Toilet: Feminist when Convenient only.

Toilet is a love story, but it’s also a film with an agenda – raising awareness about sanitation needs in India. This is an agenda absolutely worthy of praise, but as Mayuri Bhattacharjee wrote yesterday on Feminism in India, Toilet portrays at least as many problematic behaviours and ideals as progressive ones. In particular, the film unquestioningly romanticises behaviour that can only be described as stalking.

Toilet film
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The storyline runs something like this. Boy (Keshav) meets girl (Jaya), they fall in love, marry, and when Jaya discovers there’s no toilet in her new husband’s family home the main storyline (about the struggles of building toilets and establishing sanitation) begins. For angles on the sanitation aspect, see Bhattacherjee’s article. However by this point in the movie I, like many others, had already been turned off by the portrayal of Keshav and Jaya’s developing romance.

Keshav first catches sight of Jaya in a public place. His eyes pop out of his and he bothers her by physically getting in her way and spouting tired pick-up lines while he’s at it. He then proceeds to follow Jaya everywhere, secretly taking photographs of her without her permission, even going so far as to use one of her pictures in a public advertisement for his cycle shop. When Jaya comes to his office to ask him what the hell he thinks he’s doing, he steals her phone number and start to harass her that way as well. After being told ‘no’ a few more times that should be necessary (i.e. once), Keshav desists, at which point Jaya develops Stockholm Syndrome, misses his attention, and starts chasing him instead.

Stalking is a tired and frustrating trope in an absurdly large number of Bollywood movies. In my opinion, what makes these attitudes even more prominent in Toilet is their juxtaposition with condemnations of eve-teasing and several positive assertions of women’s rights. The film’s opening, for example, shows Jaya throwing a coconut at a man who is sexually harassing women in the street and him falling into a pile of manure. In other places the conservative custom of women having to cover their heads before elders is rejected, and much is made of Jaya being a ‘topper’ in her class. The fact she’s brainy is posited as one of the major reasons she is attractive. However this positive attitude towards women’s rights in certain contexts is undermined not just by the normalisation of harassment, but also a wider failure to recognise and challenge assumptions about women and femininity that result in a sustained, systematic disempowerment of women.

I was struck that only the women in the film are shown as having major problems with going to the toilet outside. The discomfort of Jaya is the main source of change, and the justification of her position is ultimately supported by a rebellion of the village women and an episode relating to Keshav’s aging grandmother (perhaps the only women Keshav’s hyper-religious father would need to ‘respect’). Whilst it is true that women are more likely to face problems such as sexual harassment when defecating outside this is due to underlying attitudes in society, as is the fact that women in rural India are forced to walk long distances and hide to relieve themselves whilst men (as is shown in the film) may squat quite openly nearer to the house or even in the view of others. This inequality, both in representation and in real life experience, is linked to notions of shame surrounding women’s bodies and bodily functions. By not raising the issue of whether men experience discomfort or are exposed to health risks more prevalently in the film I feel this aspect, which structurally underlies much of the problem, has also been allowed to slide. Whilst biological plumbing may make urination a less messy affair for men than women, I find it difficult to believe that anything other than social attitudes makes men more ‘comfortable’ with defecating in a bush than women.

The apparent contradiction and hypocrisy found in Toilet’s representations of women is in fact significant and instructive. Many individual members of society (Indian or otherwise) unconsciously live out these kinds of hypocrisies every day of their lives. A large number of well-meaning people actively profess liberal, progressive ideas about women’s rights and gender equality, but can be found to maintain patriarchal and gender-biased social scripts at other times when it suits them. Very often such people are not aware of the contradiction, and do not consider themselves to be behaving hypocritically. It’s about where they are in their personal journey. Toilet’s split-personality approach to women’s freedoms reminds us that not only is it possible to hold contradictory beliefs, but also that old habits (including thinking habits) die hard. We need to continue to resist the normalised everyday assumptions about women and women’s behaviour without complacency, because progress isn’t like flipping a switch or a one-time, holistic realisation that changes a person completely. Progress is a fractured, patchwork process, and we have to be prepared to tackle attitudes and behaviours (within society, with others, and even with ourselves) one idea at a time.

Masking Prejudice

This Halloween a woman was sexually assaulted by a group of teenagers in Halloween masks. In a horrendous grotesque of cheap American horror movies she was pushed to the ground and intimately attacked before she managed to fight back and escape from the perpetrators. The media has reacted sensitively to the trauma that the woman has suffered from the ordeal and the police and other services are supporting her as best they can. However in the discussion of the attackers, as far as I have heard so far there has been no comment upon another glaring aspect of this particular case: the fact that the attackers were wearing masks.

