The public urinal for women in India

Pissoirs – i.e. public urinals – for men every few blocks.  You never want to stand downwind from a pissoir, but they serve their purpose well, especially in the teeming marketplaces of India. Men just step up, unzip, and let fly. Despite the fact that they were urinating in public, private parts were never, ever visible, and the crowds of people walking by paid absolutely no notice. When we were driving around, we often saw men casually peeing by the side of the road or against a conveniently placed wall or tree. It was no big deal.

Women on the other hand, practically speaking, we don't have a user-friendly spout that we can discreetly poke out of our clothes. No we have to unbutton, unzip, drop trou or pull up our skirts and wrangle our panties around (or wear none at all). Under the best of circumstances, it takes longer for us to do our business than men and under lousy circumstances, it can be a real ordeal (if you're stuck with an old-school squat toilet, you'd better have really strong quads, since sitting is impossible. Then there's the worst-case scenario, where you wind up in agony with no place to go.  My sister, mother, and I spent more than one extremely uncomfortable afternoon in India with our teeth clenched, looking for a shop or restaurant that would let us use the facilities.

In places where the culture imposes strict standards of modesty onto women, there's obviously not going to be an equivalent of a public pissoir for them. My sister and I talked about this with our guide in Udaipur and he agreed–at first jokingly and then sincerely–that the bathroom double standard was entirely unfair to women. He explained: "The ladies don't leave home like the men do, so there's less need for them to have such places." That makes some sense–in societies with traditional gender roles, a woman's sphere is more limited, and if she has children, she's not likely to leave home for hours at a time. On the other hand, I saw a hell of a lot of women working for hours on end in the markets–in fact, most of the vegetable and fruit vendors in Udaipur were women–and I know they didn't have the same options as their pissoir-patronizing male counterparts. Maybe they had to hold it? I hope not.

Apparently having a safe, private place to use the toilet is enough of an issue in India that women have begun taking action. Last year the Washington Post ran an article entitled: In India, a New Seat of Power For Women–the seat of the title being toilets. Apparently young women in rural and modernizing parts of India are refusing to consider marriage to men who cannot provide them with basic plumbing. Because there are more prospective grooms than brides–the result of gender-selective abortions and female infanticide–women have more bargaining power than in the past, and they're willing to use that leverage.