Peeing in Peace and the Revival of Labour Activism in Kerala

The city of Kozhikode in northern Kerala has seen many a spectacular public protest by women since the 1930s. Recently, it witnessed a truly unique protest which hopefully reveal the shape of things to come. This was over the denial of safe toilet facilities to women, especially the large numbers of underpaid and overworked women employees in the city shops.The issue was successfully raised by the action committee organized by Penkoottu,an organisation of women workers in the city–  which included many  organizations including the feminist group Anveshi,the Muslim women’s organization Nisa, some activists of the Mahila Congress, and independent activists.

In the initial negotiations,ugly and insensitive statements were made by T. Naziruddin, president of the traders’ association, the Vyaparyvyavasayi Ekopana Samiti.The action committee had raised the issue of women workers in over 1000 shops in the city not having access to toilet facilities at their workplace or even in public areas around. The existing pay-and-use facilities have been closed down and public toilets are more or less unusable. Men too lack such facilities, but according to the six-member squad consisting of officers of the Kozhikode Corporation and women activists that examined the available facilities in the wake of the protest, men use the facilities in the many mosques that dot the city, irrespective of faith and caste! Women have no such alternative.

The protest started up with the closing down of the pay-and-use toilet in the Grand Bazar in the city to other users. A signboard was set up by the owner which announced that this was in retaliation to the ‘trouble’ stirred up by Penkoottu. The trouble started when the security guard there misbehaved with a woman user and prevented her from using it on the silly reason that she did not have change to pay him — and actually accused her of violation when she forced her way in. The security guard dragged her physically to the manager’s cabin and the manager insulted her further. Later, they filed police cases against her for caste insult, and then accused her of homicidal intentions! This led to protests from women workers who were joined by others. T. Naziruddin’s statements proved to be the proverbial last straw: those who have a complaint about the lack of toilet facilities, he said, should simply not work at all; women have been working in the city since the past 35 years, there has never been such a problem. Do people come to Kozhikode to pee? Can’t they pee at home? That is a problem, perhaps, but traders can’t solve it. The adivasis of Wayanad can’t enter the IAS. That problem must be resolved, but we can’t do a thing. Naziruddin’s talk is precisely the voice of a strange hybrid economic force formed out of the intermingling of the traditional trading class reeking with feudal misogyny, and the new predatory capital that also knows how to mimic radical forms of public protest on behalf of capital.Probably secure in the sense of importance granted to it by many — especially the ‘experts’ in research and journalism those who uncritically and one-lopsidedly celebrate the revival of ‘growth’ in and through Kerala’s service sector-boom — this voice was emboldened to rubbish the workers’ demands. Nevertheless the campaign garnered widespread press coverage and public support, and assent from the Corporation and other authorities — the Mayor and the District Collector — and by 6 April, our favorite trader-hero was forced to eat his stinking words. At the meeting called by the District Collector, it was decided that the existing toilets would be made ready for use soonest and 10 new ones would be constructed; sites and sources of funding were identified. Orders were issued for the immediate reopening of the toilet at Grand Bazar; a special squad to inspect toilet facilities in shops was formed, and shops lacking such facilities are to be given two weeks to make them available; a number of organizations have come forward with offers to fund the toilets for women. Most importantly, the representatives of the traders’ association expressed willingness to initiate measures on their own.

The success of this campaign raises hopes in Kerala where the current phase of service-sector-led economic ‘growth’ is being ‘womanned’ by large numbers of mostly unorganized and low-skilled women workers who are poorly paid and work for longer hours with no security of employment or any form of social security worth the name. With the organized left which traditionally took the lead in organizing informal sector workers turning towards poor consumers — the ‘BPL women’ linked together in the micro-credit-centered self-help group network, the Kudumbasree — women workers in the new sectors of ‘growth’ have been largely left to their own wits to face predatory capital. Indeed, the Penkoottu struggle and its outcome is strongly reminiscent of the pre-unionization-era struggles by the cashew workers — again, mostly women — in Kollam in south Kerala, in the early 20th century. Anna Lindberg’s historical work in the early history of labor struggles in the cashew industry reports women workers initiating strikes against the factory managers’ unwillingness to respect the limits of bodily endurance at work — ending, finally, with managers promising concessions to avoid losses due to workers abandoning the factory. The earliest struggles seem above all to be struggles for dignity and not merely for economic gain — as is the case here. Maybe we are witnessing the start of a new cycle of workers’ activism, and this time, hopefully, women workers will forge a new labor activism that is sensitive to gender difference. Indeed, women workers are indispensable to the new capital in Kerala — given the large numbers of men of working ages migrating out of Kerala and women’s possession of basic skills to work in the service sector.Kerala does have a women’s labor union, Sewa Kerala, which has organized the most disempowered of women workers here, the domestic workers, and tried to professionalize them. The Sewa’s interventions have been certainly important in pushing up the wages and improving working conditions for domestic workers in Thiruvananthapuram, where it mostly works.Surely the experience of Penkoottu holds out new hope and opportunities for Sewa Kerala too.

Moreover, the Penkoottu struggle offered a sharp contrast to some of the angry responses to a recent incident in a restaurant in Kozhikode, where a woman using the toilet discovered a hidden camera. The police responded strangely to initial efforts to file a complaint, actually attacking the aggrieved party!Public response was deeply outraged — but apparently not just because this was a flagrant violation of privacy but also because it could affect the marriage opportunities of young women whose pictures may have been taken! Indeed, this was probably behind some of the more hysterical responses to the issue — shrill-sounding sms-s teaching women to use mobile phones to detect hidden cameras in changing rooms and public toilets, prefaced with the appeal to circulate this information widely so that ‘our innocent sisters and mothers’ are protected. A leading elite woman professional — a medical doctor — reportedly went to the extent of recommending a truly original precautionary measure: that women should necessarily carry a piece of black cloth in their bags and wear it over their faces when they enter public toilets or changing rooms so that their sexual purity may never be besmirched through images that catch them peeing innocently!The women in the Penkoottu struggle however were struggling for a different sort of dignity — for the dignity of the female body and respect for human bodily processes, and not simply the procreative ones.

For some time we have been hearing about the ‘decline’ of the Kerala Model of social development under the combined assault of globalization, liberalization, and consumerism. While there is certainly truth in this, I think it is also important to realize that what drove the Kerala Model of social development —  the pressure of the deprived aimed at forcing the state to take action — is not dead, though it is under deadly assault from almost the entire spectrum of organized political forces from the left and right. The aftermath of the Chengara land struggle, the pressure on the state regarding the resolution of the adivasi land question, and minor struggles do reveal that many (though not all) deprived groups are indeed pressurizing, but have to fight longer, harder, lonelier battles. The Penkoottu struggle belongs to this trajectory — for me, then, it is valuable as proof for the continuing relevance of the ‘Kerala Model’ not as a model of social development achievements, but as a continuous process of democratic renewal.

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