[All names used here are fictional, for obvious reasons.]

Muhammad was in an uncomfortable position. Midway through a writing seminar, he could no longer ignore the forces that were rumbling deep in his core. He had to poop. But he had no water bottle with him today, and the restrooms in Frist had no watering can. As a Muslim who needs water to wash, Muhammad was experiencing a challenge silently endured by many Muslim students on campus.

Trained from a young age to use water to wash themselves after using the toilet, Muslim students at Princeton often find themselves in difficult situations. In my interviews with students from a wide range of backgrounds, I found that different students have developed different strategies to cope with the lack of watering facilities in restrooms on campus.




“I always carry a disposable water bottle with me when I’m on campus,” shared Alizah, a sophomore. “When I sense nature’s call, I go to the nearest bathroom, fill up the bottle with tap water, do my thing, and dump it.”

Alizah’s strategy appears to be a common one. On a campus where plastic water bottles are notoriously ubiquitous, students find it convenient to carry one around for the day to come in handy when needed. For Shamir, now in his third year, the water bottle can provide greater efficiency with a bit of creativity.

“If you poke a hole of the right size in the cap of the bottle, you get a nice fine squirt of water that is great for aiming and ensures greater water-pressure.” (Unsurprisingly, Shamir is training to be an engineer.)

Not everyone feels comfortable using a disposable water bottle. Some avoid it for sustainability issues, while some dislike its limited capacity. One student mentioned an alternative:

“As someone who travels a lot and someone who cares a lot about hygiene, I’ve found that the best solution is a trusted reusable water bottle. It might shock some people, but it all depends on how you’re using the bottle. I personally am very careful about my usage, and always wash it with hot water after every use.” He added with a smile, “it’s a one-stop solution for all my drinking and washing needs.”

Some students avoid bottles altogether, preferring to use ordinary toilet paper—with a twist.

“I try to soak the toilet paper so that it can retain the maximum water content. The problem is, at times I go into the stall with my dripping mass of toilet-paper and others using the bathroom can see some drops falling onto the floor. They probably think it’s not water,” an embarrassed first-year shared.

For many students, however, water bottles and toilet paper just don’t get the job done like an actual lota—a kettle shaped water container used in many Muslim households across the world. For these students, the only solution is to avoid using restrooms on campus altogether and to return to one’s dorm where they’ve kept a reliable lota. But walking back to your dorm every time nature calls can be incredibly inconvenient, especially during the middle of the day. The problem can be exacerbated for those who share communal bathrooms:

“One time I had to go really bad. I literally ran from Equad to Bloomberg, fighting for my life. When I finally reach my dorm, I grab my lota, enter the bathroom, fill the lota, and enter the stall—only to find pee on the toilet seat. The 30 seconds it took me to wipe the seat with a wet paper towel were the hardest of my life,” shared Adil, a junior. “Since then I’ve left a note: ‘Please least lift the seat if you’re urinating while standing.’”

For those who can’t return to their dorm rooms, there is one refuge on campus: Murray-Dodge Hall. As home of the Office of Religious Life, Murray-Dodge is the only place on campus that has watering pots in the communal bathrooms.

“I try my best to simply not use the restroom at all on campus. But when I absolutely have to go, I travel to Murray-Dodge, no matter where on campus I am. It’s highly inconvenient, but it gives me the peace of mind that at least I’m clean,” said Maryam, a graduate student. Sometimes, however, going to “MD” is more than inconvenient.

“I have 3-hour seminars where professors generally give a ten, fifteen-minute break. Sometimes, I really need to go, but there’s no way I can rush to MD, relieve myself, and return to class on time. As a first-year PhD student, I’ll have a relationship with this professor for the next five or six years, and I don’t want to make a bad impression in my first year. My only option then is to suck it up, which is so uncomfortable and makes it impossible to focus on the discussion.”




Maryam is an international student. Unlike many domestic Muslim students who have years of public-school experience in developing a workable strategy, students from Muslim-majority countries arriving into the US for the first time find themselves thrown into the deep end—with no water where needed.

“If you get dirt on your hands, would you use tissue paper to clean them? No. Why not wash your behind with water too?” wondered one student from Nigeria. He was echoing an often-voiced sense of bemused dismay which can best be phrased as ‘it’s-hard-to-believe-that-the-world’s-superpower-knows-not-how-to-clean-its-butt.’