Sure, there has been passing comment in a police statement about how the masks must have made the inherently traumatic ordeal several notches more terrifying for the victim, but nothing has been said about how the masks impact on the traceability of the perptrators. Perhaps this is thought to be too obvious. Perhaps the authorities feel that, with our extensively developed technologies of fingerprinting, DNA and our extensive network of public CCTV coverage, the simple wearing of a scream mask does not in any way preclude the potential to track down and bring these teenagers to justice.

I do find it strange that out of this there has not even been a moment of debate about whether they should legitimately have been wearing masks at all that night. I am at the same time not surprised at all that there hasn’t been, because wearing masks at Halloween is thoroughly familiar and accepted. Nobody would even think to suggest that wearing of those masks was in some way potentially pernicious or illegitimate in itself, before the teenagers started upon their illegal behaviour. Of course not. It was Halloween. Everybody was wearing masks… and we shouldn’t be all made to take our Halloween masks off and never put them on again just because some people in Halloween masks commit rape, sexual assault, and (quite broadly across this country and America) stage shopliftings and other illegal and violent heists when wearing Halloween masks. To even begin to think about suggesting banning such a thing just because of the wayward few would be deemed completely absurd, and it would never get anywhere.

After all, Halloween is part of our culture. It is innocent fun. Yes, the masks are sometimes scary, and they upset some people – especially old people. But those people are missing the point completely or just overreacting. The vast majority of kids who wear Halloween masks are just having a bit of fun. They’re good kids with good intentions, and they’re revelling in an aspect of our popular festive culture…


Covering your face is banned in most public places in the Netherlands. And there are lobbies for it to be banned by law legally all over the Western world. Covering your face in public is threatening and shouldn’t be allowed, say lobbyists, and a large percentage of the general public. People are very vociferous about it. They get very upset. Extensive radio reportage, public debates and reams and reams of newspaper articles have been dedicated to this matter over recent decades, in this country too. The images accompanying such debates however have been of grown women. Muslim women wearing the veil.

Due to technicalities in international human rights laws anybody wanting to ban the veil has to deny (or conceal) any direct prejudice against Islam by posing the issue as a question of security. Those who urge for the banning of veiling in public consistently cite discomfort, anxiety, a sense of rejection or hostility provoked by the barrier between their face and the face of another. When laws are passed, they cannot be framed in a way that clearly and directly discriminates against Islam (for aforementioned legal technical reasons). When the veil is banned, it is banned indirectly, by laws using terms such as “face coverings”.

Halloween masks also cause members of the public discomfort, anxiety, and a wariness of hostility from the other that is often far more legitimate than any that is affected by encountering a veiled Muslim woman on the street. The number of cases of robberies, assaults, and instances of intentionally frightening and threatening the general public perpetrated by costumed, masked youths in the name of Halloween is beyond enormous. Why then don’t we hear all trick-or-treaters being condemned and being met with lawsuits from those who accuse them of disrupting the unity of social life?

The answer I suggest is because trick-or-treaters are “our own”. It is “our” culture, “our” festival. We know it’s all really a bit of harmless fun. We know that the ones who commit crimes are simply bad eggs, or at best misguided. We know that their criminality is nothing to do with the fact that they covered their face, and that all the little minds behind Halloween masks are not robbers and rapists in the making. But where is this sensible logic when it comes to the year-round issue of the Burqa, which is much more than a one-day-a-year frivolous cultural choice?

The understanding and passive acceptance of Halloween masks does not come into the same category as debates around the veil because the latter are not really about people covering their faces in public – they are about Islam. To some extent, they are also about racial and gendered power dynamics. Overall, what they are really about is visible ‘otherness’ and the mainstream society’s own anxieties. In fact in the countries where veils are banned it is often around or less than 1% of the whole population who wear such coverings as are banned. The issue is deeply complex, and there is plenty more to be said about it. For example, nobody ever complains about Christian nuns in their wimples and habits, although many of those get-ups look remarkably like hijabs and jilbabs to me. What seems quite plain, though, is that the framing of laws affecting the wearing of the veil in terms of security and “face-coverings” is nothing more than a techno-legal mask for the real issues: ignorance at best, and at worst Islamophobia. If we admit that, though, we find ourselves in a situation that creates far more discomfort than the sight of a woman in a niqab.

War Hits Home

I have never been interested in history. I always found it rather pointless and, as I grew older, I developed a thorough distrust of it. For the anthropologists out there I came down more on the Sahlins, rather than the Obeyesekere, side of that particular debate. History is so often inescapably bound up with human politics, power play, nationalism and other suspicious hegemonies that I resist believing that we can ever even know what happened only a few short decades ago, let alone in previous centuries.

This ambivalence about history has certainly coloured my attention to the Centenary of WWI, and I confess to never quite being moved by Remembrance Day. What could I have to remember? I was born fifty years after all of it ended (conflating, as they are in Remembrance Day, WWI and WWII). That is two generations. I grew up in an era that was no longer defined by those events; the 1990s were decidedly not a post-war period.

