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Searching for a Restroom - OpEd

Updated: Feb 28

By Vaivab Das, Fulbright Nehru Doctoral Research Fellow 2023 and PhD scholar at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi and SAC representative, Indradhanu.


IIT Delhi, as a coveted space sought after by aspiring students and scientists every year, has become a reference point for academic excellence and practice in the educational landscape of India. However, there lie some difficult questions underneath our mechanisms of excellence that we, as the constituents of the campus, often deter ourselves from asking. This piece addresses one such important question that is felt but never articulated - what happens to a life with dignity in our chase for educational excellence?

At the outset, this is not a radical re-imagination of our educational spaces but a bare-minimum attempt to raise a collective consciousness that recentres the human in human development avenues such as education. It is a narrative of spaces in-making, of feelings of belongingness, and practices of exclusion.

Searching for a Restroom

As a gender non-binary person, I was pretty happy when I got admitted to a PhD programme at IIT Delhi. As a student from a small town in Odisha, I always envisioned educational institutions in the capital to be more liberatory, empowering, and accepting of all human diversity. I did not desire “a piece of the moon” but for knowledge with my human dignity intact. The right to life with dignity is enshrined in the Constitution of India, but the lack of it is always felt when someone has to choose between the feeling of dysphoria or relief while accessing a restroom. This feeling might be alien to many readers because it is situated in persons and histories who had to let go of their opportunities and stories because their basic needs weren’t mainstream.

Science compels us to understand spaces as absolute, i.e., as an arrangement of inanimate objects existing in itself, independent and depoliticised. It is because science and the men who ruled the domain were never denied access to any space based on their identity. Contrary to such a position, I find spaces (i.e., infrastructure) to be bearers of prevailing social relations, telling us who they were originally designed and made for. Restrooms in educational spaces have always been an afterthought, both in terms of infrastructure and maintenance. It is not a product of casual ignorance but a cultural attitude that sees education spaces predominantly as the domain for men, who hold the privilege and social pass to stand and relieve themselves anywhere. For instance, many female students in India drop out of school at primary and secondary education levels because of the lack of toilets and access to safe sanitation facilities. According to a 2020 CAG report, 72% of the toilets for girls in government schools had no running water or washing facilities. In urban areas, most women, especially from marginalised sections of society, face difficulty using public restrooms because of hygiene and safety concerns. Whereas, everywhere, transgender persons have to undergo dysphoria, violence and humiliation while accessing a restroom because transgender persons are yet to be seen as equal and dignified constituents in educational and public policies.

The reluctance to humanise education is seen bare for all to witness when policymakers rationalise the economics of human diversity. For instance, in lieu of objectivity, decision-makers gravitate towards the principle of “demand and supply” - where the supply needs to be rationalised in light of a visible demand. But how does one visibilise or visualise “the demand” when knowledge systems and cultural attitudes have generationally criminalised and invisibilised one’s existence? I realised this while raising the issue of having “gender-inclusive restrooms” at IIT Delhi with competent authorities. I was asked, “How many transgender, non-binary or genderqueer persons are there on campus?” I did not have an answer to the question, but the very need for such a question highlights two critical issues for all of us to reflect on - the institute's system(s) of knowing and the institute’s culture.

My preliminary discussions with IGES during an institute-wide survey made me realise that for the longest time, IIT Delhi did not record gender identities beyond the binary of male and female, even after the Transgender (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 became the law of the land. It exemplifies the subsuming power of scientific governance that is - you do not objectively exist if you do not make it through as a data point. As knowledge about the campus population is manufactured around two gender categories, it eventually results in a constructed invisibility of trans-queer persons and downplays the need for making our educational services, infrastructure and support systems accessible and inclusive of their needs. The second issue is interlinked with our culture. We do not see trans-queer persons existing openly on the campus because we do not let them live in peace and dignity. I remember interviewing a queer person from the campus last year who was reprimanded and made fun of by a professor in a classroom for just painting their nails. In this situation, the painted nails might not have been an indicator of someone’s gender or sexual identity. However, the professor's attitude speaks volumes about the prevalent heterosexist culture on campus. This is why many trans and queer persons worry about existing openly because of the stigma and ridicule they are attributed to every day.

Another aspect of our ordeal brings us to the issue of segregation of public infrastructure and how they are held together by a mix of regressive gender stereotypes and manufactured public hysteria - where neither the state nor its institutions trust anyone’s sexual integrity and agency. Thus, the default premise of segregation is rooted in a speculative criminality of the entire user population, where everyone is sexually criminal, and the state needs to segregate to maintain a sexual order. It is also palpable when we look at the issue of inter-hostel movements being raised by the Student Affairs Council. The institutional approach towards maintaining co-existing spaces has been more punitive than empowering students and other constituents with more knowledge to act empathetically. Being a reluctant academic, I can tell you a closer look at the works of theorists like Goffman (1997) and Browne (2004) on the principles and considerations behind social and gender segregation will tell us how restrooms become symbolic instruments that strengthen prevailing social stratification rather than progressively developing based on utility and user experience feedback. This is why I am still searching for a restroom to use on campus.

In September 2022, the Director of IIT Delhi, based on the findings of an institute-wide pilot study by IGES (yet to be published) and an audit conducted by Indradhanu (the LGBTQIA+ collective of IIT Delhi), instituted a task force headed by Dean, Diversity and Inclusion to create an institute policy for gender-inclusive restrooms (GIRs) on campus and improve the hygiene conditions of the female restrooms on campus. In November, the task force's first meeting positively concluded on creating GIRs at IIT Delhi in the current semester. On 19th January 2023, IIT Delhi became the first IIT to have gender-inclusive restrooms on campus. The first set of single-stalled gender-inclusive restrooms was created in the lecture hall complex with a plan to increase the coverage of such restrooms to the main building, the blocks and all the hostels.

Till then, I shall continue to search for rest and a restroom.

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