Saturday 19 April 2014

Speak out instead of Holding it In

By Anamika, aka @NameFieldmt 

After months of recurring UTIs, my mother was diagnosed with 4 kidney stones in December last year, and last month, she underwent a procedure to get rid of them. It was a traumatic experience. Of course, every amateur doctor who came to see her blamed her for bringing it on by not drinking enough water. And rightly so.

But then, while playing the blame game, I discovered that the blame ran deeper.

My mother worked in this office that functioned out of a quaint outhouse of a British era bungalow. It was a small office, with just her boss, an accountant, driver and peon. She was the only woman there. While the office itself was done up in pretty pink curtains and leather sofas, there was just one toilet that was shared by all, including the boss.

It was an uncomfortable situation, sharing the toilet with the boss and three men. To make things worse, the boss was one of those assholey (not a word she used) types and every time he heard her walk past his room to use the toilet, he used to call her on the intercom and then accuse her of ‘never being at her seat when he wanted her'. Of course, the male employees managed to be bladder-free superworkers in the boss' eyes since they used the small woods outside to do their thing.  And so, to make things easier, my mother just stopped drinking water at work.

I work in one of those IT parks where toilets are called restrooms, all pretty and tiled, and have uniformed women scrubbing them every ten minutes. It took me a while to even understand how my mother's office and the toilet situation there worked, let alone relate to it.  And that is when I realized that easy access to toilets is a luxury that most working women do not enjoy.

That girl who mans the photocopier in the Xerox Shop under a staircase. That salesgirl in the tiny shop tucked in that alley where you buy your pretty blouse pieces. That receptionist girl at the real estate broker-cum-investment advisor's tiny office.  The woman who hands out tokens at the doctor's clinic, the one that is sandwiched between a pharmacy and a hardware store.  The girl in the mobile phone repair shop at your street corner.

Where do they all go to relieve their bladders? How do they manage that time of the month? What do they do when their lunch disagrees with them?

There's a girl who works in a lawyer's office near my place. She knocks the doors on friendly houses in the neighbourhood when she needs to use the toilet. Her boss, the male lawyer, uses the convenient gap between two compound walls. My cousin’s office is in a municipality owned complex. It has no toilets, but is close enough to a public toilet, again run by the municipality. But she says she'd rather suffer kidney damage by not drinking water than pick up any infection from the filthy public toilet. She has a handkerchief steeped in perfume that she holds over her nose in case of emergencies.

My friend S wished the earth would swallow her up when her boss once delicately asked her to ‘be careful when using the toilet’. She was the only woman in the office and it turned out that some idiot had spat paan in the toilet and the boss assumed that it was something else.

And I’m not even going to start about those lewd remarks that some men make each time they see the woman get up to use the toilet, a toilet that she sometimes has to walk to across the street to use. A toilet that may or may not be clean, may or may not be safe.

We hear the ‘Toilets before Temples’ chant these days. Awareness messages telling Pappu not to do potty outdoors. Yes, the villages and rural areas certainly need toilets and this kind of awareness campaign. It is a priority.

But what about those women in that in between zone? Those working women, not rich-not poor, not so rural-not so urban women.  Those women working long hours in non organized sectors, those women whose workplaces aren’t in large commercial complexes, those women rushing back home after a long day of holding it in because of no toilets, dirty toilets, assholey bosses, creepy men or all of the above.

Of course, one cannot expect every 10X10 office or tiny little shop to have separate toilets for women. At the most you can wish for understanding bosses and less creepy colleagues.

But is it too much to expect the government, a government that runs a liquor shop every 500 meters, to also make sure that there are clean, safe, accessible toilets for women?

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