One of the biggest markers of patriarchy in our society is the fact that women in the year 2020 still do not have the right to pee. Of all the fundamental human rights one can imagine, ‘the right to pee’ comes across as the most elementary. Every human on this planet needs to pee solely on the basis of their existence. Perhaps, one cannot imagine a day in their lives without peeing. This right is so basic that most men go through their entire day without having to acknowledge the possibility of not being able to pee. In the Indian context, this extremely basic yet crucial right is snatched away from some women, exposing the symbols of gendered and caste privileges that exist in our ‘modern’ society.
Women’s Right to Toilets
For a long time now, women scholars and feminists have been writing about women and their right to the city extensively. Traditional city design and planning have most often been exclusionary of its women, neglecting to understand the unequal interactions and experiences that men and women have with their city. In her book ‘Why Loiter’, Shilpa Phadke questions the absence of women’s freedom in urban public spaces. Presenting the risks that women face in their everyday lives, she highlights one major issue that adds to lack of women’s safety in the city–the problem of public toilets. Her study in Mumbai city shows that public toilets for women are either inadequate, unusable and unhygienic, located in unsafe and inappropriate locations, locked, or in most cases completely absent.
In the face of human rights violations of women’s dignity, health and freedom to public spaces, activists too have strived to get their voices heard through campaigns such as ‘The Right to Pee’ movement which acknowledges the absence of safe and hygienic public urinals in Mumbai city. The 9-year long campaign has been demanding adequate public urinals for women in Mumbai from stakeholders responsible for urban sanitation in the city. Fueling other movements to talk about women’s sanitation distress, the Hyderabad Urban Lab soon began the ‘Don’t Hold it in’ campaign which demands a city where women have equal and adequate access to public toilets.
Giving a nuance to the ‘loitering argument’ in India, Phadke maps how women from different communities and classes have varying access to the city, and hence experience varying exclusions and negotiations. For instance, when a woman belonging to the upper-class is in a public space, she might find herself locating cafes and five-star restaurants to pee at, in case of emergencies.
However, an average day of a lower-class woman who does not enjoy the same privileges, involves waiting for the sun to set only to be able to pee quickly on the open street while jeopardising her own safety. A similar study conducted in 2017 that aimed to look at women’s access to public toilets in Warangal city, Telangana, found that the only few women who used public toilets at rare and unavoidable instances were women who worked in the public sphere; that is women belonging to a lower socio-economic background who do not have access to toilets at their workplace.
In India, after the rise of urbanization, a large number of lower-class women working in the public sphere started being employed as domestic workers as employers expressed their growing need and dependence on women domestic workers (International Labour Organization, 2017). While domestic workers work inside houses that have toilets, they still lack access to it. To understand the everyday reality of lower caste women and their right to pee, I conducted a qualitative study in Pune city interviewing about 23 domestic workers all of whose right to pee was snatched away by their mostly upper-caste employers.
Negotiations and Exclusions faced by Domestic Workers in Pune
Working tediously for ten hours a day on an average, and receiving less than 10,000 rupees per month, the physical labor put in by domestic workers in Pune is not adequately compensated for; neither by their employers, nor by any government-initiated aid. After in-depth interviews with domestic workers, I found that while employers are reported to be extracting an impractical amount of labour by overburdening them with endless working hours, low wages, and absence of paid leaves even in cases of emergencies, the domestic workers are further forced to find ways to negotiate the exploitation they undergo.
Meera, 30, works as a domestic help in the suburb of Wakad in Pune city. Recently having joined this work, Meera has already learned to negotiate with the many normalised exclusionary practices that domestic workers face regularly. An unusual, yet standard negotiation she makes due to the caste-based practice of segregated toilets is to learn how to ‘control’ her urge to pee.
“I don’t pee until I reach home. We can’t use their (employers) toilets. They don’t let us sit on their toilet seats. I feel scared that they will scold me, so I don’t ask anymore. I have learned to control.“
Habituating her body to a pattern where she does not have to use the toilet throughout the day, Meera tells me how the alternative of asking her employer for permission to use their toilet seems extremely anxiety-inducing and humiliating. She claims to be aware of the exclusionary system where she must only use the toilet located in the parking lot in case of emergencies, and particularly avoid the ones in any employer’s home. Domestic workers who are new to the work and are not aware of this regulation of space are often informed of this practice by the security guards of the building.
“Everyone just knows“, says Panchasheela, a 40-year-old domestic worker in Bavdhan, when I ask her how she first knew about the toilet in the parking lot. “If you are a domestic workers in one of these big buildings, especially a woman-domestic workers, you will just know.” The ‘big buildings’ that Panchasheela refers to are the luxury housings that have emerged at the outer margins of Pune city due to the urbanisation of second-tier Indian cities. Each luxury building that domestic workers work in seems to have a previously constructed toilet in the parking lot area.
On being asked whether they use the ‘parking-lot-toilet’ on a frequent basis, most domestic workers were uncertain in their replies. Savita, another domestic help who works in Bavdhan, informed me of the awkwardness behind the uncertainty. “They tell us to use the parking lot toilet, but most times it’s locked and the key is with the security guard.” When required, the domestic workers have to approach the security guard, who most likely is a male, who then opens the toilet for the time being and locks it immediately after use. “We don’t like asking. We have just learned to control, even in case of emergencies,” says Savita. Rupali, a domestic worker from Aundh resonates with Savita’s views. “There are always so many men in the parking lot, I feel embarrassed to go to ask for the key to the toilet. So I control… there is no other solution.”
‘Holding it in’: Physical and Mental Health Impacts
The pattern that emerged from the study suggests that domestic workers in Pune constantly find themselves in vulnerable positions in which developing a system to control their pee seems less taxing than the anxiety-inducing task of asking their employers to let them use their toilets, which most often only leads to more humiliating situations.
Having to adjust their body to a limited number of times that they can pee, the time of the day when they can pee, the amount of liquid their body can intake to manage their pee, and the scarce locations where they are allowed to pee often leads to a psychological toll. Studies show that having to hold urine in for long times causes a positive correlation between psychological stress levels and the severity of urgency, often causing bladder pain symptoms which progressively become excruciating.
According to health practitioners, such voluntary suppression of urine as well as curtailed liquid consumption can lead to complications such as dehydration, cystitis, urinary tract infections, chronic kidney disorders, urinary incontinence, and in extreme cases bladder ruptures, hence threatening their physical health as well.
Conclusion: No Right to Pee for Lower Caste Women
Additionally, domestic workers are forced to believe that this is their fate and demanding better working conditions is not their right. These instances of micro-violence that are based on the caste-based cultural practices of purity and pollution and are enabled by the upper caste employers who believe that people of the lower castes are “dirty” and “unhygienic”.
Caste becomes an important variable in the social hierarchy as the ‘unclean’ work, such as that of cleaning the toilet, is assigned to those belonging to the lower castes. In this context, domestic workers, who are predominantly women, are vulnerable not only on the basis of their gender, but also casteist exclusions. Despite being rightful residents of the city, domestic workers struggle to find dignity, even for something as basic as the right to pee.
- Recurrent urinary tract infections management in women: A review.
- Correlation between psychological stress levels and the severity of overactive bladder symptoms.
- Bathrooms make me nervous: A guidebook for women with urination anxiety (shy bladder).
- Why do women in India not use public toilets? Patterns and determinants of usage by women in Warangal City.
Nioshi is a final-year undergraduate student of Psychology and Sociology at FLAME University. Her research interests include themes of social exclusion, caste, and gender. She always drinks a lot of coffee and always hopes to write better. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.
Featured Image Source: Observer Research Foundation