Women in Architecture in India: Challenges in the 21st Century

Architects Dated:  Aug. 8, 2015
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Women in Architecture, source: archrecord.construction.com

WIA Conference, New Delhi, June 6, 2015, Keynote

Over the past couple of decades, there has been a growing interest in the history and theory of South Asian architecture, especially as the concept of ‘other’ modernisms took root. The Modern Movement often coincided with the modernization of postcolonial societies, India being one of them. After Independence in 1947, she employed architecture as a means of expressing the vitality and “modern-ness” of the young nation state; freely adopting the design principles of the Modern Movement as a vision of the future, that was based on a functionalist language free of colonial associations and references to traditions. During the past six decades, a range of modern architecture evolved in the different regions of the subcontinent; affected by myriad of styles, forms and socio-political references. However, in the perception of the world, the richness and complexity of Indian architecture is limited to the celebrated edifices of the ‘star system’ consisting of the male master architects who have dominated professional and scholarly discourses since the 1960s and 1970s. One of my main questions is: in the historical trajectory of Indian architecture, where are the women?

In the 365 plus colleges of architecture, the intake of women students has been steadily increasing since 1990s. In fact, it ranges around 60% average just now. So the other crucial question is: what happens to the hundreds of women graduates? The glaring gap between their presence in educational institutions and in actual profession is highly visible. What is not visible is the indirect spatial discrimination that affects women users as 50% of the population. We need to seriously review women as designers and as consumers of space. We are, perhaps, the first country in Asia, and definitely in South Asia, formally and seriously debating this issue. In the West, research and resultant implementation has occurred since the 1980s: USA, UK, Australia, Canada and Europe when the theories of feminism came together with the wide range of theories dealing with the built environment. There are many reasons for lack of such efforts in India but one of the main one is that our disciplines have no connection to the knowledge developed in the field of women's study. But before we go into it, I'd like to present a brief background about some of the pioneering women in India.

The narrative of women in the discipline, in a way, parallels the development of modern Indian architecture. As a few womeni began to join architectural courses in the 1940s, they were influenced by ideas and ideals of nationalism due to the freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi being at its peak then. At the same time, their design attitudes were also not above the dominant impact of the current trends of western architecture then, such as the Art Deco, the International style, Brutalism, and the Garden City movement. Mostly educated in the West, they were shaped by the aesthetics and utopian aspirations of early modernism. Belonging to well-connected and liberal elite families, these women were exceptional not only in their choice of the profession but also in their personal lives as they worked towards careers that made them transgress established spatial and social boundaries of home. They led unconventional personal lives in a society where women were traditionally defined by family, marriage and children. They had sophisticated taste and were aware of the arts such as literature, painting, dance and music.

Perin Mistri: Perin Jamshedjee Mistri (1913-1989), from the Parsi community in Mumbai, is believed to be the first woman to be professionally qualified in architecture in India, with a diploma in 1936 from Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art. She joined her father's firm of architects called M/S Ditchburn, Mistri and Bhedwar in 1937 in Mumbai, eventually becoming a partner. Mistri's work, unfortunately, has never made it to the heritage listing in Mumbai because of her absence in documented history.

Eulie Chowdhury: Urmila Eulie Chowdhury (1923-1995), based in Chandigarh, had a degree in architecture from Australia in 1947. Having worked with Le Corbusier for many years and later breaking many male bastions in her career, she is hardly known in the field beyond Delhi and Chandigarh.

Gira Sarabhai: Gira Sarabhai (1923- ), born into an elite industrialist family in Ahmedabad, has had no formal education as an architect. She is credited with major contribution to modernist architecture, with excellent design projects and path-breaking institution building.

Pravina Mehta: Pravina Mehta (1925-1991) of Mumbai had a master’s degree in planning from the University of Chicago. Due to her vision and innovative approach, her influence on the architectural community went beyond her practice and teaching. Her major historical contribution remains the conceptualization and proposal in 1965 of the New Bombay' plan along with Charles Correa and Shirish Patel.

Hema Sankalia: Hema Sankalia (1934-2015) who graduated from the J J School of Art in the mid-1950s has made major contribution to the profession and academia in India.

Most of the women mentioned above were held in high esteem by their clients, yet they have not been included in the mainstream histriographic canon. They are hardly known nationally to students of architecture or the community of architects. With their relative invisibility in the public realm, their work is largely overshadowed by more well-known male architects. With this very brief historical background, we will look into the 4 main areas that today's conference is addressing:


There have been subsequent generations of women in architecture, whose practices belong to the post-Independence period. The second generation women studied architecture during the heady days of Nehru’s vision for a modern and socialist form of state controlled industrializing India as the field of architecture began to become more popular. They worked with the restrictions on imports of construction materials, labour intensive and low cost methods as well as low energy construction technology. Apart from that, it was also personally a hard struggle where they had to, by and large, deal with severe social restrictions, absence of any networking and lack of professional understanding or gender awareness among parents and the society. The situation has become easier as time has passed. Here it is important to point out that many architectural practices are increasingly based on a creative collaboration between a husband and a wife as partners. Or in rare cases an unrelated man or a woman also join hands for setting up an office. This model has proved powerful and successful all over the world. Women professionals often struggle in isolation, instead such partnerships become mutually supportive. This arrangement has its own advantages and disadvantages, sometimes leading to misattribution of the work to the male partner, often because he is better known, or, rarely, the other way around. Generally the partners’ design jointly, however, it is rather difficult to exactly separate the roles and contribution of each one.

