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How did toilets become so political?

My favorite South African poet, Antjie Krog once wrote a poem about using the toilet in a Johannesburg township and the politics of that experience. In one poem about a toilet, the speaker managed to discuss race and class theory, women’s right and apartheid. After reading that poem, I realized that even using the toilet, as a woman was political.

 I was having dinner with some friends at a local restaurant in Fengfu Hutong and I needed to use the toilet. The restaurant didn’t have a bathroom of their own and the waitress pulled me outside and showed me the communal toilets. Everyone who lived, worked, shopped, dined in that particular section of the Hutong used those toilets. I didn’t want to use the bathroom because I hate squat toilets, the journey of sinking low down, my head between my knees and smelling all those dodgy unidentified smells, but my bladder was screaming at me.

I walked into the restroom and the first thing I noticed was the toilets had no stalls, just a divider that came up waist high. I was open to the public gaze. I walked to an empty toilet and stood there trying to locate myself in the scene. A woman, a black woman, an “other “using the toilet. What if a guy wanted to take a look at the other? Many people had already taken picture of me just walking down the street. I pushed those thoughts aside and unbuckled my pants. I stood still and waited for someone to enter.

 Children from the neighborhood played tag nearby and they inched closer to the front door of the bathroom. I squatted down and got myself ready. A giggly child who was playing tag outside ran into the bathroom, and I quickly pulled my pants up. I stood alert looking out for more intruders.  A distant voice shouted at the little boy and he ran out of the toilet. I settled back down to my squatting position.

 I pretend that I was in another time, another universe because such escaping tools are useful when urinating in public. A lady wearing her nightgown walked by me and I instantly returned to the smells, and excoriating sounds of people in the toilet.

 That should be the title of a hipster play – People in the toilet –where people sing about their toilet woes and the feature song would be about a poop that was unable to be flushed.

 I smiled, a shameful smile and bend my head to continue on with my journey. I thought this lady would create a reflective gaze as the others have done when they have seen the color of my skin, but in the toilet where privacy is limited, she ignored me. I finished up and looked for a faucet but there was none. I went back to the restaurant and I washed my hands in the faucet near the front door. I wiped my hands on my jeans (because there was no papers towels or hand towels) and I continued to my table.

 The toilet is political. Women’s bodies are perpetually under surveillance and upheld as property, and even in our most private moments we are cloaked in fear of the “other” consuming our bodies. Perhaps women in China are not in fear of their bodies being controlled by someone else. Perhaps I am being a Westerner and projecting my fears about abuse and women’s rights. But deep down I believe that women’s rights are always dislocated throughout the world.

 This toilet situation reminded me of a time when I was living in Durban, South Africa and I was using the public toilet in the bus station. The bathroom stalls didn’t have any doors. It looked like they broke off and the municipality didn’t bother to fix them. I found an empty stall, pulled down my pants and I kept my eyes on the floor so I would not have to look at the woman who was doing the same thing in front of me. In the middle of my urinating session, a young woman around my age asked to get some of my toilet paper. I was in the middle of urinating and I gave her a nasty look but my shrillness was lost in translation.  She asked again and I handed over my roll so she could leave me alone.

 In a country that is sometimes considered the “rape capital of the world” there weren’t any proper stalls and locked doors for women to defend themselves from an intruder. Perhaps a door might not help a woman defend themselves from an intruder, but this idea might make them feel comfortable. But when women’s rights are marginalized, ideas of safety are at the margin as well. 

 Toilets are political even in the West. In the United States women’s restrooms are constantly crowded and there is always a long line, but still the powers that be never think to build more female toilets in their places of business. Why bother about women’s need. The politicization of the toilet is not only women’s issue but also a class issue. 

Writer, Cyclist, Travler and Smoothie Enthusiast