by Michael Bennett
We are republishing the following article by Sohaila Abdulali, with the author's permission. The article was brought to our attention by Radical Teacher founding board member Louis Kampf who ran across it on livemint.com, whereit was first published (http://www.Nvemint.com/Leisure/383an3MImrOPK04C1 Uw5hN/How-toilets-are-a-flashpoint-for-genderwars.html). Thank you to Louis for spotting the article, Livemint.com for publishing it in the first place, Professor Ghazal Zulfiqar for sharing her experiences and the accompanying images, and especially to Sohaila Abdulali and Livemint.com for allowing us to republish it.
By way of introduction, we wanted to explain what it was that appealed to us about "Why Toilets are About Class and Gender Wars." There are several reasons we thought that the essay was well-suited for Radical Teacher, from the engaging narrative about a course taught at a Pakistani university to the larger issues that the essay raises for teachers and students in any and all educational institutions, and beyond.
Most of the essay is drawn from an interview that Sohaila Abdulali conducted with Professor Ghazal Zulfiqar concerning a class she taught on "Women and Policy in Pakistan" at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). Zulfiqar and her students focused in part on "the toilet as a political sphere," which became the topic of a presentation that they made to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Based on the description provided by Abdulali, this unit of Zulfiqar's course sounds like an ideal model of radical teaching in action.
First, Zulfiqar asked her students to consider an aspect of academic labor that is often overlooked: the poorly paid service-level jobs that are crucial to the functioning of any school. In particular, students were asked to focus on the undercompensated labor of toilet cleaners at their university. Next, Zulfiqar asked her students to unpack their own unexamined relationship to the toilet cleaners at home and in school, causing them to have the "disconcerting experience" of recognizing their own participation in exploitation. She asked the students to think about the role of gender, class, and race in their relationships with toilet cleaners. Students then engaged with toilet cleaners, interviewing them about themselves and their work. Finally, the professor and her students presented the results of their research to an audience beyond the university (a Human Rights organization), in hopes of bringing about changes to curb the exploitation of toilet cleaners.
The ways in which Zulfiqar had her students engage the topic of "toilet wars" is a model of radical teaching in terms of both the content and the form of the lesson. In terms of content, the course asks students to think about the socioeconomics of higher education through the same lenses we describe on the masthead of Radical Teacheras a "socialist, feminist, and anti-racist journal on the theory and practice of teaching." In terms of form, Zulfiqar engages her students to think critically, including self-criticism of their own position in an exploitative system. Students were asked to not just passively read about and discuss an issue in the abstract, but to engage the issue directly through writing about their experiences, interviewing toilet workers about their experiences, and ultimately presenting the results of their research to a larger political entity, making an active intervention in civil society. This class would have been decidedly less radical had it not asked students to examine...