Toilet crisis in Bangladesh

Dhaka's walls have been peppered with signs warning "Do not urinate here!" in Arabic, in the hope that people will not defile a script they see as holy, even though few Bangladeshis understand the language.
Dhaka's walls have been peppered with signs warning "Do not urinate here!" in Arabic, in the hope that people will not defile a script they see as holy, even though few Bangladeshis understand the language.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PEOPLE trapped in Dhaka's notoriously gridlocked traffic have developed various coping strategies. Some take naps. Others work or catch up on social media.

My mother likes to text me about the jams. "Still stuck in Mohakhali," she writes. "Two hours from Gulshan to Banani!"

But one thought binds all commuters: Be sure to use the toilet before setting off as there won't be anywhere to go en route.

If I could, I would write a book called Where To Pee In Bangladesh. It would be a useful but very short book. It would tell you, for instance, that in our capital city, there are just 67 public toilets for more than 15 million residents. And of those 67, many have no running water or electricity. According to a 2011 study, only five are fully functional.

The Dhaka City Corporation, which built new public toilets as part of a 2005 sanitation programme, leased them to private contractors because it wanted to outsource the maintenance. The system has not worked because the contractors often use the buildings for selling drinking water or washing cars. Sometimes, the space is rented out for people to sleep in. Some facilities offer no sanitary conveniences at all.

Although the lack of public toilets affects both sexes, men have the advantage of being able to take to the streets. They can be found squatting at roadsides, in alleyways, by railroad tracks or over ditches. When it rains, you can see a line of umbrellas next to rows of men as they crouch over a drain. And walls everywhere are treated as urinals.

The ubiquitous signs in Bengali that say "Do not urinate here" are ignored. Moves to impose fines for public urination have come to nothing.

Anthropologist Mary Douglas famously defined dirt as "matter out of place": What we consider polluted is merely a question of context. Now, the Ministry of Religious Affairs has found a way to tackle the problem - by changing the context.

Its solution is to pepper walls with Arabic script - because, the logic runs, people won't pee on what they see as holy.

The campaign, devised by the advertising agency Grey, features a video called Language Matters. It shows people painting over signs in Bengali and replacing them with Arabic.

Almost no one knows what the words mean because few Bangladeshis understand Arabic. A patronising voice-over explains: "Arabic is the sacred language of the people." The video shows men approaching the freshly painted walls, noticing the Arabic signage and slipping away guiltily. They are shamed into feeling that, if they were to urinate there, they would be committing an unholy act.

The Minister for Religious Affairs has urged men to use public toilets in the nearest mosque. Perhaps he thinks he is doing society two favours: getting men to stop urinating on the streets and getting more to go to mosques.

This might seem a reasonable form of behaviour modification. But the approach is deeply insensitive because, in Bangladesh, language has long been a matter of national identity.

The seeds of Bangladesh's independence movement were sown when, in 1948, the government of Pakistan declared Urdu, not Bengali, the official language of East Pakistan, as Bangladesh was then known. And in the 1971 war of independence, faith and language were pitted against each other in the struggle over nationhood: The Pakistan Army would randomly stop people and ask if they were Muslim or Bengali - as though to speak Bengali precluded being a true believer.

So the writing on the wall today contains an echo of that old conflict, telling Bangladeshi citizens it is acceptable to urinate on their own language, but not on Arabic. At a time when the shadow of Islamic fundamentalism looms large, the subtext of the signage declares conservative religious forces triumphant in this symbolic struggle over language.

Predictably, the ministry has been lambasted. Critics say the government should spend money on building toilets, not painting signs. And people note sardonically that the walls of Dhaka might be covered in Arabic, but they still have nowhere to pee.

Estimates say that, by 2025, Dhaka will be home to 20 million. The government has a duty to ensure that its urban citizens - garment factory workers, rickshaw drivers, shopkeepers, truckers... the people who make the city work - have access to basic facilities they need to lead a dignified life. Researchers estimate that up to 5.5 million urban poor workers are outdoors in the city for five to eight hours a day.

However, even if more toilets were built, that would not begin to address the real sanitation crisis here: the near-total lack of access for women. In Dhaka, men can urinate with impunity in almost any public space. And when they do so, they are expressing their absolute freedom to do as they please - on streets where women's basic safety is not guaranteed.

The Arabic lettering campaign focuses on getting men to do their business elsewhere. What is overlooked is that women cannot use the streets at all, reinforcing the social norm that public space is controlled by men and off limits to women. The invisibility of women's needs is all too apparent in the minister's proposal, for women are effectively barred from most mosques.

Any campaign to address the public nuisance of men urinating on the streets should also tackle the absence of facilities for women. Otherwise, they are simply saying that the streets belong to men, and the walls to Arabic.


Tahmima Anam, a writer and anthropologist, is the author of the novel, A Golden Age.