Years ago, my grandfather used to take his numerous daughters and grand-daughters on long road trips across the Indian countryside, hopping from temple to temple. And each time they pulled over by the roadside for a comfort break, he is supposed to have instructed the women and the girls to cover their faces as they lifted their skirts to squat. That way they wouldn’t know if someone was staring at them. Sensible advice from an otherwise vicious old man (long story).
Growing up in India where toilets for women were few and far between, I learnt early on that like most women to hold my pee in for incredibly long hours. It is one of the main reasons I used to hate travelling by long-distance buses (that and the risk of being molested). I once took a night bus with a friend to Bangalore and when the bus stopped somewhere in the middle of the night, my friend and I ran some distance to squat in relative privacy only to find that mid-pee, the bus had already started rumbling away.
Our gushing relief was quickly replaced with blind panic and we hastily pulled our pants up and raced after the bus. We were roundly chided by the bus conductor for holding everyone up. We only went to pee, I wanted to say but instead knew that I had somehow transgressed that unspoken line. Women shouldn’t need to pee or shit, as it could inconvenience others.
Looking back, I find it remarkable that no one thought to install clean functioning toilets in the all-girls school I went to. What was there were holes in the ground that were choking under poor drainage. The smell would have me retching for hours, so I didn’t bother going. I have gone for entire school days without being able to pee or change sanitary pads (I used cloth pads till I was 15 or so) and my thighs would be raw from chaffing. As a child I have also suffered terrible urinary infection which I suspect may be from not peeing for long stretches of time.
More recently, I was appalled to know that the women who work in the social enterprise sewing unit have no access to proper toilets. That they run to the seaside early in the morning before everyone is up and then hold it in all day and go again in the evening after dark. And these were families that had mobile phones and television sets. Yet, they didn’t think toilets were necessary. Naturally, one of the first things we did was to build a toilet.
If you have to go, you have to go. But for millions of Indian women sadly, toilets are still a no-go.
Read more about other Indian women’s pee stories here.