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Professor of English Sheds Light on Gendered Notions of Cleanliness

photo of Kantor

Roanne Kantor

Aug 23 2021

Roanne Kantor, an assistant professor in English, noticed an interesting relationship between gender and cleanliness when she first went to India in 2013. In a recent talk for the Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellows program titled “The Gender of Clean: Patriarchy, Art, and the Swachh Bharat Mission,” she illustrated how cleanliness was treated as a gendered concept and practice in India by analyzing two issues: open defecation and clean cooking fuels. 

The Swachh Bharat Mission, which literally means the Clean India Mission in English, is a nationwide campaign initiated by the Indian Government in 2014 to generate awareness regarding sanitation practices. According to UNICEF, India has the highest number of people in the world – about 620 million – who defecate in the open. Most of them live in rural areas. This practice is not only considered a public health problem due to its connection to diarrhea and protein-energy malnutrition, but also subjects girls and women to the risk of sexually harassment or violence while relieving themselves in open spaces. 
 
The Swachh Bharat mission makes an explicit reference to Mahatma Gandhi. According to the Indian Government, one of the mission’s major goals was to achieve an "open-defecation free India" by October 2, 2019, the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gandhi. It is widely known that Gandhi was an advocate for public health during his lifetime. When Gandhi approached the issue of public cleanliness and sanitation, he frequently linked this issue with caste prejudice. Hence, the public health campaign led by Gandhi promoted the idea of creating a community of mutually responsible and equal citizens as well as eradicating existing prejudices. 
 
However, according to Kantor, while the current Swachh Bharat Mission relies heavily on the figure of Gandhi, it does not talk about caste prejudice. Instead, this mission seeks to instill in Indian people a positive attachment to cleanliness. As Kantor put it, “every time you want to prompt behavior change, you have to find some sort of positive attachment to bring people over to this new behavior.” Moreover, the usage of Gandhi seeks to provoke a sense of civic duty and nationalism among Indian people. In other words, the Swachh Bharat Mission interprets the adoption of new hygiene practices as central to being a good and patriotic Indian citizen. 

India's efforts to transition to clean cooking fuels feature slogans such as “every woman will get her due respect and dignity. Clean fuel, better life.” Kantor held that there is a close association between women's dignity and technological solutions provided by men.

 
Furthermore, Kantor argued, the Swachh Bharat Mission reinforces patriarchal structures by presenting Indian men as heroic defenders of Indian women against sexual harassment. Relieving themselves outside is often said to expose girls and women to the danger of physical attacks and rape. One particularly notorious incident happened in 2014 when two teenage girls were gang-raped and lynched by a mob when they went to a field to relieve themselves. Materials promoting the Swachh Bharat Mission repeatedly emphasize the tolls of this practice on girls and women. For instance, the slogan “millions of women risk getting raped every day” is often featured in promotional materials to justify eradication of the practice.
 
To further illustrate this point, Kantor focused on a 2017 Hindi-language comedy-drama film called Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, which means “Toilet: A Love Story.” This film depicts a husband who goes against the grain to help his wife build a toilet at home and to introduce mobile toilets throughout his village. As Kantor saw it, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha reflects a common rhetoric surrounding the issue: men are always portrayed as courageous heroes who rise up against conventional Indian hygiene practices. Through their advocacy for improved sanitation, they help protect their wives and daughters from sexual harassment. Kantor saw such discourse turning the issue into a women's issue. 
 
This gendered notion of cleanliness is also reflected in a recent campaign to end the use of dung cakes and other freely available high-pollution combustible fuels for cooking for most women in rural India. Goitha (dried cow dung cakes) produces an enormous amount of smoke and heat. Given that women are considered the primary cooks of the family in rural India, they have to spend a considerable amount of time alone in the kitchen each day, and the smoke produced by goitha has a negative effect on their health. 
 
Kantor explained that even when cleaner cooking fuels are technically available (whether induction stoves or natural gas), families immediately revert to burning goitha as soon as any minor impediment occurs. For instance, when electricity is cut, which happens frequently in rural India, or when the free canister runs out and families have to pay for a replacement, families often resort to using goitha. According to Kantor, this reveals an underlying devaluation of women's labor, time, and health, all of which are non-monetary costs of using goitha fuel. Hence, despite its surface-level engagement with "women's issues," the Swachh Bharat campaign has not addressed these underlying attitudes. 
 
India's efforts to transition to clean cooking fuels feature slogans such as “every woman will get her due respect and dignity. Clean fuel, better life.” Kantor held that there is a close association between women's dignity and technological solutions provided by men. This gendered relation is captured in one of the campaign posters in which India’s Prime Minister is seen giving a gas fuel canister to a woman to help her solve problems that come with dirty cooking fuels.
 
In conclusion, through analyzing campaigns around sanitation practices and dirty cooking fuels, Kantor sheds light on the complex relationship between gender and cleanliness in contemporary India.
 

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.