During the education in the 1960s and the 1970s, women in architecture were exposed to modernist theories and praxis which forms an underlying layer of their design approach. However, many have moved beyond its narrow confines and have gone much further in myriad  directions. Their practices have succeeded greatly in the mainstream besides making a name for themselves in sustainable architecture, in the field of conservation and preservation with some of them developing multiple identities. Thus, there are highly accomplished women architects in India today whose work has a wide range and an excellent quality. They now have a body of work and also national recognition. But it is not my aim to talk about them in this conference.

A few successful women architects should not be taken as evidence that there are no barriers to women’s total acceptance in the profession. The gap between politically assumed/constitutionally guaranteed gender equality and the ground reality, though decreasing day by day, is still vast and needs to be recognised. As mentioned in the beginning the dropout rate of women graduates from the profession is high due to several reasons.

It is primarily because it takes a long time to be recognised in the field of architecture for men and women both, the social odds being particularly against women. The period of investing in a woman’s career generally overlaps with having a family and raising children among other things. If a break is taken to raise a family, then it is difficult for her to catch up as the situation changes in a few years, in terms of professional set-ups, building technology, materials and even software, including her self-confidence.

As a result, in the collective consciousness of the society and the discipline, the professional environment is gender neutral although women have minimal visibility in the public domain, marginal leadership positions and a non-iconic presence, indirectly resulting in a predominant patriarchal culture.

Women in education:

Education transmits knowledge and skills. The educational institution is where one's values are interpreted and legitimized. The discipline of architecture is deeply embedded in the cultural world and the culture of an institute is closely connected to its teaching ideology and pedagogy. “Architectural education, although obviously intended as vocational training, is also intended as a form of socialization aimed at producing a very specific type of person. All forms of education also socialize students into some sort of ethos or culture. These two functions are inseparable."

Institutional practices such as organization of curriculum, the relationship between theory and practice and administrative set-up enable or constrain particular forms of knowledge. The popular opinion in India is that architectural education is bias-free, relatively liberal and gives equal opportunity to all for success. By contrast, in the USA for instance, by accepting the fact that there is direct/indirect discrimination towards women professionals, much has been achieved through affirmative action that has brought about a level of gender equity and diversity in the workplace. This is a major intervention that can show a way forward. On the other hand, in India, professional schools generally suffer from implicit gender bias because feminist thinking has not entered the mainstream educational consciousness. As a result, without the integration of feminist theory, the creation and transmission of knowledge on designed environments through curricula and pedagogy are largely missing.

Women and research:

We are a design-focused discipline. The area of architectural research in India is by far the most neglected. In educational institutions, unlike the West, there is no strong tradition nor is there any strict research requirements for faculty promotion. The building industry, the architectural profession, the colleges of architecture-none is structured in a way that facilitates or promotes systematic inquiry for knowledge building. Designers generally rely on intuition, personal experience and precedents. The research limitation is acutely felt in teaching where a heavy reliance on western publications still exists, especially in courses on theory, history and technology. In addition we are faced with our society's poor awareness of design fields, especially architecture as well as the invisibility of gender discrimination. Within this context, the exclusion of gender considerations has specifically submerged the role of feminist knowledge in the discipline. This lacuna has direct implications on policy making. We also need to find mechanisms for real estate firms and construction industries to support some of the research. There are vast avenues of inquiry that need to be addressed at individual, institutional and government levels.

Women in policy making and planning:

At the moment, women play rather insignificant role in bodies that control political decisions. Simultaneously design issues related to women are generally ignored in policy and planning processes. The first step therefore is accepting the reality of the situation in order to address the gender angle. I have been keenly reading everything on smart cities to find a single word on women's issues but with no luck. The buzz words in planning today are, of course, "infrastructure development", "market forces" and "real estate growth"! Often we forget that cities are about people after all! Our cities have increasingly become less accessible to the marginalized population, that is  the poor, physically challenged, children and women. For example, if we take the Indian streets, in the guise of "development" they have become more and more unfriendly towards the pedestrians (as footpaths are disappearing), the cyclists, the vendors and such others. In addition, in the physical planning processes in India, the neutrality of the user is taken-for-granted and the element of people’s participation is minimal. We suffer from fragmented and contested nature of policy implementation. Like cities, gender relations are porous, multifaceted, and a constant work in progress. With increased violence inflicted on women in public spaces, the awareness about the urban environment and gender is growing. But this is not recognized at policy level. The urban public space is not just about women's safety but about their right as citizens to full access, including for pleasure. For example, the public transport design has to take into consideration the lived experiences of women not only in the growing numbers in the work force but also the home makers.

The profession of architecture is changing in a positive way in the 21st century; it is much more collaborative, pluralistic and inclusive. New modes of practices are emerging and women can no longer be peripheral to it. Simultaneously, women are also increasing as primary clients and patrons as their money/social power rises in different fields. Let us challenge the status quo and create a climate to bring feminist perspective and discourse to the profession. I would like to end with the line: "We cannot change the world but we can certainly make a difference."

  • I have tried my best to learn about their lives and careers with incomplete success as most of the deceased women's drawings, plans and other practice details simply do not exist. The others have hardly kept proper records. It is sad that we have largely missed out on the life experiences of early women architects. However, I hope that their profiles begin to fill the current void in historical knowledge.
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perin_Jamsetjee_Mistri, accessed on March 2015.
  • Evens, Garry, Struggle in the Studio: A Bourdivin Look at Architectural Pedagogy, Journal of Architectural Education (1984), Vol. 49, No. 2 (Nov., 1995), p. 105.

This paper is part of the WIA publication brought out at the Women in Architecture Conference organized jointly by the IIA Northern Chapter, SPA and SPA Alumni on June 06, 2015.

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