Have you ever walked into the communal restroom of your floor and noticed a watering can lying in a corner? Or a blue sprinkler? Or an empty Aquafina water bottle (Evian if we’re being boujee)? Don’t worry, there isn’t a hydration-obsessed ghost living on your floor. There likely is, however, a Muslim student.
I live in a suite with two other Muslims. If you walk into our restroom, you’ll see three portable bidets neatly lined up in the corner. Guests who use our restroom are often confused when they see them. They don’t explicitly ask, but I know they wonder, “Why do they have three water sprinklers and no plants, why are they in the bathroom, and why do they come in different shapes and sizes?”
Turns out we sprinkle other things as well!
Before I moved to Columbia from the Middle East, one of my biggest concerns was maintaining my hygiene. In most homes in Muslim-majority countries, and definitely in some non-Muslim-majority countries as well, bathrooms will have some form of an installed device, formally known as a bidet, that supplies water for personal cleaning purposes.
One of the untold struggles of being a Muslim college student away from home is figuring out how to continue this practice of hygiene. As I alluded to in my introduction, students find creative ways to do so. Some students use empty water bottles, watering cans, or sprinklers to replace a formal bidet. Others bring a lota—a water vessel—with them, particularly if they are of South Asian descent. Many, including myself, were a little too excited to find portable bidets that are sold online. All of these devices are vessels that carry water in some capacity to wash one’s backside after one uses the bathroom.
There were many times that I made the trek to a friend’s apartment to use the restroom because she had installed a bidet. There were many other times that I would dampen tissue paper with water and hand it to a friend from under the stall door of a Butler Library restroom.
“Can you do me a favor?” she would whisper to me in Arabic.
“Do you want me to wet a tissue for you?” I’d respond in a language that the other bathroom dwellers would not understand.
I would do as she asked, hoping no one would notice.
Many Columbia students are unaware that their Muslim peers go to great lengths to maintain such bathroom conventions. This may be a reflection of the general discomfort surrounding discussing hygiene practices, particularly those that pertain to intimate areas. In Muslim spaces on campus, we often exchange humorous stories of people’s misconceptions at our makeshift bidets or our shared belief that others should also use water to wash after using the bathroom.
So why do we continue to search for solutions despite the inconvenience? In addition to being a religious and cultural practice, we do it because we believe it's cleaner. There are many benefits to using water instead of just toilet paper, so I will try to convince you to start using water when “you gotta do what you gotta do.”
Though limited controlled experiments have been conducted, some physicians agree that washing is healthier than just relying on toilet paper alone. Washing can prevent infections from spreading thoroughly clean in a way just wiping cannot. Washing the bacteria from the anal region can protect from urinary tract infections, particularly in women, as it reduces the chances of the bacteria moving to the urethra. A 2005 study found that the bacterial content of urine decreased in a group of nursing home residents instructed to use a bidet system.
Moreover, toilet paper can be abrasive due to its dryness. Our rear-ends are sensitive areas, and recurrent usage of toilet paper could result in tearing of the skin. Water is a far gentler alternative, especially if an individual has hemorrhoids, which are more common than you think!
There are also environmental benefits of cutting down on toilet paper. The average American uses 57 sheets of toilet paper per day. Annually, 15 million trees are cut down to make toilet paper. If Americans switched to bidets, the volume of water used would still be lower than the volume of water needed to make toilet paper. Using one-eighth of a gallon per wash is far less than the estimated 3.7 gallons needed for a single roll.
It seems more logical to wash oneself after releasing toxic and odorous substances. If a bird defecates on an individual’s head, should they just wipe off the uric acid from their hair? Or should they wash it off until it becomes clean?
I hope the next time you spot someone in the communal restroom filling up a makeshift device with water, you’ll recognize that they may be watering more things than just their plants. Perhaps you’ll add your own blue portable bidet in the communal restroom, too. Or perhaps Columbia will consider installing those cool advanced Japanese washlets for its students.
Rasha Biary is a senior at Barnard College majoring in economics. The goal of this tongue-in-cheek article is to shed light on a specific practice shared by many Muslims and the reasons why we maintain this practice. For clarifications on bidets, or questions in general, email Rasha at email@example.com. Her column, Shot of Espresso, runs alternate Tuesdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org