how architecture influences gender norms


the social implications of the spaces we inhabit

“We believe that architecture is never neutral but rather has heavy implications on racial and gender dynamics”, say cisem saglam and nancy ai, co-designers of this collaborative project entitled “meditations on the harem”. in collaboration with burak celik, the designers have filled a simple room with interior details of stylized mandalas. the transformed hall is designed as a culturally significant space and as a place to initiate conversations about the influence of architecture on social and gender norms.

influenced by the architecture and feminist studies of academics such as jane rendell, alice friedman, donna haraway and many others, saglam and ai define gender as a socially constructed way of regulating inter-societal relations. it shows throughout our built environment, from the toys we’re ‘supposed to’ love, to the clothes we’re ‘supposed to’ wear, to the spaces we’re ‘supposed to’ inhabit.


the harem

the harem is a traditional domestic space reserved for Muslim housewives. in this space, women were excluded from the outside world and from any individual control within the family and society [1]. this space of isolation was not unique to the Middle East, but can be found in various societies and cultures, from classical Athens to Byzantium. in fact, a woman in classical Athens had even fewer rights than a woman in the Middle East. [2]

the West’s fascination with the East poses the problem of Orientalism. it not only reinforced a piercing power dynamic – west over east – but did so in the name of women’s liberation. Western powers have justified invasion, warfare and social engineering for social causes so prevalent in women’s rights have, on average, gradually increased globally, they have remained stagnant in parts of their own cultures. [3, 4] of course, this is not about condoning gender inequality in the East.

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mandala details

“Every woman learns to be a second-class citizen at a very young age”, cisem saglam comments.“Although there is no longer a real harem in Turkish homes, women are still expected to stay inside and let go of their own opinions and decision-making. the daily cases of femicide in the country are the most solid example of the oppressive situation of women. women are killed by their closest husbands, partners and relatives. the main reasons behind these murders are women who want to make a decision about their life. ‘

for this project, the team reinforces that their conversations are subjective, “We recognize that none of us are historians. nor do we intend to universalize experiences. ‘

According to these conversations, the designers claim that the built environment is often symbolic in reinforcing gender segregation and problematic definitions of identities within the gender system of society that allows unequal control of one over the other. the meaning behind our built environment is never independent of which agency we choose – the relationship between the two speaks volumes about the development of our societies and their adjacencies.

meditations on the harem 2
lighting details

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the process

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mandala details

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conversation opener

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project information:

Last name: meditations on the harem
co-designer / artist: cisem saglam

co-designer / curator: nancy ai

production manager: burak celik

mentioned works:

[1] cevik, gülen. ‘American Missionaries and the Harem: Behind the Scenes Cultural Exchanges.’ Journal of American Studies, vol. 45, no. 3, [cambridge university press, british association for american studies], 2011, p. 463–81,
[2] fay, mary ann. Unveiling of the Harem: Elite Women and the Paradox of Isolation in 18th Century Cairo, Syracuse University Press, 2012. proquest ebook central, .action? docid = 3410112.
[3] ibid.
[4] “Covid-19 threatens the gigantic global earnings of girls.” the economist, newspaper the economist, 19 Dec. 2020

designboom received this project from our DIY submissions feature, where we invite our readers to submit their own work for publication. see more project submissions from our readers here.

edited by: lynne myers | design boom


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