Download the original Article: Thresholds 36, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA

A study of women’s space in the Bohra[i] Masjid – Gujarat, India

“A menstruous woman who becomes clean in three nights is not to be washed till the fifth day.”[ii] Most traditional communities consider menstruating women ritually impure and restrict their access to certain domestic spaces as well as prohibit entry to prayer space. Islam too prohibits menstruating women[iii] from entering prayer space (masjid) as well as from reciting prayers. As a result, the inclusion of menstruating women into the bohra masjid premises is a complex phenomenon. The bohras are ‘orthodox’ Muslims and their supposed ‘socially progressive attitudes’ are often coupled with dogmatic views in matters of religion. The case studies presented in this article illustrate the spatial mechanisms by which menstruating women are accommodated within the masjid premises without compromising on the physical and spiritual sanctity of the religious institution. Moreover, the bohra masjids chosen represent two specific conditions of inclusion in their implicit and explicit modes.

These modes can be better understood historically as congruent to the changing socio-political context of the state. In this respect, the bohras have been part of a peculiar history of Islam in Gujarat from A.D. 1650 (when they suffered greatly due to religious persecution by Sunni rulers in the state) to A.D. 1950 (when they prospered at the height of British rule in the country). These two conditions are represented by the Shujai masjid, Ahmedabad built c.1730 and the Moti masjid, Kapadvanj built c.1880. The ‘hadd vagar no bhag’ which translates as ‘the space outside the boundary’ in Gujarati (language of Gujarat) is studied in both cases. It is a space in which menstruating women[iv] are allowed to attend prayers in the bohra masjid premises. However, this implies that bohra women are allowed to enter the masjid premises and attend the proceedings, but are not allowed to pray. The architectural articulation of the hadd vagar no bhag in each case will be analyzed as definition of prayer space with respect to the articulation of its boundaries (hadd). Initially, this space was a resultant of the physical conditions of site (a wedge-like space as in the Shujai masjid) but in time assumed a more formal character (a geometrically defined space as in the Moti Masjid) in the masjids built in the later periods. The sanctity of prayer space with respect to the profane, the inclusion of women into the masjid with respect to men and finally the acceptance of the ritually impure into the masjid premises are forces that define the community as much as determine its culture. The formalization of the hadd vagar no bhag into the construct of the masjid is representative of the way these forces are played out.

Physical cleanliness is as much a part of Islam as moral and spiritual purity. The sanctity of the prayer hall is never compromised. But the appropriation and sanctification of pre-existing space for the purpose of prayer comes with its share of complications. The making of masjids within residential environments has often created varying conditions of the residual. One can imagine the resultant conditions considering the strict geometry and orientation of a masjid (towards Mecca) juxtaposed against the nuances of medieval residential neighborhood. Between the uncompromising directionality of the prayer hall and the irregularity of boundary conditions lies the residual. And as a result the masjid, in its various negotiations with urban circumstance, is inherently required to engage the residual into its construct.

These ‘other spaces’[v] at the peripheries of the masjid have functional significance. Their function is almost always determined with respect to the spaces that bring them into existence and they often assume the status of ‘privileged or forbidden’ spaces depending on the definition of boundaries and the situation of entry. The Shujai masjid, Ahmedabad introduces the concept of residual space as functional space in the making of its prayer hall. The ‘hadd’ or boundary of the masjid hall is a notional (projected) rectangle that has one edge coinciding with the West Wall (in the direction of Mecca) and the others maximizing available space within the masonry wall enclosure of the hall. The projected rectangle (sacred space) within the irregular trapezoidal space lacks structural clarity and its definition is clearly practical. Its extents are notional and are deep-rooted in the minds of its users. This idea was first communicated to me during a visit to the masjid[vi] (by an elderly person of the community); ‘diwar thi bey musalla chhodi ne parjo’ which translates as ‘leave space equal to two prayer mats from the wall and then pray’ in Gujarati. A wedge-like space adjacent to the North wall was considered to be outside the masjid and assigned to menstruating women. It was outside the hadd of the prayer hall though within the walled enclosure and existed only in the advice of an insider to an outsider.

