 1981)

Fig. 4. Afghan Courtyard House (Source: Skinner and Hallet, 1987)

Fig. 5. Minimum Windows to Exterior (Source: Bahammam, 1987)

Fig. 6. Mashrabiya (Source: Taleb, 1984)

Fig. 7. Indirect Entrance (Source: Bahammam, 1987)

Fig. 8. High Roof Parapets (Source: Bahammam, 1987)

Fig. 9. Purdah Zone (After Mandelbaum, 1988)

Fig. 10. Male and Female Zones (After Sinha, 1989b)

Fig. 11. Rural House (After Jamal, 1989)

Fig. 12. Toilets in Male Zone (After Sinha, 1989b)

Fig. 13. Internal Entrance to Neighbour's House (After Sinha, 1989b)

Fig. 14. Poor Family Dwelling (After Mumtaz, 1983)

Fig. 15. Affluent Family Dwelling (After Jamal, 1989)

Fig. 16. Location of Research Site

Fig. 17. Site Map with Selected Households

Fig. 18. Bangladesh Rural Settlement Pattern (Source: Chowdhury F., 1980)

Fig. 19. Map of Bajitpur and Shadashivpur

Fig. 20. Settlement Structure

Fig. 21. Circulation Pattern

Fig. 22. Part of Para (Neighbourhood)

Fig. 23. "Male" Spaces

Fig. 24. Sequence of Spaces in the Home (adapted from Hassan, 1985)

Fig. 25. Organization of Homesteads

Fig. 26. The Goli

Fig. 27. The Baithak

Fig. 28. Variations of Deori

Fig. 29. Doors and Windows

Fig. 30. Baranda

Fig. 31. Cooking Area

Fig. 32. Courtyard

Fig. 33. The Kanta

Fig. 34. Sanitation

Fig. 35. Process of Building a House

Fig. 36. House A: Homestead of a Landless Nuclear Household

Fig. 37. Courtyard of House A

Fig. 38. Entrance to House B

Fig. 39. House B: Homestead shared by Landless Nuclear Families

Fig. 40. Courtyard of House C

Fig. 41. House C: Homestead of a Farmer

Fig. 42. House D: Homestead of a Landlord

Fig. 43. Different Spaces in House D

Fig. 44. Purdah in Public Space

Fig. 45. Women's Work

Fig. 46. Paddy Cycle

Fig. 47. Vendors in Courtyard

Fig. 48. Grameen Bank Meeting

Fig. 49. Education Facilities

Fig. 50. Amena's Route

Fig. 51. Entrance Concealed by Quilt for Privacy

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