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Why Arabic Script on the Walls Might Not Stop Public Urination in Dhaka

The photo shows  Arabic sign on the sidewall of Panthakunja Park at the Karwan Bazar in Dhaka. Image by Sk. Hasan Ali. Copyright Demotix (7/5/2015)

The photo shows Arabic sign on the sidewall of Panthakunja Park at the Karwan Bazar in Dhaka. Image by Sk. Hasan Ali. Copyright Demotix (7/5/2015)

Public urination is a problem in Bangladesh due largely to a lack of public toilets. Municipal officials in the capital Dhaka have battled in vain to stop men urinating in public, with signs in the local Bengali language and warnings of punishment and fines yielding no notable results.

Now the government is hoping that an innovative idea can put a stop to the habit. Recently the Ministry of Religious Affairs released a video highlighting their campaign “Language Matters” wherein Bengali signs warning against urination are now being replaced by Arabic signs, a holy language for Bangladeshis.

Perhaps they have taken a cue from neighbouring India — battling with the same problem — where pictures of Hindu gods and godesses on the walls are intended to have the same effect.

Although some are lauding the state's effort to solve a perennial problem, others are skeptical, claiming the campaign supports blind faith and promotes misconceptions.

Sufi Faruq comments on YouTube:

ধর্ম মন্ত্রণালয়ের দারুণ একটা ক্যাম্পেইন !!! (..)

বাংলাদেশের বেশিরভাগ মুসলিম আরবি ভাষা না বুঝলেও এই ধরনের অক্ষরকে পবিত্র মনে করে। তাই ওই স্ক্রিপ্টে লেখা যে কোনকিছু অপবিত্র করতে ভয় পায়। এই ভয়টার বেশিরভাগ সময় ধর্ম ব্যবসায়ীরা অপব্যবহার করতো। এবার একটা দারুণ কাজে ব্যাবহার হল।

A great campaign by the Ministry of Religious Affairs!!!

Most of the Muslim majority Bangladeshis cannot understand Arabic but they deem it as a holy language. So they fear to desecrate anything written in that language. Most of the time it was used by religious opportunists as it is the language of the Koran and the prayers. Now it has been used for a good cause.

Despite the Ministry of Religious Affairs’ claim in the video about toilets being present in most of Dhaka's 10,000 mosques, the general lack of public toilets in the city of approximately 15 million is a genuine challenge. The city's large homeless population is particularly affected by the shortage.

Adnan R. Amin at Alal O Dulal Blog thinks that the video does not get to the root of the problem and instead aims to create false impressions:

The using of a religious misconception (“Arabic is a holy language”), to prevent a social evil, is clever. But it also reinforces and lends credence to that misconception, instead of dispelling it. One would think that for a ministry for religious affairs, dispelling religious misconceptions would outweigh protecting city-walls. If there were funds available to the government, Dhaka’s City Corporations could’ve used them to create better facilities for women. While it is difficult to discern from boardrooms, the 36 public toilets with facilities for women are now being used by men. Judging from the tactic and tone of  this video, a reexamining of both government bodies’ priorities seems to be in order.

Moreover, Fariduddin Masud, an influential cleric criticised the Ministry for Religious Affairs.

While most mosques do have sanitary facilities, mosques themselves are “not public toilets”, he said, adding that “nobody has the right to use the language of the Koran for such a campaign.”

Blogger Irene Sultana doubted the campaign via a blog post on Women Chapter titled ‘Not Arabic, but Public Toilets, Matter”:

ঢাকা শহরের প্রতি দেড় লাখ নাগরিকের জন্য শৌচাগার রয়েছে মাত্র একটি। [..] অধিকাংশ পাবলিক টয়লেটই ব্যবহার অনুপযোগী। [..] পাবলিক টয়লেটহীন নগরীতে পথচারীদের অধিকাংশই তাই ফুটপাতকেই বেছে নিচ্ছেন ’হালকা’ হতে।

না বুঝে কেবল আরবি লেখা থাকলে সালাম করা হলো এ দেশের মানুষের ধর্মীয় অন্ধত্ব। ধর্ম মন্ত্রণালয়ের দায়িত্ব ছিল মানুষকে এসব অশিক্ষা থেকে বের করে শিক্ষিত, সচেতন করা, তার বদলে মানুষের সেই অজ্ঞতাকে ব্যবহার করে ’সমাধানের’ নামে মূলত একটি মশকরা করলো!

There is only one toilet in the capital Dhaka for every 150,000 people, out of which many are not usable. So in the absence of enough public toilets the pedestrians use walls to relieve themselves.

Many Bangladeshis respect the Arabic language because they don't know the language. The duty of the Ministry of Religious Affairs was to educate them and make them aware that this is a language only, not everything in its writing is sacred. But instead they used this ignorance to eke out a “solution” which is actually a farce.

Sultana also cites the recent efforts of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who built toilets in front of temples and achieved 5.2 million lavatories in the first 100 days of his tenure.

Bangladesh lags far behind on this issue.

While state religious officials are already trumpeting its successes, the campaign does not appear to have been well thought-through. If implemented to the fullest extent, Dhaka's walls will be covered by Arabic but people will still have nowhere to urinate.

Moreover, in India, before Modi went on his toilet-building spree, the gods on walls campaign unravelled: people simply began urinating on the faces of the deities. Innovative campaigns incorporating public shaming such as “The Pissing Tanker” also lacked impact.

For this reason Adnan R Amin's comment that the money spent on the campaign — “a proxy solution that treats the Symptom and not the Cause” — would be better spent on new public toilets in Dhaka seems to be well-founded.

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