Of the 'common man' who refuses to shake hands with me :(

Yesterday, I started bleeding, as women of a certain age are wont to do every month. I groaned inwardly, because, well, menstrual cramps are a bummer, but also because the next day I was to go for a public meeting about a problematic land regularisation scheme relaunched by the Telangana government and then catch a train to Bangalore after that. My immediate reaction was to think, for a tiny little while, whether I could somehow wriggle out of the meeting, postpone the trip back home and just snuggle into bed with my fluffy blanket for a couple of days.

 

With that came a flash of anger at myself. 'Menstruation is normal,' I thought, 'it's not a bloomin' illness! You can't simply renege on all your commitments once a month for the next two decades! What kind of feminist are you! What kind of work ethic is that!' So I squared my shoulders and thought about what I'd need to take to be completely prepared for the obstacle course more commonly described as a woman's search for a toilet in a public space. Sanitary napkins: check. Toilet paper: check. Bag with a roomy external pocket in case there is no dustbin: check. Newspaper: check. I booked an OLA cab ('cause while exercising this option is evidence enough of privilege, OLA is the only one I could possibly afford) and spent a restless night in my local guardian's house, too afraid of staining her sheets to be able to sleep peacefully.

 

I went for the meeting with a male colleague. I was the outsider in every sense of the term: language, expertise, the works. What I didn't expect was that I'd be one amongst five women in a gathering of, at least, two hundred and fifty people. So when the president of the organisation that was conducting the meeting shook hands with only my male colleague (we both met the president for the first time, together) and discussed the woes of the 'common man', he meant it literally. The dais had eleven chairs, all for men. Not one woman spoke.

 

At some point in the meeting, I realised I needed to go to the loo. Trying to be considerate, I went around all the seats instead of cutting across someone's line of vision. I needn't have bothered. Eyes followed me through my entire journey. To be intensely scrutinised as you trot towards a toilet is an incredibly discomfitting experience. I kid you not. But in the embarrassment of the moment, I had failed to focus on something more central to the entire woman seeking toilet experience: the toilet door. It was locked. Ladies: locked. 'Maybe they just lock their loos by default,' I thought, hopefully. Men: open (and in use). They had two toilets for men, both open. Perhaps they got it opened when they went to use it? So I went to a woman who was working in the kitchens adjoining that area and asked about the ladies' toilet. She shook her head emphatically and asked me to use another toilet that didn't have any gendered labels attached and was, presumably, for the staff. Or perhaps it was Ladies' toilet No.2, minus the label? Either way, I entered and shut the door, only to be subsumed within an all enveloping darkness. So I opened the door again, looking around, bewildered, to find no sign of any switch, or even a bulb for that matter. There was no cistern, forget a flush. No lota or any sign of flowing water. No hook, and most definitely no dustbin. I stuck my phone between my teeth, with its flashlight on and pointing downward, tied my bag to the door handle, fished out the toilet roll and stuck it under one arm, and changed a sanitary napkin with the other hand, trying hard to drop nothing and keep my salwar from turning the same shade of brown as the floor I was standing gingerly on. I rolled up the used napkin, covered it in plastic and paper, and stuck it in the outside pocket of my bag, because where else? I left that loo feeling like I'd accomplished a major acrobatic feat, and wondering at women who deal with this, and worse, every day, for all of their lives. This is by no means a new or startling experience; it's normal for any woman who treads paths outside the mall-restaurant-theatre-club-home circuit, but I think it hit me harder because it happened at a 'public meeting' about a seemingly progressive concern that affects, in the view of the organisers, 'the common man.'

 

The meeting raised several interesting legal and social concerns, but when someone asked me what it was like, it took me a while to be able to articulate any of it because the overwhelming sensation it left me with was that I wasn't part of the public for whom the meeting was called. I was an aberration, that people did not know how to deal with. Ladies weren't expected there; neither were women who lay no claim to being ladies. And oddly enough, common though such exclusions are, it hurt. One wonders, is it because women don't occupy such spaces that men do not know how to behave in their presence, or is their discomfort/hostility the reason why women do not show up for such events? Obviously, the answers are far more complex (and it's evident that both these processes feed into each other), but I do wish that just once in a while, a man would stick his hand out towards me and introduce himself; and that the Ladies' toilet would be unlocked for 'public meetings'.

 

Anindita Mukherjee is a Research Consultant at NALSAR University, Hyderabad. This story was originally posted on her personal blog.

- Anindita Mukherjee, Hyderabad Nov 17, 2015

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