Mapping gender in public toilets of the non-Western world

First published on The State Magazine on 10 July 2013

Toilets: we need them as we all pee and shit. It seems as if our most basic homeostatic functions exist outside of time and space, abiding by their own internal laws. This article, however, is about the laws that are external to the corporeal vessel: the social and cultural realities we live in that reinforce how we answer the call of nature. More specifically, it is about gender and the public toilet.

Toilets in our homes are almost always shared between women and men, girls and boys. Public toilets, on the other hand, are strictly segregated by gender. Call it the domestic politics of economic convenience; it would cost too much to have separate toilets in ordinary homes. In the public sphere—where we share toilet seats with other buttocks of unknown provenance—suddenly all sense of sharing (a toilet) with the opposite sex is lost.

Public toilets have not existed in their gendered form since time immemorial. They emerged alongside urbanisation, improved sanitation, and enforced privatisation of bodily functions in 19th century Europe. Since their inception, public toilets for women (introduced decades after the male-only facility) was subjected to fierce objection. Ideas of women relieving themselves in small ʻrest roomsʼ outside the confines of their homes (where they should be) was shocking and morally transgressive.1

Today, the architecture of public toilets imposes strict notions of gendered hygiene. Toilet bowls are usually white to make the smallest of impurities visible. The gap beneath cubicle doors allow for surveillance, both benign (is anybody in?) and gender policing (cis-womenʼs feet point outwards, and individuals with penises usually inwards). Within, women can chat with others present and spend time looking into mirrors, while men avoid eye contact with other men as much as possible. 2

Transgress the laws of the cis-sexist gender divisions signposted in binary atavistic symbols, and you could face violent repercussions. Trans* people and butch women have all faced the aggressive force of gender policing in public toilets. Homophobic attacks against gay men or men suspected as gay in public toilets are also rife. What is considered a ʻpublic convenienceʼ for all can turn out to be an oppressive menace to those who do not conform to mainstream gender and sexual identities. Public toilets are therefore sites of gender and sexual privilege.

The gendering of public toilets appears to be a largely Western obsession which is sometimes imposed on ideas about gender in non-Western contexts. In an early study on transgender identities in Indonesia, Tom Boellstorff begins with an anecdote about public toilets in Java that male-to-female transsexuals (waria) share with cis-men.3 Rather than being classed as a ʻthird genderʼ or a separate gender group, waria in Indonesia view themselves as men with womenʼs souls, or simply as women. Boellstorffʼs interest in public toilets and gender identity—that would be unsurprising to an Indonesian—underlines this Western obsession.

The flushing public toilet produces civilised binary-gendered subjectivities in non-Western cities. In the age of globalisation and transnationalisation of gender and sexual identities, fixed concepts of indigenous femininity or masculinity are called into question. We live in a media-saturated society where images of how we should be as women and men are trafficked across time and space, often without our consent. These are the visible representations of gender that we can turn away from and reject. But certain fundamental ideas about gender and bodily excretions—urine, faecal matter, menstrual blood, semen—in public toilets cannot be avoided and consigned to the realm of taboo.

Public toilets in India reveal the workings of gender and caste. In the stunning and thought-provoking documentary by Paromita Vohra, Q2P, the fast forward pace of urban development in India clashes with the stunted growth of basic human needs. Such a clash is also gendered: there are more spaces for men to pee and defecate than there are for women. In a much reviled law-defying custom, men pee in public because they can. It is unheard of for women to relieve themselves openly in public. The shortages of toilets for women in urban India is one of the many indicators of how unwelcoming the public sphere is for women.

The reason for such a numerical imbalance seems almost common sense: women need more space and time in public toilets. Women are believed to be cleaner than men, and to prefer a perpetually clean toilet. More pragmatically, because women sit down or squat as they pee, they simply take up much more room than men. Women are also temporally circumscribed: they are not to go out late at night or too early in the morning for safety and moral reasons. During the witching hour, men take over their space. The upkeep for toilets with such added luxuries while keeping them female-only can prove to be challenging for municipalities with limited means.

When there are public conveniences for women, the queue for available cubicles are longer and slower almost everywhere, not only in urban India. The flushing toilet is thus a privilege: large swaths of the Indian population do not have access to one. The opening of Starbucks in Indian cities was not only welcomed as a site of modern aspirational lifestyle, but also because it comes with a clean and functioning flushing toilet.4 Deep caste and class disparities intertwine with the public toilet in other more insalubrious ways. The lowest castes are historically assigned the role of manual toilet cleaners and scavengers of shit left behind by those of higher castes.

Perhaps minority views and tradition can offer equality in urinating practices and potentially unlock gendered spaces for bodily functions. In traditional Islamic texts, men who pee standing up are frowned upon. Instead, they should ease themselves in the same manner as their Muslim sisters. Feminist products such as ʻShe-peesʼ, a funnel-shaped device which facilitates discrete vertical urination liberate women and trans* folk from the humiliation of open-air squatting. Can peeing standing up or sitting down for both genders spell equality?

The humble flushing toilet has been touted by The British Medical Journal as the most important advancement in medicine since 1840. Besides saving millions of lives and putatively more, the toilet brings ʻdignity, privacy, safety [and] better living conditions.ʼ5 You will only miss the easily taken-for-granted toilet when itʼs not there. But how hung up are you about sharing (or not sharing) the public toilet with strangers of the opposite sex?

Public toilets add to the discourse that gender is a socio-cultural presentation for public consumption and policing. Some women will not leave home without applying make-up, while men generally do not. But at home, we tend to do as we please. What we can do at home is (mostly) private and (usually) outside the reach of public gender policing. Perhaps the unisex public toilet is the ultimate indicator of equality wherein gender is at once transgressed, undermined, and rendered obsolete. A future of unisex public toilets as a symbol of civilisation and sophistication has yet to arrive. In the meantime, the public toilet is a locus of transnationalism and globalisation, (re)producing gender and sexual identities as befits the ever-changing architecture of urban spaces and notions of civilised society.


1 Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner (editors) (2009) Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender, Temple University Press.
2 Sheila Cavanagh, (2011) Queering Bathrooms, University of Toronto Press.
3 Tom Boellstorff, (2004) ʻPlaying back the nation: waria, Indonesian transvestitesʼ, Cultural Anthropology, Vol 19, Issue 2.
4 Why Indiaʼs yuppies want Starbucks (itʼs not about the coffee), The Guardian, 30 October 2012

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