I remember a few years ago, there was a Swachh Bharat advertisement making the rounds. It featured Vidya Balan at a wedding where a bahu was continuously told by her in-laws to keep her face covered under a ghoonghat. When Balan asks where the bathroom is, she’s told that there isn’t one in the house, and she’ll have to go in the open. Balan responds by pointing out the irony of asking bahu to cover her face with a ghoonghat but use the bathroom in the open. So, build a toilet. The in-laws look illuminated and say, oh we never thought of it that way.
At the time, I remembered thinking that it was a strange ad, because of all the millions of reasons to ask people to build toilets, maintaining meaningful purdah seemed like the most disingenuous and counter-productive. Some people I spoke to about it at the time said to think of short-term gains in the face of a pressing and urgent problem, and to keep in mind the particular target audience of these ads.
But it’s this kind of short-sighted and ultimately harmful rhetoric that allows for dangerous mind-sets and attitudes about women to perpetuate and transmogrify into even more monstrous forms. Today, for example, it’s being reported that a District Magistrate in Aurangabad, Bihar, told a group of people gathered for a cleanliness drive that if you can’t build a toilet, you should sell or auction your wife.
On Saturday, DM Kanwal Tanuj said, “Due to lack of toilets, women get raped and harassed. It only costs Rs. 12,000 for the construction of the toilet. Is 12,000 more than anyone’s wife’s dignity? Who can let their wife get raped in return of Rs 12000? If this is your mentality then go and sell your wife. Those who cannot build toilet should sell or auction his wife.”
As though men own women, as though rapes happen to a man’s wife as opposed to a woman with her own sense of self, as though men can sell or auction their wives (!), as though this is the best rhetoric available to encourage people to build toilets. It’s extra shocking that it was a District Magistrate, from whom you’d generally expect a bit more sense and responsibility, who made this statement at a public gathering.
Building toilets inside homes is indeed a move that will help women greatly. It’s a known fact that several women are raped when forced to defecate in the open, and that open defecation is also the cause for various intestinal diseases that can even lead to death. There are so many reasons to build toilets, the arguments for doing so certainly don’t need to be couched in the idea that men own women.