The Lahore University of Management Sciences is pricey and selective. Set in the heart of feudal Punjab, it educates the daughters and sons of Pakistan’s most privileged citizens, getting them ready to move on to Harvard, Princeton and the like, and take their rightful places on the thrones of power. This semester, students in Ghazal Zulfiqar’s “women and policy in Pakistan" course are concentrating on a different kind of throne—the porcelain one in the bathroom—and the women who clean it.

Zulfiqar and her students presented their research on “(De)composing The Toilet As A Political Sphere" at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan a few days ago. The students catalogued dismal conditions and advocated policy guidelines for toilet cleaners, both domestic and those who work in institutional and public spaces. They don’t know if their presentation will have any impact on policy. It certainly had an impact on their own lives and thoughts. Here is some of what they wrote:

“… made me realize my own privilege regarding bathrooms in a way that I haven’t reckoned with before and it is a disconcerting experience".

“… to my family the whole village is like the servant quarters".

“I’ve never even cleaned my own bathroom and I wouldn’t know where to begin."

Zulfiqar, originally from Karachi, moved to the US in 2000 and returned 14 years later for her teaching job in Lahore. “I got a huge culture shock," she told me. She saw “a huge disconnect with the population of the country" in both students and professors.

“I live on campus, watching professors’ wives deal with their ayahs. Lahore has a distinct feudal culture—many women think nothing about slapping and hitting their servants. Newspapers often report stories of under-age servants being tortured and killed. You think of feminism as a male-female binary. But if you ask a maid, her biggest fear is not a man, but her begum, who can do anything to her."

Her course prospectus stated: “The toilet represents the dirtiest of domestic work, the type of work that is beneath the dignity of any self-respecting Pakistani, whether man or woman. Most of us have never cleaned a toilet, not our own and certainly not someone else’s. But our toilets get cleaned several times a week, by people whose job it is to clean out our most despicable mess. This makes for a very interesting political space—a space with two sets of actors: the makers of the mess, who are not prepared to clean it, and the cleaners of the space, who are not usually allowed to use it. The toilet then is a site where class, income and racial inequalities are made dramatically clear. Gender, of course, is a key feature of this high drama because the job is segregated according to the rules of private and public space as well as the cultural norms of decorum."

“I’ve become really obsessed with toilets," Zulfiqar told me. “In airports and restaurants, I spend a lot of time talking to the women who clean. These women spend their entire working lives in the toilets. Sometimes my husband will text me: ‘The food is here, when are you coming out?’"

She asked her students: “What are the bathrooms like in the spaces that you own or use? Do you know where the people that clean your bathrooms relieve themselves?"

The students found themselves, sometimes for the first time, talking to the women who cleaned their bathrooms, learning about their lives and facing up to their own discomforts and blind spots.

“A couple of female students came to me privately and said they sometimes clean their own bathrooms, but are embarrassed to tell anyone. Toilets are a huge stigma across class," she told me.

Of course, we Indians know this very well. Toilets are flashpoints for culture and gender wars everywhere, from transgender bathrooms in the US to some public toilets in India where women have to pay but men don’t. Neither India nor Pakistan have ratified the ILO (International Labour Organization) Convention 189 setting labour standards for domestic workers. Both countries share the shame of not enough toilets: 53% of Indians and 21% of Pakistanis have no access to a toilet. You’ve probably seen the dramatic numbers showing that South Asians have more mobile phones than bathrooms. It’s easier to have private chats than it is to have private shits.

Zulfiqar’s students soon shared her fascination with toilet culture. “They were shocked by the lives and stories and suffering and everything they never knew," she told me. They interviewed 42 women. The majority were Muslim, but a sizeable percentage were Christian. Fifty-seven per cent of them were from rural areas. At least 38% were the main breadwinners in their families. Most had children to support. One student’s family employed girls of 8 and 9 and paid them no wages at all—just a promise to pay their dowry one day.

They found that women who work in private households are much more vulnerable to harassment and exploitation than those who work in hotels, restaurants and airports. They found that their mothers replace the soap if a servant touches it. Or they simply replace the servant. They found that across the board, toilet cleaners are considered cunning and untrustworthy (a quarter of the interviewees had been accused of theft), deserving only of scorn and stale chapatis. They found humanity where they had not seen it before and began to question their own roles in a cruel class system.

“The students are waking up," Zulfiqar said.

Dear lucky Mint Lounge reader, do you know your maid’s story? Would the world end if you and she sat on the same toilet? Or if you deployed the brush and cleaned it yourself?

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.

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