Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A Question About Bathrooms

I hate single occupancy, accessible/family restrooms. They are actually less accessible for me because the toilets are so tall, there are other reasons, too, which I mention below. Although I am very much a cis-female,* my experiences allow me to empathize and be invested in the debate about gender-neutral restrooms that is so important in the attempt to stop public harassment of transgender people. It's also why I found myself responding to a post on tumblr about the reaction of non-Muslim women to seeing them adjust their hijab**.

The post reads, "Fixing your hijab in a public restroom is so hilarious because they’re either completely amazed and stare at you the whole time, or they quickly look away as if they have seen something that they could be killed for."

Aside from illustrating the typical non-Muslim woman's misunderstanding of Islam, this blithe post made me consider public restrooms more than I ever have, even though my own experiences have caused them to be a bigger hurdle than I assume they are for most people. I've dealt with blood, drainage, and IV lines in public restrooms, but I've never felt unsafe or been in a situation where my believes could be so easily compromised against my will. I'm framing my question around female-identifying folks who follow Islam to align with the OP, but please note that it applies to women of many faiths that require modesty for many reasons.

What do these women say in the debate about gender-neutral bathrooms? Sit-to-pee vs stand-to-pee, the increasingly popular idea that restrooms could be arranged based on this preference as opposed to gender, doesn't seem to address this issue***. It would be considered haram (a sin) for a non-relative who identifies as male to view the hair/body, of a stranger who identifies as female, correct? So, in a female-only space someone who wears hijab, like the OP, can adjust a scarf without worrying about male-identifying folks seeing their hair. In a situation where adult, male-identifying folks could be in the communal area one could not be able to remove any covering or even adjust it without some anxiety, even if they don't believe an accidental glimpse is haram/sinful.

All the issues that come about when discussing bathroom safety for trans-folks come into play here, too. Separate-but-equal single occupancy bathrooms denies community. Sure, some people do not want their bodies to be on display to anyone while they put on make-up or adjust clothing, and that's fine. However, the mirror area in an contemporary women's restroom are often places of judgement free socialization.**** At conferences, I have been encouraged to network in the line for the restroom, and have done so. Also, as someone with a disability, I find that when I have to use an entirely separate room I feel very isolated. Once, an infection in my leg began draining through my clothes while I was in the college library. My friend was able to bring me bandages and fresh clothes   to me by crawling under the stall door. Due to pain and drainage, I wouldn't have been able to get up to let her into a single occupancy stall. And yes, maybe those closing doors with their deadbolts are safer than the stalls that feel like they might topple over with one slam, but at an obscure gas station in Bumfuck Nowhere, Georgia, I feel much safer knowing that I'm not alone in the cement out-building full of toilets. But that is just me. In my opinion, a person who chooses to wear hijab shouldn't be denied access to a mirror lest their hair be seen, or be banished to a single-occupancy room. Nor should anyone take up an accessible stall unless they have a disability. So, what would make both folks of faith and trans/non-binary folks comfortable?

Would partitioning off a "dressing area" be okay, or does that still lead to harassment of transwomen and anxiety for those attempting modesty? (This idea makes me think of Rickie***** from My So-Called Life, who would gossip and do his make-up with the girls in the women's restroom, and no one minded. Perhaps the answer here is that everyone should just be respectful like Rickie.)

Obviously, in the strict interpretation of faith-based modesty, enforcing the binary is important to most followers. In Islam, it would be haram for any non-biological female to be in a female space, but that kind of binary does not exist in the world we live in. Being trans is not a choice, but for many, many people religion isn't, either. Female-identifying people face judgement by their communities, and things I've read make me believe that humans are often less forgiving than deities.

There are those who would point to the reason thst seeing a female's body is haram/sinful in many faiths, particularly the Abrahamic ones. The fear of unwanted sexual thoughts puts some onus of responsibility on the man--don't look! don't lust!--but women must make the effort to curb their enthusiasm. To avoid unprovoked sexual thoughts, and their physical counterpart, which is the true underlying issue in all feminist conversations about restrooms, one could suggest bathrooms be segregated by sexuality, not gender. But then folks like Rickie and I would  never be able to pee. Also, this would force people to come out in public, making the space way less safe, so I reject it. Plus, that solution would completely deny one of the main reasons that I think communal restrooms are important, the chance to connect with people who have had similar experiences, even if it is just a   wink of understanding as the woman at the sink next to you pins their hijab and smiles in understanding while you attempt to apply mascara without parting your lips.

 I know something of separate bathrooms, and covering one's body, but in this conversation my voice is for asking the question, not dictate an answer. So, to those who face these issues from either side of from both, how do you think the world can make public spaces safe for transgender and non-binary people, while respecting folks right to modesty?

Bias acknowledgment: I ask this all as a white, disabled, bisexual, cis-female who was raised in a predominately Christian community. I have been educated about Islam, but I am not well-versed on the Koran. Most of my Muslim friends are American, so I have awareness, not experiences of Islamic countries/cultures, as well as other faiths that require modesty, such as Chassidic Judaism. Also, I think a person's choice to reveal or hide their body is one that should be respected, no matter why it's made.

Please, if you respond to this, respect trans/non-binary people, as well as those who follow religious doctrines. I know many faiths reject non-binary genders all together, but I want to consider this in terms of how we make public spaces safer for people of all beliefs and bodies.

*one who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.

**It is considered a sin in most versions of Islam for a male who is not a relative to see the hair of an unrelated female. Other women can see whatever the person wants them to see.

***And surely there are transwomen who still prefer to do this?

****Not always, of course.

*****Brilliant Rickie Vasquez, a non-binary, a bi/pan POC who graced our screens in 1994, and yet people still think such a majestic creature impossible. Tino is the unicorn. Rickie is real.

1 comment:

  1. Chelsey, this is excellent and makes me think so hard.