Mapping gender in public toilets of the non-Western world

First published on The State Magazine on 10 July 2013

Toilets: we need them as we all pee and shit. It seems as if our most basic homeostatic functions exist outside of time and space, abiding by their own internal laws. This article, however, is about the laws that are external to the corporeal vessel: the social and cultural realities we live in that reinforce how we answer the call of nature. More specifically, it is about gender and the public toilet.

Toilets in our homes are almost always shared between women and men, girls and boys. Public toilets, on the other hand, are strictly segregated by gender. Call it the domestic politics of economic convenience; it would cost too much to have separate toilets in ordinary homes. In the public sphere—where we share toilet seats with other buttocks of unknown provenance—suddenly all sense of sharing (a toilet) with the opposite sex is lost.

Public toilets have not existed in their gendered form since time immemorial. They emerged alongside urbanisation, improved sanitation, and enforced privatisation of bodily functions in 19th century Europe. Since their inception, public toilets for women (introduced decades after the male-only facility) was subjected to fierce objection. Ideas of women relieving themselves in small ʻrest roomsʼ outside the confines of their homes (where they should be) was shocking and morally transgressive.1

Today, the architecture of public toilets imposes strict notions of gendered hygiene. Toilet bowls are usually white to make the smallest of impurities visible. The gap beneath cubicle doors allow for surveillance, both benign (is anybody in?) and gender policing (cis-womenʼs feet point outwards, and individuals with penises usually inwards). Within, women can chat with others present and spend time looking into mirrors, while men avoid eye contact with other men as much as possible. 2

Transgress the laws of the cis-sexist gender divisions signposted in binary atavistic symbols, and you could face violent repercussions. Trans* people and butch women have all faced the aggressive force of gender policing in public toilets. Homophobic attacks against gay men or men suspected as gay in public toilets are also rife. What is considered a ʻpublic convenienceʼ for all can turn out to be an oppressive menace to those who do not conform to mainstream gender and sexual identities. Public toilets are therefore sites of gender and sexual privilege.

The gendering of public toilets appears to be a largely Western obsession which is sometimes imposed on ideas about gender in non-Western contexts. In an early study on transgender identities in Indonesia, Tom Boellstorff begins with an anecdote about public toilets in Java that male-to-female transsexuals (waria) share with cis-men.3 Rather than being classed as a ʻthird genderʼ or a separate gender group, waria in Indonesia view themselves as men with womenʼs souls, or simply as women. Boellstorffʼs interest in public toilets and gender identity—that would be unsurprising to an Indonesian—underlines this Western obsession.

The flushing public toilet produces civilised binary-gendered subjectivities in non-Western cities. In the age of globalisation and transnationalisation of gender and sexual identities, fixed concepts of indigenous femininity or masculinity are called into question. We live in a media-saturated society where images of how we should be as women and men are trafficked across time and space, often without our consent. These are the visible representations of gender that we can turn away from and reject. But certain fundamental ideas about gender and bodily excretions—urine, faecal matter, menstrual blood, semen—in public toilets cannot be avoided and consigned to the realm of taboo.

Public toilets in India reveal the workings of gender and caste. In the stunning and thought-provoking documentary by Paromita Vohra, Q2P, the fast forward pace of urban development in India clashes with the stunted growth of basic human needs. Such a clash is also gendered: there are more spaces for men to pee and defecate than there are for women. In a much reviled law-defying custom, men pee in public because they can. It is unheard of for women to relieve themselves openly in public. The shortages of toilets for women in urban India is one of the many indicators of how unwelcoming the public sphere is for women.

The reason for such a numerical imbalance seems almost common sense: women need more space and time in public toilets. Women are believed to be cleaner than men, and to prefer a perpetually clean toilet. More pragmatically, because women sit down or squat as they pee, they simply take up much more room than men. Women are also temporally circumscribed: they are not to go out late at night or too early in the morning for safety and moral reasons. During the witching hour, men take over their space. The upkeep for toilets with such added luxuries while keeping them female-only can prove to be challenging for municipalities with limited means.

When there are public conveniences for women, the queue for available cubicles are longer and slower almost everywhere, not only in urban India. The flushing toilet is thus a privilege: large swaths of the Indian population do not have access to one. The opening of Starbucks in Indian cities was not only welcomed as a site of modern aspirational lifestyle, but also because it comes with a clean and functioning flushing toilet.4 Deep caste and class disparities intertwine with the public toilet in other more insalubrious ways. The lowest castes are historically assigned the role of manual toilet cleaners and scavengers of shit left behind by those of higher castes.

