Thursday, June 16, 2011

Jilimi (Women's Residence)

Jilimi (Women's Residence)

Location: Among the aboriginal (Walpiri) people of Australia

In modern "civilization" we seldom acknowledge the existence of gendered space outside the public restroom (which are actually under siege in certain "liberal" environments, especially universities). But in traditional cultures, space is typically gendered, and not just along the private/public lines familiar to western history. Among the Walpiri people of Australia, even housing is gendered, with separate accommodations (or "camps")  for single women known as jilimi. Co-existing with spaces for families and single men, jilimi housed women recovering from childbirth and widowed women, and were SELF-BUILT BY WOMEN FOR WOMEN. Check out the design and description of these jilimi, which combined open-air space and enclosed shelter in ingenious ways.

Notice that when "enlightened" government agencies imposed standard western-style housing on the Walpiri people, the women rebelled because they WANTED traditional single women accommodations.  So they continued to build them, either next to the conventional house or in a far-off "sorry camp" for mourning widows. It seems clear that Walpiri women value jilimi as women's space and as way to preserve their safety, privacy, and autonomy away from the menfolk. At any rate, there isn't much evidence that when given the choice, they reject jilimi as "segregation" or "discriminatory"--as westerners are prone to do.  

From Gender and the Built Environment Data Base:

Traditional architectural forms throughout the world frequently demonstrate clearly differentiated spaces for the sexes, reflecting an acknowledgement of, and response to what are perceived as women's and men's differing roles, needs  and natures in society.  While modernisation and westernisation may result in a questioning of those assumptions, age-old building traditions nevertheless offer insights which may not only be of interest to anthropologists, but also of value to those engaged in contemporary practices of design and construction.

Catherine Keys' research into the spatial arrangements of the Warlpiri aboriginal people in Australia focuses attention on the traditional provision of domestic accommodation, or jilimi, specifically designed for single women (Keys 1999, 2003).  This would form one of the three different types of domestic ‘camp' which also included the yupukarra (married or family camp) and the jangkayi (single men's camp).  During an individual's life-cycle, and reflecting evolving domestic needs, he or she would move from one type of accommodation to another.   When government agencies in the 1980s began building different housing types for aboriginal communities, it prompted a backlash from Warlpiri women who wanted a return to the traditional single women's accommodation.

Keys found that although some jilimi accommodated different generations, including women recovering from childbirth, most occupants of the traditional jilimi were older women who had been widowed, due to the Warlpiri custom of abandoning a house after a death for a certain period of time.  The jilimi themselves were self-built, by the women, and comprised a combination of different natural structures articulating a mainly open-air social and activity space: wind-break, ‘shade tree', ‘bough shade' and enclosed shelter.  The wind-break and shelter were placed on the eastern side, creating more personalised spaces for night-time living, and a solid boundary to the site.  Moving towards the west, the ‘bough shade' and ‘shade tree' forms generated less defined areas for  social activities including cooking,  which being orientated outwards towards the rest of the site allowed the women occupants to survey their surroundings beyond their own jilimi.  This was an important aspect of the site design: women said it made them feel safer.

Jilimi sites were sometimes created in and around existing western-style houses belonging to related family members, with cooking, washing and sleeping facilities which could be used by the women if they wanted; but mostly they were found in ‘sorry camps' at a distance from housing and services, specifically designed to accommodate mourners who had temporarily vacated their houses.

The concept of the jilimi raises the question of whether women are perceived (by outsiders) as being in some way segregated and excluded from the community or, viewed from a different perspective, provided for with zones of autonomy and privacy which may be welcome at particular times of the life-cycle. 

Drawing by Catherine Keys of a Walpiri yunta in a jilimi (women's residence) in Nyirripi, Australia

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