The Malayalam film industry in which ‘Asanghadithar’ was made has, in itself, been hostile to women’s demands for sanitation.
At Kunjila Mascillamani Asanghadithar (The Unorganised), part of Jeo Baby’s anthology film freedom fight, the women are engaged in a battle that amuses the men around them. They fight for toilets because their workplace, SM Street, does not have one, and none of the women employed in the small businesses on the street can relieve themselves whenever they want. Why can’t they hold their bladder until the end of the working day? Why can’t they use the restroom of a nearby restaurant? Why can’t they find a discreet place to urinate like men? Why can’t they join a union and then find a solution? Unnecessary suggestions from men only prove their total lack of empathy towards what is considered a “women’s issue”.
The film is based on a true story and also features women who were part of the Penkootu group that led the fight a decade ago, including tailor and activist Viji who was on the ‘100 Women of 2018’ list. BBC. Actor Srindaa plays one of the important roles in the film; she has to be the “mugaprasadam” (sweet face) saleswoman no matter what, even if her bladder bursts or she has developed a urinary tract infection (UTI). We also meet other female characters who face a series of problems, including sexual harassment, due to the lack of toilets. From the humiliation of having to pee in a bottle in the pantry to having to pay for tea and snacks in the restaurant every time they have to use the toilet, Asanghadithar packs a number of smaller stories into the larger frame. The film also shows trans women as part of Penkootu’s efforts.
The film uses an interesting technique, mixing documentary and fiction. As Kunjila told TNM, her crowdfunded documentary about Penkootu was stalled, and that’s when she got a call from Jeo Baby, asking if she’d like to be part of the freedom fight anthology. The film mixes documentary-style footage and fictional scenes shot for the anthology.
In all the discussions going on around the Karnataka hijab line, the practice of veiling in Islam and its origin have also come up. Journalist Ghazala Wahab writes that the practice began in Medina because women risked being abused by bandits when they went to relieve themselves: “Islam does not impose any requirement of physical identity. Of the three verses that speak of appearance, only the last is addressed exclusively to women. He asks women to cover themselves with an outer garment so that they are recognizable as Muslims and are not harassed. The important aspect of this verse is its timing. The Muslim community of Medina then lived in an area infested with bandits who abused women when they went out to relieve themselves at night. Therefore, if recognized as Muslims, the bandits would stay away, fearing reprisals from Muslim soldiers.
It’s amazing that centuries later, when human civilization is able to build brick-and-mortar toilets with running water, women still face the same problem. There have been several cases in India where women going to relieve themselves in the open have been sexually assaulted or attacked by wild animals. According to a 2016 study, open defecation was linked to twice the risk of sexual assault by non-partners in India. The Modi government’s Swachh Bharat mission, launched in 2014, aimed to improve sanitation facilities across the country and make it an “open defecation free” nation by October 2, 2019, the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gandhi. But while there has certainly been an improvement in rural and urban areas with regard to access to toilets, there are also several discrepancies between the official figures and the situation on the ground, which raises the question of how much women’s lives have really changed in this regard.
The problem is not limited to rural areas. In 2017, ActionAid’s report said that 35% of 229 toilets surveyed in Delhi did not have a separate section for women. Lack of hygiene is a major deterrent to toilet use, and 53% of toilets surveyed had no running water. 45% also could not be locked from the inside, leading to privacy and security issues.
The Tamil Movie of 2016 Joker, directed by Raju Murugan, is among the few films to acknowledge the on-screen problem in a meaningful way. It’s about a man’s mission to build a toilet for his wife since their village doesn’t have one, and the tragic end to their hopes. The film is also a scathing indictment of the government’s failure to provide access to sanitation facilities. Hindi film by Shree Narayan Singh Toilets: Ek Prem Katha with Askhay Kumar and Bhumi Pednekar in the lead, also has a similar premise, except it has a happy ending.
Kunjila’s film is different from Joker and Bathroom in the sense that women fight for their right to have toilets as employees in the workplace. Shops are required to build toilets on their premises under labor law, but choose to circumvent this requirement and use storage space instead. Although Kerala is known to be a pro-worker state, it is still a patriarchal society where women’s needs are trampled on and dismissed as ‘unimportant’. It is only when women organize and take the legal route that their male employers pick up and notice. The humiliating walk to the restaurant and the complaints about “too many breaks” in Asanghadithar remind hidden numbers in which Katherine Johnson had to walk almost a mile to get to the “colorful” women’s restroom in 1960s America. She is part of NASA’s space task force but does not have an easily accessible restroom because these spaces were not designed to be inclusive.
Similarly, although the workforce in India includes women, employers do not think it is important to cater to their needs as they are still in the minority or generally do not occupy as many positions of authority as men. For example, the Malayalam film industry in which Asanghadithar was made, was also hostile to women’s demands for sanitation. Among the demands of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), sanitary facilities for women on film sets. The WCC was created following the kidnapping and sexual assault of a prominent actress in 2017. Although the organization has made headlines primarily for speaking out against sexual harassment, it has also fought for other labor rights, including gender pay equity and toilets. in the film industry. In fact, actor Parvathy said she was mocked as “Bathroom Parvathy” for bringing up the question multiple times.
It is not just private employers who are negligent. In December 2020, a 24-year-old woman named Saranya who worked in a government office in Tamil Nadu fell into a septic tank and died. There were no toilets for women at the state agricultural depot in Kalakattur where she worked, and employees were forced to go to nearby buildings to relieve themselves. This is how Saranya accidentally fell into the partially constructed septic tank which had been covered with a thin sheet and lost her life.
The battle in Asanghadithar is from a decade ago, but it remains relevant to this day. The film presents a serious issue with plenty of humor and empathy; he talks about the need for political mobilization among women if they want to access their rights. But the very fact that women have to fight so hard for a basic human need shows just how entrenched our workspaces are in patriarchy and how resistant that makes them to change. That’s what really stinks.
Freedom Fight is streaming now on SonyLiv.
Also Read: Freedom Fight Review: Jeo Baby’s Anthology Is Enjoyable, Sobering