However we are all taught to be affected by the ‘World Wars’. Our [sometimes controversially nationalistic] instincts are induced with such strength that on one occasion, when a trumpeter hadn’t been found to play the last post at a Remembrance Day service, after playing it to an empty church on the organ’s trumpet stop I found myself standing, although completely unobserved, keeping the minute’s silence all by myself without really quite knowing why. It is automatic. Among the clearest of my early childhood memories one of the most distinct is of observing the minute’s silence in the middle of a reception class PE lesson and a spontaneous discussion about the war that followed. Memorial, with its component ‘civic’ or ‘civil’ rituals, remains a key part of how we learn to be Britons today, or ‘Europeans’ of a particular kind, if you prefer. Just ask an American friend about a war, or take one to a church or village memorial. When I have done this with mine they have not really known what to make of it, and generally confessed to never having thought about the death in the World Wars before. It is just not a part of their psyche, and by contrast somehow it has been moulded into our living national, historical and everyday identity, whether it means anything deeper for us or not.

Today I came back to the city I grew up in, Hull, for a short visit to run some errands. Whilst waiting for a bunch of my shoes to be heeled I went to wander around the Ferens Art Gallery, an exceptional institution with a fascinating and beautifully curated permanent collection. As I moved into the temporary exhibition room I found myself amidst Edwardian dresses in glass cases, facing a projected slideshow of photographs from Hull during World War I. The first few were like so many others I had seen of the World Wars: blank, generic male faces in Dad’s Army get-ups. Then after a few more slides my feelings changed. There were photographs of men and women alike, of Hull City Hall hung over with banners for recruitment and surrounded by swarms of people – Hullensians, like me. Real people. As I looked at the next slide of the East Riding Fourth Battalion a little voice in my head said, “they all died”. I thought I was going to vomit.

As the slideshow went on there were pictures of streets I know in Hull bombed down to the ground. Hull was the most bombed city per square metre in WWII – more than London, for its size – and was the target of focussed attacks throughout 1941. People forget that this so-called crappy little city (I’ll deal with that perception in another post) was an extremely important port and site of industry, as well as taking the brunt of ‘spare’ bombs dropped by German planes flying over Hull on their way back home after a round of blitzing. These are facts I have known for much of my life, but facts alone don’t really register. Until I saw photos of streets I knew well razed to the ground, rubble, in pieces, I hadn’t registered any of these ‘facts’.

The slide that got to me the most by far was a picture of Holy Trinity, Hull’s iconic parish church that stands in the Old Town Square. I sung a carol service with school there every Christmas of my life from being tiny, and remember standing aged 5 in the freezing cold stone arches in my itchy red felt beret. My friend’s father is the vicar there now. It has been thoroughly central to my life. When I saw a picture of it during the war with the buildings to the left of it flattened to a pile of pebbles, and saw clearly that a Zeppelin had missed it by metres, I really thought I was going to vomit.

The exhibition showed me that my life, my home, and all the places I knew, had been profoundly shaped, even made what they are today, through and by all that went on in those World Wars, in a much more meaningful way than learned patriotic habits have ever done so. Suddenly the roll of honour became a deeply precious artefact, and I scanned through and took in as many names as I could. I was tugged at by the endless links to my own life, as the longest rolls of honour were taking from the Wilson Shipping Company. Arthur Wilson’s family home, Tranby Croft, was made into a girls’ school in the 1950s – my own beloved Hull High School for Girls. The gap had closed to a single degree of separation, which is not much at all.

The other thing that was particular commendable about this exhibition is its easy devolution from androcentrism. The images were of women and men in the war equally, nor was any big deal made of the presentation of women in the war. It was handled as a simple fact, that men and women were alive and both underwent extraordinary ordeals toward the war effort. There was even an area focussing on children, displaying beautiful coloured certificates given to a little girl who had collected hundreds of eggs and a young boy who had comforted the wounded in a local hospital. It is the first time that I have ever seen a World War exhibition or presentation of any kind that managed such a balance, at least without making a scene of itself for doing so. Any potential for pernicious nationalisms was also checked by a corner calling to mind the many German-born settlers who lived in England prior to the First World War, and the racial prejudice they faced here, and in Hull, although they had long since come to call it their home. A truly excellent exhibition.

I didn’t think anything of this Centenary until today. Which is appropriate, since today is indeed the very day war was declared. Finally I realised that the World War is not just a nationalist fairy story or a collective nightmare we once had, but it really happened. One hundred years ago today a very real war was declared, and in that and the one that followed lives were wasted. So too were the places I walk in day by day. To be given a way to realise that was very special. I retain my reservations about history, but the Ferens showed me today that this memoriam need not be nationalistic or seen as a glorification of violence and death at all. It can rather be a story of human living now; it is a matter of heritage. “When War Hit Home”, the exhibition was called, and more than any Remembrance Day service ever has done, hit home it did.