Sunday, April 19, 2015

Mashrabiya: Decoding an Islamic Stereotype

Udit Ruia

A Mashrabiya also know, as a ‘Shanasheel’ is a term given to an elaborately turned wood screen enclosing a balcony window in an Arabic structure. Mashrabiya’s first appeared in the 12th Century in Baghdad, Iraq. This is usually put up in houses or palaces and isn’t allowed in apartments, public buildings, hospitals and rural areas. Mashrabiyas are made of wood and have slowly made their way into the everyday lives of the people. Before the 12th century, mashrabiyas were used as coverings for water containers and kept near the window in order to keep the water cold. They then made their way to the windows and the term was coined after the word ‘Mashrafiya’ which meant overlook or observe. 

A Mashrabiya has many uses: Social, Environmental and Architectural. Socially mashrabiyas were used for privacy, which is essential to Arabic culture. Environmentally, they were operable windows, which gave shade from the harsh summer sun in the Arab countries while allowing the breeze to flow in thru their small holes. Architecturally, they were used to ornament palaces, which made them look good. 

The Stereotype behind mashrabiyas is that it can only be used in Islamic architecture and for the rich to be used in their houses and palaces. In the modern ages, a Mashrabiya can be used by anyone who sees fit. Another stereotype of a mashrabiya is that it is made of Wood, but in today’s modern age it can be used no only to keep cool but also for its aesthetic value and hence be made of any other material also. For example a mashrabiya can be made of bamboos, polycarbonate, plastic or steel. 

A Hindu swastika was added to the design of this machrabiya.

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