For an outsider, the hadd has no physical presence, while for the women who visit the mosque regularly, the boundaries are clear. The space is an outside even when contained within the space of the hall only as a projection of functional difference by an imaginary plane. The boundaries are implicit. This condition becomes easier to imagine as two women seated adjacent to each other in the same hall but one would be inside and the other outside; where both understand the importance of the boundary in-between. Implicit boundaries are meant for the insider and require no representation. The Moti masjid on the other hand demarcates the hadd as a partition spanning the columns at the Northern edge of the hall. The separation between inside and outside is clear. Explicit boundaries are meant for the outsider as a mechanism to represent the set of relations between sacred and profane. The internalized communities of the bohras, within the Sunni city, elucidates a society constructed by invisible boundaries where everyone was assumed to be an insider; while the externalized communities within the British colonial city represent the boundaries clearly to the outsider. Both the insider and outsider find clearly demarcated spaces in the Moti Masjid while only the insider experiences the demarcations in the Shujai Masjid. Bohra masjids around Gujarat present various cases of formal negotiation and definition of the hadd with respect to the masjid hall. Thus in a way the concept of hadd transcends the circumstantial by its inevitable presence and representation.

An examination of the figure-ground of the masjid halls (see fig. and ) reveals this notion of bounded space more clearly. The Shujai masjid does not differentiate residual space in mass and void and exercises lesser physical control over the immediate environment. The system of constructing shared ‘party’ walls limits the expression of the projected rectangular space on the outside. An attempt is made to negotiate the situation by the construction of the L-shaped partition along the South wall (see fig.  ). This space also provides a passage for men to access the ablution tank on the Eastern side of the premises. It is for all practical purposes a hadd vagar no bhag where men who have not performed the ritual cleansing acts must circulate before entering the masjid hall. This partition defines one face of this projected rectangular enclosure within that of the masonry walls. The Moti masjid however clearly expresses mass and void. The relationship of inside and outside is further enhanced with the residual spaces finding more definitive form with respect to the hall. Even though the post and beam system of construction, adopted for the North wall, allows greater porosity and a gestural connection between masjid space and the residual; the hadd vagar no bhag is separately roofed over, emphasizing disconnection and thus complementing figure-ground (see fig.  ). The form of the masjid remains separated from its residential context with the now regularized residual in between. This coincidence of projected and physical space becomes an important mechanism for the establishment of the residual within the hierarchies of the masjid.

As discussed earlier, physical definition of space has spiritual dimensions. The hadd vagar no bhag, is not one formed by geometrical circumstance only, but also by religious ritual. Before the masjid is declared open to the public, the head priest is invited to sanctify its precinct. It is he, who in final instance defines the boundaries of the masjid. He is said to walk the periphery of the space intended for prayer to assign its limits of sanctity. The hadd vagar no bhag can be located anywhere within the profane; though once defined is considered to be part of the mosque. However, it is believed that a prayer recited in the hadd vagar no bhag is of lesser value than that recited within the masjid boundaries. As a result, even when the masjid has reached its capacity during community festivals or during sermons of the head priest the hadd vagar no bhag remains empty; an outside that is not sanctified for the purpose of prayer – a space meant for the ‘others’ in the community. In the case of the Shujai masjid, the Qibla wall is used as reference to imply the geometry of sanctified ‘inside’ against the profane ‘outside’. Thus, its occurrence alongside the main prayer space within a common masonry enclosure, expresses the strong sense of ritual required to sanctify and de-sanctify space within the implied geometries of the masjid.

Taharat or cleanliness is one of the pillars of Ismaili faith. The act of ritual preparation before prayer is given great importance within the masjid premises. The Hauj or ablution tank is normally located centrally in the courtyard of the mosque where men perform vazu or ritual ablution before entering the masjid hall. This involves a physical cleansing of specified parts of the body accompanied by the recital of Quranic verses symbolic of moral cleansing. Women are prohibited from entering the courtyard of the masjid. They enter the upper levels of the masjid through staircases that are usually accessed directly from the street (usually back streets adjacent to the masjid). Women are, in a way, expected to perform their ablution at home and must be in a state of ritual purity before entering the masjid premises.[vii] Menstruating women do not perform any cleansing acts since they are already in a state of ritual impurity. They use the staircases that have direct access to the hadd vagar no bhag thus eliminating the possibility of traversing the prayer hall as they are believed to pollute even the spaces they occupy. The presence of the hadd vagar no bhag makes for a complex circulation within the masjid premises. Furthermore, men and women must maintain almost[viii] complete visual separation as a religious obligation. These conflicting states of cleanliness are spatially orchestrated in the accesses to and within the masjid premises. This makes for an elaborate system of entry and circulation where the ‘status’ of every individual is revealed. The entry to women’s space in the masjid has to this day remained in the back streets where only those of the community familiar with the neighborhood can permeate. More recent access stairways have been constructed along the main roads; making access explicit to the outsider while the frequented back alleys still function as hidden access to the insider.

