In December 2020, a 24-year-old employee of the Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission (‘TNPSC’), India, died for want of washrooms in her office building. The absence of facilities “to go” compelled her to use a toilet nearby under-construction houses and buildings until on 7 December 2020, she fell into a septic tank and died, when she had gone to relieve herself. On the same day, the United States Supreme Court declined to take up a petition filed by parents in the state of Oregon (Parents for Privacy v. Barr), who had challenged a public school’s policy of allowing a student who is a trans man to use washrooms that corresponded with his gender identity.
At the outset, it is helpful to understand the distinction between the two cases – the first involved an absence of infrastructure, while in the second, although the infrastructure was present, the right to use it was sought to be restricted on the basis of a naive understanding of gender. Ultimately, although the events of the day are seemingly disparate, they both expose the underlying civil rights issues associated with access to washrooms. The apparent obliviousness of the government officials to the predicament of the employee who did not have a washroom for months in the first case, is matched by the active disregard to the right of self-determination of gender identity, in the second case. Both instances reflect a desire to maintain status quo, conveniently relying on the private nature of the topic and the relative powerlessness of the subject of the right, to snuff out access.
But why are these cases – and more broadly, bathroom rights – relevant, especially in societies which arguably see ‘even worse’ cases of rights abuses? Together, these events – much like their predecessors – have thrust the intensely private act of relieving oneself to the public and the political landscape. It is this very characteristic of being simultaneously private and public, which allows washrooms to be sites of subversion and serve as venues of larger civil rights movements to challenge discriminatory policies. As Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek put it, when we flush the toilet, we are “right in the middle of ideology”. Unsurprisingly, washroom battles are not new – in 1961, hundreds of Americans challenged the failure of the federal government to implement the Supreme Court’s policy of desegregation of public facilities – including washrooms– leading to the arrest of about 329 ‘Freedom Riders’ for ‘breach of peace’. It was only in 2011, that the U.S. House of Representatives provided access to a washroom close to where 76 women of the House worked, as opposed to the men of the House, who had access just a few steps away from the chamber’s floor. With the United States Supreme Court denying to take up the petition in Parents for Privacy v. Barr, a clear message must be inferred – the right to use a public washroom corresponding to one’s gender identity cannot be obstructed.
In India, the matter of sanitation, the motivating factor behind the Swachh Bharat mission, is complicated. It inevitably invokes larger questions of purity and pollution, associated with caste, as well as freedom and safety, as women – especially Dalit women – are continuously denied safe public spaces such as washrooms to relieve themselves with dignity. Even as women continue to enter the workforce in large numbers (and therefore remain outside of home for longer durations), the lack of adequate sanitation facilities like washrooms in public spaces remains undiscussed and understated. Like other activities relating to the bodily functions of female-bodied persons – such as breast-feeding and menstruating – the act of relieving oneself as a female-bodied person is relegated to the private sphere. The larger question of why these needs recede into the background while spatially planning public spaces such as cities or undertaking municipal development projects, remains conspicuously absent from the Indian government’s discourse.
Although the right to relieve oneself is considered to be part of the right to live with dignity under the Indian Constitution, the sordid state of affairs of public washrooms today, if they even exist, tells a different story. Most public restrooms in urban spaces are dysfunctional because of the utter absence of hygiene. Clean, usable washrooms if available, are usually not free, and each use could take many times the amount fixed by the United Nations for access to affordable sanitation. Although the Swachch Bharat mission is said to have improved matters, the lack of focus on proper maintenance of these washrooms has been severely understated and overlooked, with the Indian government even claiming that rural India is now entirely open defecation free. The role of caste in answering questions of who has access to these washrooms, and who maintains them, is left outside the purview of the government’s campaign.
Perhaps it is the act of being so intensely vulnerable in the public sphere while using washrooms that magnifies our biases and brings out our bigotry. However, much like the right of Dalits to access wells and public spaces used by upper caste Hindus, the issue of access to washrooms is a base necessity. And just like Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a White man in the Montgomery bus back in 1956, creating a seminal event in history, the struggle to access washrooms – whether in the case of trans persons, Dalit communities, people of colour, or women – is symbolic. It forcefully challenges established ideas of hierarchies. It empowers people to venture outside of their homes without worrying about bodily functions. It is a fundamental need, the denial of which must evoke outrage. It could even be said that a useful metric to measure a society is not just how it treats its women and girls, but who has access to washrooms to relieve oneself with dignity. It is irrefutable that persons who do not have access, all too often, do not have it because of their identities as people who find themselves on the powerless ends of inequitable bargains.
Maybe this is why one of the fiercest scenes in the film Hidden Figures, which traces the lives of Black women working at NASA in the 1960s, is when Katharine Johnson, the protagonist, gets shouted at by her boss for missing from her desk. Between her back and forth to relieve herself in the west campus, far from her office, of course she loses precious time to work. The other indignities that the protagonist suffers culminates into a boiling point when she gets questioned for taking the time to relieve herself, inspiring her to respond that she works “like a dog living off a pot of coffee” that the rest of them did not want to touch.
Had she been given a chance, the 24-year-old employee at TNPSC, might have responded similarly, in 2020.
Featured image source: Orfonline.org