Perhaps minority views and tradition can offer equality in urinating practices and potentially unlock gendered spaces for bodily functions. In traditional Islamic texts, men who pee standing up are frowned upon. Instead, they should ease themselves in the same manner as their Muslim sisters. Feminist products such as ʻShe-peesʼ, a funnel-shaped device which facilitates discrete vertical urination liberate women and trans* folk from the humiliation of open-air squatting. Can peeing standing up or sitting down for both genders spell equality?

The humble flushing toilet has been touted by The British Medical Journal as the most important advancement in medicine since 1840. Besides saving millions of lives and putatively more, the toilet brings ʻdignity, privacy, safety [and] better living conditions.ʼ5 You will only miss the easily taken-for-granted toilet when itʼs not there. But how hung up are you about sharing (or not sharing) the public toilet with strangers of the opposite sex?

Public toilets add to the discourse that gender is a socio-cultural presentation for public consumption and policing. Some women will not leave home without applying make-up, while men generally do not. But at home, we tend to do as we please. What we can do at home is (mostly) private and (usually) outside the reach of public gender policing. Perhaps the unisex public toilet is the ultimate indicator of equality wherein gender is at once transgressed, undermined, and rendered obsolete. A future of unisex public toilets as a symbol of civilisation and sophistication has yet to arrive. In the meantime, the public toilet is a locus of transnationalism and globalisation, (re)producing gender and sexual identities as befits the ever-changing architecture of urban spaces and notions of civilised society.

Reference

1 Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner (editors) (2009) Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender, Temple University Press.
2 Sheila Cavanagh, (2011) Queering Bathrooms, University of Toronto Press.
3 Tom Boellstorff, (2004) ʻPlaying back the nation: waria, Indonesian transvestitesʼ, Cultural Anthropology, Vol 19, Issue 2.
4 Why Indiaʼs yuppies want Starbucks (itʼs not about the coffee), The Guardian, 30 October 2012
5 ToiletDay.org

Latter day Victoriana: Drawing similarities between Compulsion and Bride and Prejudice

Crossposted on Feminist Review.

The repressive, corseted Victorian culture of the novel found a perfect foil in the rigid caste strictures of Indian society. (The Times, 27 April 2009)

Parminder Nagra in Compulsion (2009)
Parminder Nagra in Compulsion (2009)

Nesrine Malik’s scathing review of the ITV drama Compulsion got me thinking a lot more about modern day adaptations of pre-20th century literary works featuring ethnic Indian actors. She has fair enough reasons to be perturbed: it seems that when diversity is presented on British TV, what’s served up for a wider, mostly white audience are actually tired stereotypes of overbearing family members, arranged marriages, and the ever recurring theme of honour and shame. Oppressive family values have become the only representative force for British Asians in the media.

The impetus for disaster in Compulsion begins with Parminder Nagra’s character Anjika, who flatly refuses a marriage arranged by her dad, sending out all sorts of warning signals to women out there who disobey The Great Patriarch. The one person who knows of her troubles happens to be her sleazy chauffeur, Flowers (played by Ray Winstone). He offers to ‘fix’ her potential suitor in exchange for one night of sex with her, which she later, tearfully, accepts. So far very Indecent Proposal.

This leads to her discovering how great sex with Flowers is, sealing her doomed fate. But with every tryst she demands of him, we are made to feel diminishing sympathy for her, and somehow more for Flowers, as he is by now treated as a sex object(!). Murder and a spontaneous yet elaborate cover-up ends with Flowers dead, leaving Anjika happily off the hook to marry her secret White boyfriend. The end.

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Weekend round-up of favourite online reads 11/1

My current obsession with feminist science fiction led me to brilliant reviews of Vandana Singh’s The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet at both The F-Word and Ultrabrown. In my earlier post on Islam and feminism in SF I mentioned a few times about how the genre is used to critique some grand narratives of our times. But in lieu of feminist utopias, Singh’s anthology of short stories explores the more intimate worlds of emotional and mental isolation to great effect in what she calls speculative fiction:

So much modern realist fiction is divorced from the physical universe, as though humans exist in a vacuum devoid of animals, rocks and trees. Speculative fiction is our chance to rise above this pathologically solipsist view and find ourselves part of a larger whole; to step out of the claustrophobia of the exclusively human and discover joy, terror, wonder and meaning in the universe…

…I said earlier that speculative fiction is about what cannot ever be, or what cannot be as yet. But it is also true that when it uses symbol and metaphor in certain ways, speculative fiction is about us as we are, right now. This may be the case even if the story is set on another planet, in another age, and the protagonist is an alien. Because haven’t we all felt alien at some time or another, set apart from the norm due to caste and class, religion and creed, gender and sexual orientation?

