Sunday, April 21, 2013

THE TOILET POLITICS


I know Indian politics is akin to a dirty toilet but folks this post  is not about that!

I have been meaning to write about this theme for a while.   The idea came to me last week when I was attending a seminar at a reputed agriculture university in southern India. A woman co participant came up to me and asked if I knew where the ladies  toilet was.  I pointed her  towards a corridor which had the signboard “Toilets” written on the wall.  She went  there and returned almost immediately. Even before she could say why she was back, I guessed the reason.  The door was locked!!!  This is a practice with most government institutions

I discovered this  quite early on in life when I joined my bachelor’s degree at an agriculture university in another southern state. We used to have one smelly room adjoining what used to be called “Ladies room” which about 300 female under grad students had to use to relieve themselves ! The various departments of course had their own Ladies toilets but they were all locked with privileged entry status only for women PG students and professors  from the concerned department!  If you were a visitor and female, you would have to pray that you were near an area where there were enough bushes ..!!

I also encountered in the same agriculture university where I was last week another  interesting facility “VVIP toilet” !!!! I mean, why? Do very  important people excrete gold?

While lack of adequate public toilets for women in this country is a big problem, there is an even bigger problem that exists in terms of general access and use of toilets . In  a hierarchy conscious society like ours toilets are, rarely viewed as public conveniences. They are more like private privileges allotted to you because of your position in society by birth or some other status.  

Those of you who have watched the movie called “ Help” would recall the scene where white American women in the Southern States led a campaign that they called “Separate but equal” – protesting against allowing their domestic help of African origin from using toilets inside their homes. Now, this is something that is very common in Indian households. Even in our own home, my mother in law had a specially designated toilet allocated for them. This toilet is outside the house and very inconvenient to use when it rains. We (MIL and I)  have had innumerable arguments over allowing them to use our toilets at least during days when it was raining. Sometimes the light in this toilet used to fuse and my mother in law did not want to spend money on replacing the bulb . Her logic was ‘At least we are providing them with a toilet. Look at the neighbors, they don’t have a toilet for their servants” ..Anyway, I won the argument many years down the line when she was bedridden and needed a full time care giver. That was when her caregivers, domestics and herself all began to use the same toilets .  Now, after her time we have done away with this distinction. Everyone who visits the house or lives in it uses the toilets that the house provides. The rule is that “Use any toilet but  keep it clean”.

I wonder why entry barriers to toilet access exist in our country. Many schools have separate toilets for teachers and students ( though my daughter’s school doesn’t). Offices have separate toilets for “officers”/ “Managers” and “staff”!!! People justify it on the grounds that people from “certain classes of society”  do not know how to maintain and use toilets and hence the need for segregation! But I would say why not use this opportunity to teach them how to? It would serve a public cause in a country like ours where invariably all toilets (public and private) are generally unclean!!!

But  in this  quest for equality should men and women use the same toilets? The reason why I think men and women need separate toilets is because toilets are places for fulfillment of biological needs. Men and women being built differently use toilets differently and hence the need for gender segregated toilets!  Besides, women in most cultures are rather embarrassed of being seen in the same space as men while attending to this need!  And one must remember that toilets are not just places where you relieve yourself. You also use the space for adjusting your clothes, combing your hair – imagine how embarrassing it might be for a woman to have a man walk in while she is adjusting her clothes..!!! Even if it is a single cubicle “gender neutral” toilet in an office it would be equally  embarrassing for a man to open the toilet cabinet and chance upon a packet of woman’s sanitary napkins. Men find it as disgusting to use a blood stained toilet bowl as women who complain of men peeing without putting down the toilet seat ( not to say either of these conditions are permissible even in a single sex toilet).  

Anyway, coming back to the question of privileged access to such public conveniences,  I would like to share an incident concerning such toilet use in a reputed non profit organization in my city . This organization initially did not have separate toilets for men and women. But when the women demanded a separate toilet the men agreed grudgingly! There were more men in this office than women, so they built another toilet in the back yard for use by drivers and support staff . But the Regional Director of this organization that was supposedly working for equality continued to have his privileged individual use of the attached toilet ( which incidentally had two doors but the other door leading to the room next door was permanently shut so that it would remain his private toilet). The women on the other hand did not have such distinctions. All the  women( Managers, officers, clerks, receptionist and support staff) used the women’s toilet quite happily.  So who was perpetuating social discrimination – the men, the women or the leader of the office? Of course if you ask the men they would tell you that it was women who began the entire discrimination issue by demanding a separate toilet for themselves!!

Eating and defecating are some universal human needs but we seem to use these very same needs to further our class/ caste divides. I think it is pointless talking about ending socio economic hierarchies unless we are ready to rid ourselves of some deeply of these deeply entrenched biases!

 

6 comments:

anilkurup said...

Discrimination and prejudices apart, the absence or lack of civic sense irrespective of the social standing is the bane. Perfect examples are the public wash rooms. A lavatory or toilet is not considered as a place that must be accounted for as much as one does ones bedroom or living room.
Now the point you mentioned about the social discrimination is valid. I do not understand why the bias is not jettisoned. The argument about socially and economically backward people (domestic help, perhaps) being not used to cleanliness may be true.
However the age old social prejudice is also more than responsible for such attitude.


Kalpana Solsi said...

There are more number of mobiles than toilets in our country.

KParthasarathi said...

You have brought out the ordeal that working women pass through in lack of adequate rest room facility.No license should be given to offices and business establishments that do not have adequate and separate restrooms for men and women in proportion to the number of employees.
The issue of lack of toilet facilities in slums and hutments along with water and the ordeal the womenfolk pass through is never in the radar of corporation or gievrnemnt.The reluctance of apartment owners who themselves have one or two toilets to permit the use of toilets by domestic helps accentuates the problems.It is only the wearer who knows where the shoe pinches.For the very poor paid toilet facility is not affordable.
It is good that you have highlighted the issue in your writings.

SG said...

This has been my pet peeve for a long time. India has no adequate toilet facilities either in offices or in public. Recently visited Chennai. If we get out of the house and until we come back, we have to hold. At least, men can manage. How about the ladies? Except of course the malls. Even there, the day we visited Express Avenue Mall, all the toilets had “out of order” sign.

As in USA, there must be a law that all the petrol pumps should have neatly maintained men and women toilets and accessible to all men and women.

India will never become a “world power” unless there are enough toilet facilities for all men and women. The chances are slim because the guy who upgraded his toilet at a cost of Rs.35 lakhs fixes Rs.32 per day limit for poverty line.

Meera Sundararajan said...

@ Anil your observation about our lack of interest in keeping the toilet as clean as the living room tells us that it is wrong to blame people like domestic help as those who mess up toilets because toilets are anyway not kept clean even by most so called educated and upper class people.

@ SG the issue is not just about lack of toilets ( thought that in itself is also an issue) but about the entry /access barriers to the common people just because some so called powerful or privileged person cordons off the toilet for his/ her personal use!!!

Meera Sundararajan said...

@ KP thanks for understanding the ordeals of working women. Glad you agree about the need for men and women's toilets. Yes, it is very unfair when people with 2-3 toilets do not permit their domestic help to use toilets in their homes.

@ Kalpana, it is interesting what you say about number of toilets to cell phones. But again the issue is not just about the number of toilets available but access to those.

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