These hierarchies have larger implications on the position and role of women in this Islamic (minority) community. The accessibility of the masjid for women, its willingness to accept into its form the women’s space in the overall experience of the masjid and of significance the inclusion of a space for menstruating women bring to light the attitude of the community through its religious institution. But in as much as it makes a clearer statement of its acceptance of women (of every status) it imposes the condition or the requirement of the space on its user. The space is marked. A space of acceptance as much as one of segregation. And because the space has such strong religious and symbolic definition that complement its geometry, by its very nature it becomes exclusive, although its very presence in the masjid is an act of inclusion – a dialectic within the form and function of the hadd vagar no bhag which makes it an important social indicator for the community.

Figure-Ground Shujai Masjid (left) and Moti Masjid (right)


[i] The bohras are Shia muslims of the Ismaili Mustaaliam sect. The Shias, in A.D. 765, split into two major sects; theIthna Asharis and the Ismailis. Following this, in A.D. 1094 the Ismailis further split into the Nazarians and theMustaaliams. This study particularly deals with the Mustaaliam sub-sect; the ‘Dawoodi Bohras’ who accepted the leadership of Syedna Dawood Bin Qutb Shah in A.D. 1591. They mainly constitute local brahmin and vania converts in the state of Gujarat, India at the beginning of the eleventh century. Brahmins are members of the highest caste in the Hindu caste system. However Vanias are lower caste Hindu traders of small goods. As a result a majority of the bohras are petty traders by profession. The word ‘Bohra’ is derived from the Gujarati word ‘Vohorvu’ or ‘to trade’. Today, more than fifty percent of the Dawoodi Bohras live in the state of Gujarat. From Engineer, Asghar Ali The Bohras[Sahidabad; Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd. 1980]

[ii] On Zoroastrian ritual beliefs. Shayest Na-Shayest (Proper and Improper) Translated by E. W. West, from Sacred Books of the East, volume 5, Oxford University Press, 1880 Chapter 3. As cited by http://www.avesta.org/

[iii] The common understanding of women in Islamic communities is that women are not found in the same rows as men and no prayer is obligatory for them; and that menstruating women are, according to many traditions ritually impure, and in Islam not allowed in the mosque at all. Being a trading community, bohra men have often had to leave their homes on business; as a result, women have taken greater part in neighborhood as well as masjid activities. It is in this respect that the bohra masjid expresses a special importance for women. Text adapted from Prochazka, Ajmal Bohumil Architecture of the Islamic Cultural sphere – Mosques The Women’s section in the Mosque [MARP Switzerland 1986], Engineer, Asghar Ali The Bohras [Sahidabad; Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd. 1980] and Desai, Madhavi Traditional houseform of Bohras in Gujarat: Architectural response to cultural ethos [ Report 1992]

[iv] Bailey, Carol A. Equality with Difference: On Androcentrism and Difference Teaching Sociology Vol. 21, April 1993. p.121-129 as cited by http://www.jstor.org/. This article is part of my ongoing research titled ‘Evolution of the bohra masjid – Gujarat A.D. 1650-1950 – An inquiry into the development of women’s space in the masjid.’ It is better positioned as one of many recent attempts to reconcile the absence of women and gender relations in the historiography of Islamic Architecture. Following Carol A. Bailey’s critique on androcentric approaches to Sociology that centering research on menstruation as an experience unique to women, creates new frameworks to explore sociological concepts.

[v] Foucault, Michel, Of Other Spaces 1967 [‘Of Other Spaces’ entitled “Des Espace Autres,” and published by the French journal Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité in October, 1984. Translated from the French by Jay Miskowiec. As cited by http://foucault.info/documents/heteroTopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en.html%5D. A Foucauldian reading of space pervades the various stages of this article and for these obvious instances as well I make this citation.

[vi] This article is based on empirical research carried out by me in 2006-07 in Gujarat, India. Masjids have been measured and drawn for the purpose of the study. Observations on site and interviews with the elderly in the community (especially older women) have been given due importance and drive the argument.

[vii] Masjids built in the 17th and 18th centuries were not even provided with women’s toilets. However, this changed with masjids built in the later periods.

[viii] Women in the zenana are able to see the men in the hall below through the Purdah which could be in the form of a woven fabric or a balustrade jaali or trellis. Men cannot look through this visual barrier.




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