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A (post)colonial love story

Read this today and nearly puked:

“Ours is a classic story of forbidden love, elopement, family estrangement and reconciliation. People say it’s so romantic,” says Englishman Tim Wallace from the veranda of his home in the town of Tura in north-east India.

“People say it’s so romantic”, he says. Honestly, I hate stories like this, and I can’t believe the BBC has dropped its standards so low as to publish yet another white man-meets-‘tribal’ girl-girl’s family object-but they live happily ever after in the end sort of staple you find in cheap tabloids or mail order bride agency success stories. Tales of intermarriage such as this are always imbalanced, because it is always told from the man’s point of view, who is always white. This is because the women involved are unlikely to speak his language fluently enough to express their innermost thoughts, and because it’s likely that she is poor and uneducated. What makes their love story newsworthy has largely to do with where the woman is from. In this case (in a David Attenborough voice), from the remote Garo hills nestled in the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya. They have a daughter together, Amazonia, because she’s like, from the jungle, and all jungles are like all the same y’know, whether it’s in India or South America. But it gets much worse:

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Oh dear…

Originally posted part of the ‘Bollywood Nights’ series at The Guardian:

“The most God-awful film I have ever seen in any genre, anywhere in the world”

Nirpal Dhaliwal reviews ‘The Last Lear‘, the latest in the emerging English-language Bollywood film industry, starring the ubiquitous Amitabh Bachan.

You’d think that Shakespeare and Bollywood would be made for each other. If the Bard were alive today, his histrionic melodramas would’ve made him the fattest cat in Mumbai, his couch worn to splinters by the legions of actresses he’d have cast for his ridiculous scripts. Even dead, he’s still managed to inseminate India’s movie industry to spawn the ghastly bastard devil-child that is The Last Lear – the most god-awful film I have ever seen in any genre, anywhere in the world.

Bollywood overlord Amitabh Bachchan plays a cranky ageing thespian, Harish Mishra, who is lured out of retirement in Calcutta for his first movie role by a hip young director, Siddarth (Arjun Rampal). During filming he befriends Shabnam, a naive young starlet, played by the enticing Preity Zinta. An English language movie, rare in mainstream India, The Last Lear possesses the worst traits of Indian English-language novels – prolixity, sanctimony and an absence of any originality – while lacking their craft and erudition. Plodding, cliche-ridden, humourless and wholly one-dimensional, the script feels as if it was written by a lobotomised Kiran Desai.

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Bringing post-colonial analysis into our homes: The Indian restaurant

An excerpt from ‘Introducing Cultural Studies’ by Ziauddin Sardar:

The Indian restaurant can be a useful model to study the history and legacy of post-colonialism. By studying its many symbols (name, food, location, patrons), we can have some ideas about how the race and cultures of the Other can be perceived within the context of immigration in Britain.

‘Mughal Balti House’ is like any other Indian restaurant scattered around Britain, the words “Take Away” tell us something of its status: a working class restaurant in a working class neighborhood. “Mughal” in the name harks back from a once great civilisation. The word “Balti” too has significance. But what, exactly?

To explore what our text is telling us, let us put “Mughal Balti” in context – in relation to other Indian restaurants, its history and cultural significance in Britain. The Indian restaurant made its presence felt in Britain in the 1950’s after the arrival of immigrants from the Subcontinent. Indian food was then associated with “curry” and the Indian restaurant was at the bottom of the heap of desirable places to eat, and was catered largely for working-class patrons. Now the word “curry” itself has a history. It was a sought-after commodity in the Middle Ages. When the mughal emperor Jahangir granted permission to Sir Thomas Roe in 1605 to establish a company in India, it was specifically for exporting Indian curries and spices.

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The tackiness and insensitivity that is Vogue India

This was originally posted on The New York Times website:

NEW DELHI — An old woman missing her upper front teeth holds a child in rumpled clothes — who is wearing a Fendi bib (retail price, about $100).

A family of three squeezes onto a motorbike for their daily commute, the mother riding without a helmet and sidesaddle in the traditional Indian way — except that she has a Hermès Birkin bag (usually more than $10,000, if you can find one) prominently displayed on her wrist.

Elsewhere, a toothless barefoot man holds a Burberry umbrella (about $200).

Welcome to the new India — at least as Vogue sees it.

Vogue India’s August issue presented a 16-page vision of supple handbags, bejeweled clutches and status-symbol umbrellas, modeled not by runway stars or the wealthiest fraction of Indian society who can actually afford these accessories, but by average Indian people.

Perhaps not surprisingly, not everyone in India was amused.

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