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I-Column: A Trip To The Ladies’

Two blue doors against a white wall, one having 'gents' and the othe rhaving 'ladies' written over it. beside them, there is a white sink.

Remember Simone de Beauvoir said, one is not born a woman but rather becomes one? A trip to the ladies’ room will do it. I realize I am writing this article at a time when India is cleaning up, and when the Indian government has promised that every household will have a toilet by 2019. Social medicine will tell you that toilets are important and that by peeing and pooping in public you are putting yourself and others at risk of infection and disease. But this article is not about progress or about sanitation. It is instead about the act of peeing, and our gendered voyages to answer nature’s call.

I should also tell you that this article was meant to be about my experience traveling to Bellary and finding out that there is little infrastructure supporting female travelers. But as I wrote it I wondered why I was even acutely aware of my gender while on the road, and instantly I realized that while I could use the same roads, routes and vehicles as men, I still could not (or did not want to) use the same toilets. I made this observation on the long 11-hour car drive from Chennai to Bellary which taught me that toilets though rare are not entirely absent. But very few are not located in seedy bars, and fewer still are meant for women alone. They do not feel like unisex spaces either, because what you see is men milling around like they are back-door entrances to some sort of a Gentleman’s Club. And for a female traveler, used to segregated spaces, this non-unisex, can be an uncomfortable solution to her problem.

My first instinct was of course to feel affronted. It is almost as if women were not expected to be traveling by these roads. But then I thought of the six-hour drive through the Deccan, along NH205, which snakes through the rocky face of east Andhra Pradesh and offers alternating views of endless arid land and lush sunflower fields. It is gorgeous enough to turn the most unromantic of us into poets, and yet with a full bladder all I could think about was how amazing it would be if there was one – just one – restroom on the way. The road was quite deserted though. There were few people, and in fact all of them were sitting by the side of road, and I presume waiting to be picked up by a bus or some other form of transport. There are no bus stops, or villages, and so definitely no toilets for anyone – man or woman. So the roads are not specifically discriminatory against women; it is just that men can care less. NH205 mostly has heavy vehicles carrying goods from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh to the north of the country, and of course others driving back. It is not uncommon to see male drivers stop by the side of the road and take a leak in the fields. My driver made these stops as well. While he always told me what he was going to do if he were stopping to wash his face or eat a meal, he chose to just quietly pull over and slip away if he wanted to pee. The topic I realized was taboo.

But the bladder does not understand taboo. I had to bring it up and mildly suggested that I was more than happy to use the fields, but my driver thought it was probably beneath my class, and inappropriate for my gender. He offered to speed-up so we could reach the outskirts of Ananthapur, where he was sure we would find something more ‘decent.’ After passing more seedy bars in the promised land, he (apologetically) made the observation that most travelers on these roads were men. We finally did find a petrol bunk with a ladies’ room, except the door had no bolt. Instead the old lady sweeping the premises, just held the door closed while I used the toilet. On the way back, I just drank a lot less water, and waited until we had traversed the entire length of NH205 and reached Chittoor in Southern Andhra Pradesh, where at a Café Coffee Day, I got to use a unisex toilet (with a door that locked) as long as I bought something to eat or drink afterwards. Ironically, I settled on coffee, a diuretic.

Anyway, that experience had me wondering how hard it would be to build functional toilets for women at least wherever there exist functional toilets for men. But it also had me wondering why we need two different toilets! Why can’t women do what men do where men do it?

To make sure toilets are available for women, I realize that it is important that we first recognize that women leave their homes to go to other places. Maybe we don’t always make 11-hour journeys to another state. We are probably just heading to work, or maybe simply dropping a son or a daughter somewhere, or shopping or only just ambling around the neighbourhood. In any case, we have bladders and they sometimes need emptying. After all, unlike menstruation, urination and the urgency to urinate is something that all human beings – irrespective of gender or sex – must understand. Or are we so uncomfortable at the idea of women peeing that we would rather pretend it does not happen? I must quickly mention here, the Hindi movie Highway, which has a scene where Veera, played by Alia Bhatt disappears from the truck she is being held in as a captive, and her kidnapper panics. When he discovers her, she is peeing, and it makes him feel a little embarrassed even though he himself has pulled over only to void his bladder. She does ask him if he thinks she might not want to go as well, but he really has no response for her.

Peeing then is a gendered act, and our embarrassment about watching the opposite sex pee has led to the creation of two gendered spaces for the act – the men’s and the ladies’. But we don’t live in a gender-binary universe, and that brings us to an unanswered question that gender theorists have raised about these segregated and gendered spaces – where would you go if you were a transwoman with a penis, or a transman without one? Where would you go if you were intersex? Or you can simply ask yourself – can everyone just go to the same space, and can the toilets that are available be constructed and construed to host people of any and all genders?

But this might be some utopic pondering particularly when going out to pee is costing women dearly in several parts of the country. Several news stories over the past few months have shown that women are being abducted or raped or both on their way to relieve themselves during the night. A toilet at home has been proposed as a means to prevent these incidents. But then a friend from Ooty told me about women in the area who would rather not have their men know they do it, and so use the toilet in the house much at the same times (early dawn and late at night) as they would use the field.

Segregation has its advantages, especially when one gender perceives a threat from another. But normalizing the act and in fact make it less gendered might help women gain easier access to toilets wherever they are.

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