Women in public spaces: Where are the washrooms?

“I have the bull by the horns,” exclaims a hyper-active Dr. Shafqat Khan, the Commissioner-in-charge of Srinagar Municipal Corporation. In a neatly organised office, sitting on a large leather chair, Khan seems authoritative, and driven by action.

He directs his subordinates to immediately form a team, under the Government of India’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, one of Prime Minister Modi’s much talked about campaigns, which will  now monitor the condition of public washroom facilities in Srinagar, and act accordingly.

The abrupt order and the pro-active personality makes one believe Khan has it under control. He is willing to share documents revealing how much work has been done in the field.

A quick visit to the commercial hub of the capital city of Srinagar though paints a very different picture. Going around the market, which has the footfall from the entire stretch of the valley, one can hardly find a public facility, it is even harder to find one that is functional.

Spending a day in the market looking for public toilets that a woman can use, this reporter could barely locate three facilities, and none of them had the bare minimum options for relieving oneself in an emergency.

The one usable option, is a washroom built by the shopkeepers union due to absence of any facilities in the commercial hub. The other usable option is one built and maintained by the J&K Bank.

Khan’s orders to his subordinates included surveying the whole city, ward-by-ward, and identifying places and houses without washrooms. His plan, he claims, is to install a minimum of fifty public washrooms in the city.

The area of Goni Khan is known for its market visited by women, shopping for garments, in narrow lanes that provide a bit of privacy and comfort, not away from the male-gaze though. Almost all the shopkeepers are male. Undergarments and cosmetics are on display.

In one such shop, arranging cosmetics while eating a sandwich, Aliya Jan, who works as a salesgirl feels that lack of toilet facilities keep women away from joining the work force. In an emergency, she would have to either stay home, find a place to change. The problems are compounded for menstruating women.

The male shopkeepers echo a similar concern. “There is no public toilet in the vicinity,” complains Shabir Ahmed, who has been running a shop in Lal Chowk for the last 35 years, “except the one built by the union of shopkeepers,” he adds. According to him, he has never seen any public facilities this entire time.

A few shops away, an old shopkeeper explains that the only toilet facility available is that of the mosque. A similar response was given by another sales girl, who uses a temple’s washroom to relieve herself.

Religious  institutions are fill-up-the-gaps left by the elected institutions. Even though the development discourse purposefully ignores or marginalises religion, it comes to its rescue.

As seen during the floods in September 2014, these religious institutions came forward with alternative solutions to the public, when the government failed. This, amid other reasons, plays a role in religion being resurrected in the public spaces worldwide.

The absence of washrooms affects women’s health adversely. As common as it is for males to defecate in the open, women in a society like Kashmir do not have that option. They either have to control their bladder, or use the unusable washrooms available to them, increasing the danger of urinary tract infections (UTIs) and other health problems.

The women generally go for the first option, as substantiated by the locked door of one of the washrooms. The caretaker of the said facility explained that he has to keep the door of the ladies’ side locked as men often walked into them. These facilities have no water, or dustbins for disposal of sanitary pads.

When questioned about it, Commissioner Khan, gives a horrid expression. “Women are becoming pilots now and we cannot even provide safe washrooms. This is a sad situation!”

Women specific spaces or transportation act as a bargaining tool for women to come out and work in the public sphere. Recently a ladies only bus was launched in Srinagar, but it feels too little and too late.

Latif Khan, the proprietor of the Hotel Standard in Lal Chowk, when asked whether he allows the people to use the hotel’s facilities says that letting the shoppers, tourists or the shopkeepers use the facilities is an ethical and moral duty. However, he feels that it is the government’s job to provide such amenities. After all they are the ‘elected’ leaders.

Under the Sarais Act, 1867, a private hotel cannot deny water or washroom facilities to anyone. However, these are private enterprises. This is exclusively a work for the public institutions which is increasingly becoming a failure in this particular case.

Commissioner Khan claims that he has organised many meetings with the director of the tourism ministry regarding the situation but things on the ground have moved very less.


Utsa Sarmin is a research scholar from Cambridge University, United Kingdom. She has completed her M.Phil in development studies. 

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