Why Can't Women Pee in Public?

Let us face it. Men can pee or defecate in the open. Increasingly, our cities are becoming intolerant of this and have begun to penalise men for such acts despite the fact that there are no accessible toilets even for men. But even so, we cannot ignore the fact that women cannot pee or defecate with even a comparable degree of impunity. The penalty for women peeing or defecating in public has always been there and it has always been much higher because it is imposed automatically by society. This difference is not physiological, it is sociological There are stricter controls and proscriptions on women's bodies when it comes to sanitation. Controls put into place through social norms and cultural mores. On top of, and in spite of, that fact, there are far fewer toilets for women.


However, women do pee and defecate in the open. Many women have no choice! The infrastructure is either absent, inadequate or unaffordable. These women take great pains to be as inconspicuous and discreet as possible – an effort men have never had to make. In many slum neighbourhoods, where people do not have access to toilets, women wake up before dawn to defecate in the open, but under the cover of darkness when very few people are out and about. If they need to go after that, they would most likely rely on other makeshift practices, such as going in a plastic bag or metal box and discarding it. The stories we are collecting will highlight many of these norms and attitudes, but let's focus on a few key aspects of this:


Discretion – Taboos around sanitation do not operate only among women. They are quite widespread. Shit and other excreta have more euphemisms and codewords dedicated to themselves than any other aspect of human life, apart from sex perhaps. However, excreta makes its way into everyday conversation through humour (another characteristic it shares with sex) sometimes, but toilet humour is a niche genre of comedy that is considered better suited to men. Joking about private parts and excreta in a gathering is a very significant feature of male camaraderie, an instrument of bonding, an affirmation of masculinity and all that. A woman joking about either would most likely only create discomfort. So even in the ways in which we try to subvert the taboos around sanitation, gender roles are operationalised. This makes it difficult for women to even talk openly about the adjustments they need to make in their lifestyles and about how they regulate their bodies to deal with the absence of a toilet. The costs of the absence of enough toilets for women go unnoticed and the lack remains or is reproduced. Other women would understand, no doubt. This communication is present between women, but these proscriptions and the fact that men are in many of the decision-making posts, make it difficult for the woes to reach those in power and for action to be taken. Say in an institution like a college, or a court, or any public building.


Domesticity – There is a commonplace presumption that there are fewer women in public spaces. It is important to ask to what extent this belief results in there being fewer public toilets for women in cities. In Indian cities, among poorer groups, several women work in public spaces; as sweepers, hawkers, vendors. Women are responsible for managing and replenishing the stock of supplies in the household, so they are also the ones who go to markets. There are several women professionals and women students. Great pains are taken to put fences around them, such as the new grill that divides women from the men in a Hyderabad bus. But the toilets are not built.


Modesty – It is embarrassing for a woman to buy sanitary pads or tampons from a male shopkeeper, particularly those who know their family well. It is embarrassing for them to excuse themselves to go to the washroom in a context like a classroom or a meeting. It is difficult for them to ask a bus driver to stop the bus so they can pee. It is difficult. Menstruation, particularly, is so shrouded in taboos that it is debilitating. Shopkeepers will wrap sanitary pads in newspaper and girls will ask their friends for a spare pad in whispers or in a private corner. Now, menstruation brings us to another aspect of social norms around sanitation.


Impurity – As per ritual codes of various religions and customs, menstruating women are impure and scorned or persecuted for the period at worst, but generally left to themselves to deal with a physiological process that can be heavily taxing on their bodies. Even in the discourse on sanitation, shit and urine take centre stage and receive broad coverage, but menstruation remains largely under wraps. Attempts to break the silence on menstruation evidently have not made much dent in this.


The Swacch Bharat Mission and many other initiatives stress heavily on building toilets in the home. But this solution is inadequate. As Dr. Shilpa Phadke puts it, "Women need to feel safe in public, not hide in private."

Nov 17, 2015