After accomplished architect Zaha Hadid died on March 31 at age 65, The New York Times asked female architects among its readers to talk candidly about their experiences in the profession, and published edited excerpts from what they received. In response, one of our Women You Should Know readers from South Africa shared the following with us, “As a draughtsperson I know what it’s like to be undermined, cat-called, jockeyed and intimidated due to sexism from both men and women.” Having quit this field long ago due to the challenges she faced, she was inspired to write the following piece for us about her experiences. Of what she recounted, she says, “I do not want to discourage women and I hope they will still enter this field despite discrimination, but these are the problems I encountered and it should not remain undisclosed because to remain silent is to give the perpetrators permission to continue.”
By Fayrooz (Bint Asad) Johnson – As a draughtsperson I know what it’s like to endure wholesale prejudice, including physical intimidation, but in spite of it, architecture gave me perspective in life and I wouldn’t change my experience for anything.
I received my training in interior design in a furniture factory doing customized kitchens. Having learnt everything there was to know about this niche market, I went on to study architectural draughting.
My first enquiry for work (circa 1986) from an architect who moved in down the road was memorable to say the least. He replied that I would only be good enough to make tea – this without personally knowing me or viewing my portfolio. The snicker of the male student who worked there still haunts me. The mere fact that I had the nerve to ask for work in this area was enough to elicit this openly sexist response.
My first site visit when I eventually did get a job in the field was equally memorable – I was cat-called and wolf-whistled. I had a similar response at a furniture factory where I was to monitor production. One of the artisans wanted to know if I was working there for the school holidays.
Working on my own also had its challenges, and I discovered women were no better. Upon my refusal to hand over the plans to a client who promised to pay COD, she threatened me with physical intimidation. She asked me to imagine what her husband, a professional soccer player, would do to me if I didn’t hand it over.
“As a draughtsperson I know what it’s like to be undermined, cat-called, jockeyed and intimidated due to sexism from both men and women.”
Speaking of prejudice – living in Apartheid South Africa made the situation infinitely worse – we only designed for white clients in white areas. Despite being discriminated against, we were nonetheless still expected to be architects of Apartheid. Needless to say, I didn’t work there for long. I took an oath upon myself that I would not, dared not design a home under those conditions and would stick to alterations to existing homes until Apartheid fell.
What I loved most about architecture was the freedom it offered me to realize something that would likely outlive me, that would shape people’s lives and how they related. Where memories were made and families would grow their history.
Hassan Fathy – an Egyptian architect renowned for his contribution to Islamic architecture inspired me. He encouraged environmentally friendly building materials such as the use of mud bricks. When I was asked to do design and construction details for a Fathy-style mosque in Macassar, I was ecstatic. For me the design of a mosque has a lot to do with one’s internal landscape. It’s a celebration of the sanctity of the human spirit and so the experience was altogether divine. I worked voluntarily on this project, and also as a teacher because the communities which I served were impoverished.
Then one day a man who had a problem with my presence there arrived on the site. The architect in charge and committee members introduced him as the funder. They were concerned that funding would come with conditions prohibiting women from worshipping in the mosque altogether. Many of the Islamic clerics discriminated against women’s right to worship in a mosque. I asked him directly if this is what they intended to do. “But you know we don’t allow women in the mosque,” he arrogantly replied. “You,” he said, “should be in the kitchen making tea.”
I resigned from architecture altogether after that. Being out of work and short changed for being a woman is an injustice which should be classified as a criminal offence. This lesson was to repeat itself over and over again in other areas of work as well.
From then on I cast people who discriminated against women, racists, amongst other bigotry, out of my life. I took the lessons I learnt from both prejudice and architecture and used it as building blocks to gain insight. Architecture taught me perspective in life – discrimination forced me to zoom out, to widen my aperture settings, to broaden my outlook and to recognize the bigger picture. It helped me when I later entered journalism and it saved me from the fate of living a mediocre, myopic life.
About The Author
Fayrooz (Bint Asad) Johnson was born and bred in Cape Town, South Africa and considers herself a 51-year-old recycled teenager – youthful and innovative – who lives by the motto, “To embrace change is to unlearn the fear of growth.”
After leaving architecture behind, Fayrooz found her niche as a writer, a craft she’d been developing over 25 years through her poetry. It happened by chance, after a fateful meeting with an old acquaintance who happened to be a journalist. He began to publish excerpts of her work in a community newspaper, which led to additional requests to publish some of the teaching aids and games she designed while volunteering as a teacher for various Muslim schools.
From there she learned every aspect of the news media, becoming “the first Muslim woman to serve as news editor of a community newspaper in the country (in 2001) as well as the third black woman to occupy such a position.” Of her accomplishments Fayrooz says, “This does not imply that I am the best in the industry, but it appears I was ready at the right time and place when the opportunity came knocking.”