On a relatively quiet street corner, deep in the depths of
the old part of the Indian city of Hyderabad,
I pass a high wall, painted with, “URINATION PROHIBITED.”
I frown. I was used to seeing
gentlemen standing on the sides of roads or up against walls in the tell-tale
wide-legged stance. But this wall was different. There weren’t even the dark
red betel stains (a dark red chewing
tobacco popular in the country) on the wall. “What do you think that’s about?”
I ask my companion.
“It’s a graveyard,” she says.
That made sense. Indian Muslims
traditionally bury their dead, so their bodies may rise up later. Of course you
would not want such a sacred place being defiled by urine.
choice of words, says I to myself. Why is urine defiling? To many of us, public urination is disgusting. According
to Rozin and colleagues’ CAD
moral emotions hypothesis, offenses against the community breed contempt,
offenses against individual autonomy breeds anger, and offenses against
‘divinity’ (purity, sanctity) breed disgust. Public urination, then, is a very
literally an offense against divinity in the case of the graveyard wall.
Many people have very strong
reactions to public urination. In India, a man was allegedly killed
over the fact that he was urinating at a gas station. Another article asks why
this is such a problem in India,
and cites a lack of “civic sense” or a lack of public urinals as the cause.
This is bemoaned as an issue in
Western countries as well. In the US, you can be cited as a sex offender for
urinating in public or receive huge fines, in spite of the fact that for many
people, there are literally no other places to go. (Think taxi cab drivers in New York—presuming you
could find a restroom and that someone would let you use it in a Starbucks or
such, where would you park?) Anxieties about public urination in late hours has
resulted in urinals in the UKthat rise up out of the
ground in the late hours in order to accommodate drunk men.
I’m going to stop here and point
out that anxieties about public urination are entirely focused around men.
Women have been long conditioned to hold it for long hours rather than drop
trousers and squat in public spaces. There is also a significantly different
amount of bodily exposure involved in the two processes—guys just unzip and go,
women have to actually expose their entire genital area.
Let’s just flip this question
though—not so much why do people urinate publicly, but why do people have a
problem with it?
First off, the smell is not
pleasant—whether this is a biological predilection or more of the association
of, ‘ewwww someone peed here, that’s weird’, I’m not going to try to argue
right now. Second, there are those who argue that the acid damages statues and
cement. Third, it can leave stains which recall that someone pissed in public
(and dark stains are not necessarily very pretty).
As far as the act itself, people
are not comfortable with men’s genitalia being in public places. In great part,
in the US,
this is closely related with our deep discomfort with our bodies—as animalistic
and natural, as ‘dirty’ (ie, getting rid of fluids and waste), and as sexual.
(On the human body, the parts of our body involved in sex and the parts
involved in elimination are close together, creating a deep discomfort with
both processes and their relations to each other.)
But I’m going to point out that
none of these are health issues. They are, for the most part, aesthetic issues,
caught up in our ideas of where urination can take place and what parts of the
body can be exposed where and who can expose them. (Body exposure is
notoriously culturally contingent—shoulders, for example, are scandalous in India, whereas
stomachs, not so much. Here, more or less the opposite.) Urine is actually
quite benign, disease-wise. There are almost no diseases that can be
transmitted via urine.
So when we see a rise in concern
with public urination in other places, we have to ask, what shifted? What
changed about aesthetics or body beliefs or disgust or what-have-you? Because
public urination isn’t a health hazard, for the most part. So why do we have a
problem with it, and why is it emerging as a problem in other places? What can
this tell us about the spread of Western cultural values and anxieties?
This all said and done, I am going
to add that if a drunk guy pisses on my lawn on a Friday night, that doesn’t
mean I’m going to shrug it off as culturally relative.
Sign in India advocating against open defecation Author photo
A few weeks ago, B.S.
Raghavan wrote an article that appeared in The Hindu, one of India’s largest
newspapers. The title was immediately controversial: “Are Indians by nature
unhygienic?” In the article, he writes of the litter and of the “general lack
of cleanliness and hygiene” in both public and private spaces. He writes that,
“Indians think nothing of spitting whenever they like and wherever they choose,
and living in surroundings which they themselves make unliveable by their dirty
habits” and that “If one wants to keep one’s sanity, one should avoid entering
the kitchen of a hotel or even an ordinary household. I sometimes wonder how we
are still alive eating at our hotels.” He finishes with the
extra-controversial, “Are Indians then, by nature oblivious to standards of
hygiene? And among Indians, are Hindus more indifferent in these respects than
He’s not alone. Earlier this year
Soutik Biswas, BBC Delhi correspondent, wrote an article entitled “Is India’s lack of
toilets a cultural problem?”In this
article, he writes, “Is the lack of toilets and preference for open defecation
a cultural issue in a society where the habit actually perpetuates social
oppression, as proved by the reduced but continued existence of low caste human
scavengers and sweepers?” It seems it is, he says. He cites that even in his
suburb, he’ll watch his neighbors take their dogs out on the lawn to shit—as
long as the shit is not in their house, it is ok if it is in a public space.
India does have
a severe sanitation issue. Over half of India’s 1.2 billion people have no
toilet at home—if you look at the rural areas, that ratio goes up to 2/3. No
one will contest this. Neither will anyone contest that India has hygiene, sanitation, and
litter disposal management issues. However, these articles definitely make some
statements that should be contested.
Trash piling up on the sides of Husein Sagar in Hyderabad
wrote that Indians are, by nature,
unhygienic. By nature? As soon as you invoke “nature,” you threaten to
biologize the issue, that somehow written in Indian DNA is a tendency to be
“unhygienic.” This slippery slope is especially troubling when you consider
that the writer is an Indian living in a pretty nice suburb of Delhi. The fact that he is writing in English
states that he is pretty well educated. All in all, Mr. Raghavan is in a
position where he undoubtedly has the financial resources to have a toilet at
home, running water, and trash bins. When viewed through this perspective, his
argument about “Indians” being “naturally unhygienic” becomes a sort of
biologizing of perceived negative aspects
of being lower class.
what exactly is cleanliness? As a friend and colleague points out, “When one
says that India
is dirty etc, what is the standard one is judging it by? If it is ‘western
practices’, then there is no way India could measure up, because
these are themselves changing all the time.” In particular, I found it
interesting the way in which different practices and senses were collapsed into
one damning category: public urination, public spitting, haphazard disposal of
litter, not sanitizing lunchboxes, open defecation and dish rags in kitchens.
Why are all of these practices conflated? It is not disease that is the common
thread in all of them—urine is relatively benign as a fluid. Then it is the
aesthetic concern that seems to bind all of these practices together, and that
aesthetic concern may indeed be Western.
the other hand, blames Indian culture for the perpetuation of human scavengers
(who clean up shit manually). While there are certainly aspects one could label
“cultural” (however you want to define that term) that have caused the
perpetuation of that practice (the caste system, strong fecal taboos, ideas of
purity and pollution, etc.), the scavenger class was not really codified until
colonial rule needed someone to clean up the city once the Yamuna had dried up,
rendering the sewage system that had been built in Mughal times inoperable. Socioeconomic
factors are one of the primary means by which caste is perpetuated.
these writers target Indianness or Indian culture as somehow being the reason
that there are such sanitation problems. They both pay a sort of lip service to
social and economic factors, but their acknowledgement of this is limited
solely to the acknowledgement that the government has not done a stellar job of
building toilets. Calling a lack of sanitation or hygiene a cultural problem or
saying that Indians are somehow “naturally” unsanitary is problematic and
troubling. By calling something “natural” or “cultural” it conceals social, political
and economic factors that contribute to unequal standards across the world.