SEAARC Symposium Abstract 19: “Women’s Prayer Space: A Feminist Critique on the Southeast Asian Islamic Architectural History”

by Dr. Tutin Aryanti, Indonesia University of Education

Studies on the Southeast Asian mosque architecture have primarily focused on sultanate mosques. Primarily formalistic and stylistic, the studies have regarded the history of Islamic architecture as a history of male patronage of works that we recognize as masterpieces. These studies are valuable in the way that they focus on the local formal idioms as a product of cultural hybridization in colonial Southeast Asia, a political tool in postcolonial region, and an important instrument for princely patrons in the process of the nation’s identity formation. However, they have typically ignored vernacular buildings, built by common people and non-princely patrons, as well as women and other minor groups and not regarded them as the actors of history or builders of architecture. They leave an important area of meaning unexamined: the interaction between the space and the user and how architecture has served as a social-political space that shapes user’s relations.

Written history very rarely mentions women’s prayer spaces as a legitimate thread in the mosque architectural history. Their spaces are often invisible to historians because the majority of scholars place emphasis on the authoritative power holders—mostly sultans and presidents—and these have of course been traditionally male. In these object-centered writings, the actual users of mosques are either overlooked or assumed to be a homogeneous group. There is no consideration of gender or other forms of difference.

This article discusses the way women and their spaces are marginalized in the mosque architectural history. It argues that women’s Islamic space is designed to be invisible to the public so that women are absent in the public eyes, as recommended in Islamic tradition, and this results in their absence in the discursive sphere. This is exemplified by the spatial arrangement of the three women’s mosques (Masjid Keputren, Musalla ‘Aisyiyah, and Musalla Ar-Rosyad) and a women’s prayer space in a mixed mosque (Masjid Gedhe Kauman) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Data was collected through archival review and ethnography, consisting of participant observations and in-depth interviews with mosque attendees. Offering the use of visual theory in examining the writing of Southeast Asian mosques, this article demonstrates the way power operates in space and architectural discourse where vision is institutionalized under patriarchal authority. The  architectural history is what Denis Cosgrove calls as “a way of seeing.” It has to be interrogated through a social perspective that requires not only the construction of “what was seen” but also “the way it was seen” to examine how power is articulated through spatial and visual manipulations. This article concludes that women’s absence in mosque architectural history is related to the Islamic tradition to control the gaze and the absence of women’s appearance in Islamic public space, either due to their physical absence, as recommended in many Islamic rules, or their invisibility from the public eyes.


Tutin Aryanti is a lecturer of Architecture at the Department of Architectural Education at Indonesia University of Education. Her research interest revolve around ethno-religious aspects in the production of space, socio-cultural factors in architectural design, visual culture, and Islamic feminism.

Aryanti was a Fulbright grantee and received her Ph.D. in Architecture (with minors in Gender and Women’s Studies and Gender Relations in International Development) from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2013. Her dissertation, “Breaking the Wall, Preserving the Barrier: Gender, Space, and Power in Contemporary Mosque Architecture in Yogyakarta, Indonesia” was awarded the American Association of University Women International Fellowship and the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities Graduate Student Fellowship. Her recent publications include “A Claim to Space: Debating Female Religious Leadership in Muhammadiyah Mosque in Indonesia” (2013) and “Shame and Borders: The ‘Aisyiyah’s Struggle for Muslim Women’s Education in Indonesia” (2012).

This entry was posted in SEAARC symposium '15 and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *