Why you should care
A bastion of freedom and feminism, the Netherlands finds itself in the middle of an unlikely churn: over gender, pee and toilets.
To highlight the lack of public facilities for women, Elisa Otañez set up a bright yellow mobile toilet with the words “Occupied by Women” printed on one side in a square in the Dutch market town of Eindhoven this June. The move quickly drew the attention of two police officers, who told Otañez, a graduate of Design Academy Eindhoven, that she needed a permit for the toilet she calls the Yellow Spot. But two other women stopped and joined the conversation, leaning in on Otañez’s behalf. Otañez wasn’t alone against the cops, and she isn’t alone in her protest.
The Netherlands, otherwise a bastion of freedom and feminism, finds itself in the middle of an unlikely battle over pee and toilets. Until recently, the country’s few free public toilets — Amsterdam has just 35 — were urinals designed only for men. But after a woman was fined for peeing in public during a night out in Amsterdam, protesters streamed into the streets. Geerte Piening, 23, had peed in the dark discreetly in a city where so many men urinate publicly each year that at least 15 of them drown by falling into canals while relieving themselves. Still, when Piening challenged the fine for the May 2015 episode in court, the judge declared last year that she should have used the public urinals, known as de krul, which were designed for men.
Stunned, the Dutch responded the way they do when crossed: first by ridiculing authorities, and then by finding their own solutions. Women around the country made mocking attempts to pee in a public urinal — bending over backward, sitting on top of it, lifted by boyfriends to reach higher, squatting and showing their bare butts to embarrassed passersby. They published photos, GIFs and videos of their attempts with the hashtag “#hoedan” (“but how”). Now, a wave of design challenges and startups are taking the protests one step further.
Gender equality appears to be a relevant subject matter in design today.
Wendel ten Arve, curator at Droog, the Dutch conceptual design firm
In rolls TukTukToilet, a gender-neutral mobile toilet that comes to you on demand. It won the December 2017 Urban Design Toilet Challenge, initiated by Cube design museum in the south of the Netherlands. There’s Green Pee Oasis, a design concept: When nature calls, you can hide in one of the tree-covered green areas inside the city to urinate in a system modeled on a cat box litter, but in a way that it feels like you’re peeing on the grass. Peepl, UR IN, Hoge Nood and PlasplezHIER are smartphone apps that have come up in the past year and connect toilets in private homes to men or women in need, for a fee.
“In the past decade, the role of the designer has changed,” says Wendel ten Arve, curator at Droog, the renowned Dutch conceptual design firm where Otañez’s Yellow Spot has found a home. “Gender equality appears to be a relevant subject matter in design today.”
The only real gender-neutral relief available in public the Netherlands has had until now was offered by toilet store 2theLoo, which launched in 2011. Located in normal shopping streets right next to the ubiquitous H&M and Zara stores, they offered doors with toilets behind them — but mounting financial losses have made them shut down these facilities.
For sure, the shortage of free public toilets in the Netherlands extends to men too. Compared to Amsterdam’s 35 free urinals, for example, Paris has 400 public toilets that, since 2006, are all free. London has at least 75 free toilets that business establishments make available to the public, according to the city’s website. In Spain, toilets in supermarkets are located outside the pay gates so that non-customers don’t need to enter stores just to pee. In the Netherlands, on the other hand, visits to most public toilets — in shopping centers, department stores, gas stations and bars — come with a price tag.
But the challenge for Dutch women runs deeper. While London’s mayor Sadiq Khan and Berlin’s city government both announced plans last year to build a wave of gender-neutral public toilets, Dutch women lack such support from their city administrations. In Colombia, women and the elderly have the right under law to pee for free at all shops, hotels and restaurants, in addition to public toilets.
The few fixes the Netherlands has witnessed for its public toilet shortage have so far focused on men. In 2015, Amsterdam-based art and technology center Mediamatic installed the free-to-use pee installation Pure Gold on their façade. The installation consists of five urinals underneath five windows, where you could well feel like somebody is watching your relieved face from the other side of the glass. But the windows are also video screens that showcase films that look digital — except that they use a most natural ingredient: the golden colors in the artists’ own urine. You can experience this artwork while relieving yourself for free as long as you donate your urine, which Mediamatic uses as fertilizer for a park. If you’re a man, that is, since urinals aren’t designed for women to use.
That struggle for women to find public toilets in the Netherlands isn’t just a question of inconvenience. “I still have night terrors about loo hunting when I was pregnant with a bladder that couldn’t hold for more than 10 minutes,” recalls Zoetermeer-based British expat Amanda van Mulligen. Otañez argues that “the gender inequality in toilets” is so deeply ingrained that “it’s simply not questioned.” She calls it an “invisible issue.” That using toilets in public spaces is still a taboo, especially for women, only complicates the struggle for pee equality.
But the Piening case has stirred Dutch society into questioning what it had previously accepted. When the police officers approached Otañez at the public square where she had placed her Yellow Spot toilet, she was ready with her response. “I explained to the officers that the project is just that: the fact that women, when excluded, have to find strategies to provide for themselves, but … they are sanctioned for doing so.” Amsterdam’s pee landscape is particularly bleak. Rotterdam invests €400,000, The Hague €150,000 and Utrecht €68,000 annually, under laws to meet their toilet shortfall. Amsterdam has no such law, Piening pointed out to the city’s new mayor — a woman, for the first time — in a September letter. “I am ashamed as [an] Amsterdammer,” she wrote.
Asked about equal pee rights, a spokesperson for Amsterdam city said they’re working on a toilet solution for women. But she added that “the problem is not large, as only 5 percent of wildplassers [people who pee in the wild] are female.” Since statistics show 50 percent of the population is female, it looks like women, at least for now, are officially being overlooked as a result of their potty training, good behavior and resourcefulness in finding a place to squat.
But the protests — whether in the form of mock acts ridiculing the government or design solutions — aren’t fading away. They represent a broader resistance, a desire to reclaim cities. Urban development policy researcher Jacqueline Schoemaker, for instance, takes pleasure in peeing behind a wall, or in bushes. “By doing so, I don’t only relieve myself but also mark my territory like a dog,” she says. “This is my city too, you f-ers!”