September 13, 2010

A Closer Look: Q2P by Paromita Vohra

“TO PEE OR NOT TO PEE, that is the question.” Hamlet would have found this a more pressing concern if he was a woman living in 21st century India. This is what Paromita Vohra’s incisive look at the national state of public lavatories in Q2P brings home. The film charts a map through the toilets of Mumbai and Delhi, from the citadels of the elite to backwater slums, harnessing perspectives across class, caste and gender. How the urban Indian woman navigates public space through the simple act of processing metabolic waste — this is the question the film asks and attempts to answer. It looks at three aspects: control of women by society and state; sexualisation of the female body and the corrosive effect of caste and class.

The film begins on a very interesting note. Asked why women shouldn’t urinate in the open like men, a bunch of males giggle and say that it is a contravention of culture and a matter of shame. Apparently, using the world as your lavvy is only disgraceful if you’re a girl. This ties into a more pervasive issue of how female biology is perceived in social imagination. It is seen as something to be hidden away, to be locked up. It is not viewed as an actual functioning human body. This is one way to dehumanise the woman in the popular domain, a mostly informal, cultural one at that.

One expects a historically patriarchal country to be grudging with its permission of public space to the hitherto-oppressed sex. What really saddens is how the government promotes this. A female architect talks about the State’s subtle campaign to marginalise women by investing almost no money in the development of public facilities. These facilities, as has just been noted, are required unconditionally for women as it is not for men.

Many government schools have not had restrooms and for the longest time, girls had to go home every time they needed to use the bathroom. Most teachers in such schools are women and they too do not have access to decent toilets, something they have stoically accepted. It is only funding from schemes like Total Literacy Campaign that has finally allowed female students the luxury of a loo at some schools. So on the one hand we see how the male status quo refuses to acknowledge the female as a real human and ushers her off the streets when she exhibits signs of life and on the other hand, we encounter the masculine State unable or unwilling to provide the necessary alternative.

In the film, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of the Sulabh Shauchalya sanitation movement, says that ‘Seven hundred million people are using public toilets.’ One wonders how many of these are female. Some of the officials interviewed give absurd opinions such as women must pay because they don’t go as many times as men. What about the fact that Women probably don’t go as often because of reasons of hygiene, payment and embarrassment. Some of the women interviewed admit that it is slightly humiliating to be seen walking into a urinal because of the implicit assumption of what you are going to do there and how unsanitary such places are.

The film also underlines the aspect that there is a sexual undercurrent to the thought of a woman using a urinal, related to the idea of shame and negation of the woman’s biology. It highlights how in female genitalia, the urinary and reproductive loci overlap and therefore become a nexus of socio-political combat in gender relations. A young Muslim woman and her mother speaking about the community toilet in their slum mention that they do not go alone or are only comfortable when their men come along and guard their virtue. Toilets, then, are locations of perceived female vulnerability.

A brief look at the ‘Stay Out All Night’ campaign highlights how safety of urban women, sexual harassment outside the home, and making public spheres more woman-friendly, even through something as basic as providing toilets, are interconnected. There is a pressing need to invite women to make the city their comfort zone. This involves making available to them civic amenities that men take for granted.

The film also touches upon  the lingual secrecy surrounding the notion of a woman relieving herself. At one point, the curator of India’s Toilet Museum narrates the story of how, during the Georgian era, ‘admiring the roses’ became a code-phrase among women for urinating!

Cutting through the gender disparity are caste and class. As the health supervisor of one of Delhi’s plush areas summons the two token women in his brigade of toilet cleaners, others confirm that scrubbers of these fancy powder-rooms belong to a particular low caste community called the Balmikis. For generations, their sole occupation has been to clean up after upper castes and they continue to do so even today in posh urban locales across Northern India. Not made permanent employees despite ploughing through a 240-hour work week for three years, the women have accepted their lot and the fact that they, ironically, have to urinate in the MDC’s urinals. The suppression here relates to both gender and caste and starkly highlights the burdens of  caste. In the discussion after the film, someone pointed out that as urban middle-class women, we can avail of cleaner, safer toilet facilities in a certain kind of space created for urban, middle-class people. Coffee shops. Hotels. But such options are not available to those disadvantaged by caste or class. The toilet becomes symbolic of the denial of space to those suppressed by these hierarchies.

I did feel that some areas were hinted at and not fleshed out enough. For example, I would have appreciated more exposition on the government’s official stand on their failure to provide strategically situated, sanitary facilities for women. I would have also liked a comparative study of Mumbai and Delhi. But Vohra addresses deep-seated problems in urban public space vis-a-vis gender equality. Through the seemingly odd entry point of sanitation, she dissects male-female tensions in India and, to some extent, succeeds in surprising us out of our stupor. The theme is so unusual that plenty of people will be curious about the film and have their eyes opened in the process.

To anchor the film in a particular viewpoint, it’s relevant that Vohra was backed by PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action and Research) and financed by the Indo-Dutch Programme on Alternatives in Development (IDPAD). The former is an organisation devoted to creating and disseminating knowledge about urban studies from both a national and global standpoint, which would explain the focus of the film on two big cities as well as the exploration through indigenous and international lenses.

Q2P is a film that we were fortunate enough to be shown as part of our curriculum. It’s not only an educational film in the sense that we ‘learn’ something but also in the sense that it recommends looking at everything around us in a more analytical manner to catch what we have missed all this while.

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