In India, no toilets for women

SHAME: “Even in villages which are well-connected by mobile phones and satellite television, a girl has no birthright to use a covered toilet.” Picture shows a villager in Jammu going to relieve herself. Photo: AP

SHAME: “Even in villages which are well-connected by mobile phones and satellite television, a girl has no birthright to use a covered toilet.” Picture shows a villager in Jammu going to relieve herself. Photo: AP   | Photo Credit: Channi Anand


A young girl in Jharkhand committed suicide because her father refused to build a toilet for her. When will the Indian male’s insensitivity to women’s basic needs change?

Indian men urgently need basic ethical education. Since the 19th century, women’s education has been a progressive obsession with enlightened Indian social reformers. Although much remains to be done to get anywhere close to equal access to education for the genders, there is no dearth of social and political discourse about the need to educate our daughters.

For the Indian male, however, in the 21st century, the need for basic education in morals and manners has reached crisis proportions. We badly need men’s emotional education. The emotional illiteracy of the average Indian male is no longer just the target of jokes. For his wives, sisters, female classmates and colleagues, it is dangerous and sometimes lethal.


One of the things that the average Indian man, urban and rural, seems never to have learnt is how not to urinate or spit in public spaces. Much worse than the lack of awareness of basic hygiene, however, is the Indian male’s complete insensitivity to women’s need for privacy while answering nature’s call.

In India we worship women as goddesses. A goddess, the traditional Indian male thinks, does not have to answer the call of nature. She is Paramaa Prakriti, she is nature or creates nature.

In Dumka, Jharkhand, 17-year-old Khushboo had been imploring her father to build a toilet in their otherwise pucca home with a courtyard. The father pleaded paucity of funds.

A boundary wall was more socially necessary than a latrine at home. A wife’s honour may be at risk if people can see her unveiled face, but it is perfectly honourable for passers-by in early dawn to see her exposed.

Khushboo’s mother tried to advocate for the daughter’s urgent need of a covered toilet, but she was shut up by the claim that it was more important to save money for the daughter’s marriage.

The teenaged daughter ran to her grandparents’ house in searing summer heat to relieve herself, but the father would not listen. If he can relieve himself in the open, why can’t the daughter?

Then, of course, there is tradition: Raghu kul reeti sadaa chali aayee: a girl’s body is made for prestige-preservingly expensive marriage in a good home (with or without a toilet), for chastity, and promotion of family values which do not include privacy during >defecation. Khusboo could not take it anymore. Last week, she hanged herself from the ceiling of the same house which did not provide for her basic needs.

Basic right

Our Prime Minister knows that the right to private latrine is as basic as the right to food, unless we deem street-dwelling or homelessness as the default lifestyle. The first public budget allocation and consciousness-raising that >Narendra Modi did after coming to power, laudably with much fanfare, was for many more toilets in the village schools. His reasoning was more about eliminating filth and squalor in public space which has been puzzlingly tolerated by the modern Hindu and Muslim men who are otherwise religiously obsessed with purity and pollution (see Sudipta Kaviraj’s essay “Filth and the Public Space” in Public Culture, 1997). But the question here is of a girl’s modesty, privacy, health and safety.

Women’s safety

It is important to stress that it is not just a matter of modesty, privacy, health and hygiene; more urgently, it is a matter of women’s safety. A young woman is most vulnerable when she goes out to relieve herself. While darkness is friendly to her “modesty”, it puts her safety at risk.

To quote a story carried by The Guardian on August 28, 2014: “In the evening gloom of their dirt courtyard, Raj Beti and her six daughters are growing desperate. They last answered nature’s call 13 hours ago, but it’s not yet dark enough to venture into the fields. For generations, most of the 750 families in Katra, Uttar Pradesh, northern India, have lived without toilets. They have grown used to holding their bladders and bowels, being stalked by wild boars and hyenas and, during the rainy season, watching out for snakes. But since May 27, when two girls, 14 and 15, were found gang raped and hanged after they went to relieve themselves in the dark, Katra’s residents have been gripped by a new fear”.

The briefest Hindu definition of Dharma ( ahimsa, satya, asteya, shaucha, indriya-nigraha) includes cleanliness ( shaucha) explicitly defined in terms of proper cleaning after performing daily natural bodily functions. But the same village priest or dharma-pedagogue who is meticulous about the purity of his own body and his daily ablutions in the holy river never thinks twice about his wife and daughter (and the tribal women) having to defecate in public and polluting, perhaps, the same holy Ganga, Yamuna or Narmada. Even in the uplifted Indian villages which are well-connected by mobile phones and satellite television, a girl has the right to food and education but no birthright to use a covered toilet.

Of course it is not “decent” to think or write about womens’ latrine just as it is beneath the dignity of a father to enquire after how his wife and daughter are managing to answer nature’s calls. It is not fair just to blame Brahminical patriarchy or the backwardness of the backward classes on this count. Practice of shaucha or bodily cleanliness, according to Patanjali, should make the yoga-practitioner “disgusted at his own body”.

Lack of awareness

The ritually pure Hindu male is typically repulsed by the intrinsic uncleanness not of his own body but of female bodies, but shows no awareness of the need to provide for a private space at home for women to cleanse themselves. Our great British preceptors of public cleanliness used to indulge in misogynist humour about women’s bowel movements. Jonathan Swift wrote a famous poem called “The Lady’s Dressing Room” which gives graphic and repulsive descriptions of a lover boy Strephon peeping into his beloved Celia’s toilet and getting shattered by disappointment that even such a heavenly beauty had to defecate. Somehow, the misogynist lines of Swift’s poem remind me of the vulgar Bengali male jokes about village women defecating at dawn by the riverside. They sound as tasteless and cruel after the tragic, symbolic, but predictable, suicide by the class 12 student in Jharkhand.

The morning after I read about the suicide in the newspapers, I spoke to a peon who works at a famous social science research centre in Delhi. A fanatic practitioner of yoga and Ayurveda, this pious, loving father of three was proudly reporting how his 16-year-old daughter in the village had topped her class in mathematics this year. Because the toilet suicide was on my mind, I asked him if in his village home there is a toilet. “No, Babu, building a toilet would cost at least Rs.25,000. We don’t have that kind of money. Besides, our women are quite used to going out in the fields for those private jobs.” Can I question his paternal caring and concern just because he is utterly insensitive to his daughter’s daily suffering? I cannot.

But I can question the humanity of those Members of Parliament living in government residences in Delhi with multiple toilets, when they demand more than 50 times the income of the toilet-less villagers that they represent because yelling “ Beti Bachao” inside and outside the Lok Sabha is 50 times harder than the work the landless day-labourers or peasants do. When our national yoga patriarchs televise the world record of thousands of schoolgirls performing perfectly choreographed asanas, they should also make sure that the ‘world’s first teenage girl suicide in protest against lack of an indoor toilet’ be the last such suicide.

(Arindam Chakrabarti is Rajni Kothari Visiting Professor of Democracy, Centre for Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi , and Professor of Philosophy, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, U.S.)

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Printable version | Sep 19, 2018 6:17:01 AM |

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