The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon” envisaged the situation of prisoners in a round hollow building with only a tower at the centre, which would house the supervisor. With the effect of backlighting, the prisoners — moving as small captive shadows — are made constantly visible to the supervisor on the tower, which stands against the light. Later, Michel Foucault argued that this form of power spread the panopticon mechanism throughout society. It was realized in different ways, but the working principles were the same in all modern institutions — schools, factories, universities and even built spaces for women.

The built environment has always reflected the nature of gender roles. This can be seen in the design of domestic structures. Earlier, the inner sanctum or andar mahal was meant for the women of the house who were seen as vessels for bearing children. The nautch girls and courtesans operated outside the andar mahal, and distinctly within the male sphere where they were exposed to the public eye.

Hang out

In colonial times, the bungalow was a significant form of raj architecture. Jan Morris writes in Stones of Empire that the colonial bungalow was nearly always at least partially surrounded by a verandah, a place which linked the inner living areas with the outer world, where the memsahib could relax with her friends, give the servants their orders or deal with itinerant vendors and tradesmen. The verandah also formed an integral part of many old houses in the Indian parts of colonial towns, as zones which the ladies of the house could be allowed to occupy in order to peep through the fretwork. Remnants of the Sovabazar Rajbati in north Calcutta still bear traces of this past.

The kitchen has long been considered a female preserve. Earlier, kitchens used to be segregated from the rest of the house. But with the shrinking of space and break-up of the joint family system, the sizes of kitchens diminished and so did their communal nature. Women, however, are still expected to make these shrunken spaces their major sphere of activity. In the West and in some Indian houses, the kitchen has become an informal dining room where mothers cook and the family congregates after a day’s work. So the kitchen is sometimes a punishment and sometimes a prized possession for the woman.

Breathing space

Sexually segregated cloakrooms and workspaces are well known. But do women really need their own space to study, work and write, be it at home or office' Yes. Often the lady of the house merely occupies part of the main bedroom while her children have their own nurseries, bedrooms, bathrooms and spaces to play in. She has to make do with sections of the dining table or the living room since she does not have space for her own desk. Hence the need for gender-based clubs and social groups for women.

Educational institutions also reflect surveillance and control over women. Rigidly shielded institutions such as convents with high walls have often been the habitat of “fallen women” seeking shelter and privacy. The spatial arrangement within buildings also reflects the cultural and social needs of inhabitants. Writing about 19th century Lucknow, one historian mentions that there was no necessity for courtyards in Europe because women were not confined to their homes. In contrast, every house in India needed to have courtyards for its women to enjoy some fresh air within the safe perimeters of the home.

For centuries, women have been controlled and confined within their spaces. No matter how educated or liberal a woman, or whether she goes out to work or has a career other than being a wife and mother, she has the right to her privacy and social space. Women who spend time within the household also seek space, be it a part of a passage or verandah where they might like to sit, read, draw or listen to music. Gender aspects should be considered carefully while designing the built environment.

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