Even for a domestic student raised in a Muslim family in central Jersey, the issue remained a mystery: “I had been in school for many years until one day when the vague suspicions I had became an irrefutable reality: not everyone used water to wash. ‘I’m not touching anyone after today,’ I told myself.”

The issues are even more acute for Muslim students diverging from what appears to be the university’s default consideration when providing facilities on campus: healthy undergraduates. “If you get a loose motion, how can you use toilet paper to properly clean up?” asked Noor, who suffers occasionally from digestion issues. For Fatima, a graduate student and a mother, the problem affects her baby’s hygiene: “I don’t use baby wipes when changing diapers. They’re bad for my baby’s skin and bad for the environment. But on campus it is almost impossible to use water when changing diapers. We thus avoid bringing the baby to campus, and even when we do we remain in constant fear that she may poop without warning.”

These issues have forced students to occasionally share awkward personal information with university personnel. One Muslim student, for instance, wrote a desperate email to housing to change his room assignment to one where he could have a private bathroom or a Jack & Jill with another Muslim student:

“I am currently living in Bloomberg with a communal bathroom and it has been very hard…I don’t want to touch my clothing if I have to fill water for the second/third time and if there are any people outside the toilet door, I have to wait for them to leave. Because of this, I am late for my classes quite regularly…”

Unfortunately for this student, the university replied that the room draw process had no room for religious accommodations.




What is at stake for Muslim students in their struggles to use water to clean themselves? Muslims, of course, are not the only students on campus who prefer water to toilet paper. Many students coming from places like East, South, and Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are used to using water to wash, for different reasons. However, the Muslim students I spoke to felt first and foremost that using water was a religious obligation.

“If I do not use water, I will remain ritually impure and be unable to perform my namaz (daily obligatory prayers).” Amna’s words succinctly capture the prevailing belief: Islam demands a certain standard of hygiene. At its basic, this involves removal of all impurities from the body. For most students, toilet paper is simply inadequate for the task. In my conversations, I find that the force of lived experience has etched this inadequacy of toilet paper into the deepest recesses of their minds and hearts. Many recall trying paper at one point or another, only to feel a profound sense of discomfort.

“It’s like you’re walking around dirty, sitting down dirty, getting back up dirty,” admitted Ndeye. Other students voiced similar thoughts: “It’s like the mind is screaming: Unclean! Unclean! Unclean!”

Here’s how an international student put it: “Back home, urinals are not a thing—and for good reason. It’s difficult to avoid drops of urine ricocheting from the urinal back onto your body. And we know from the Prophet’s saying, peace and blessings be upon him, that one of the punishments in the grave comes from not being mindful of purity when urinating.”

It’s not just the body’s purity that is at stake. “The body—how you clean it when nobody is watching, how you cover it when you go out into the public—is not something cut off from the mind and the soul. The physical is intimately linked to the emotional and the spiritual,” explained one student. As another student put it, “your connection to another world, with God, with the angels is disrupted when you’re impure.”




The most frustrating aspect of the whole problem is, for many students, how remarkably cheap and simple the solution is: the placement of a watering can in communal restrooms. Ali spoke for many when he proposed:

“Just place a watering can—you can get a good lota from any Indian store for $5—in every restroom. Nobody’s being forced to use it, and it doesn’t take much space.” He added: “Many male restrooms on campus now have pads and tampons. Not all students using the men’s room need these, but the logic is that some students need them on occasion, so let’s accommodate them. The same logic should apply in this case: Some of us need water to wash—every single time. It’s not just a matter of personal preference. It’s a religious requirement.”

Some students report making some efforts in this regard. Especially for graduate students who treat the PhD as essentially a job and Firestone as their primary office space, the library needs to have better toilet facilities. Until it doesn’t, students are making their own efforts.

“I’ve placed a water container in the Religion Study Room which my close girl-friends and I use when we don’t want to leave the library,” reported a graduate student in Religion. Another student put his own lota in the first floor men’s bathroom.

“I spoke with the janitors and they were all cool with me putting a lota in a corner of the bathroom. So I bought one and placed it there with large notes sticking on the sides: ‘DO NOT REMOVE.’ Sadly, after about a week, I came in one day and it was gone. I asked PSafe and Facilities, but it could not be found. I think if the university were to put it in more bathrooms on campus, the problem would be solved.”

What would it mean to students if something like this solution were adopted—if a small watering can or lota were placed in communal restrooms on campus?

“My attention in class would be so much better,” shared Karim, a junior. For another junior, even getting to class on time would become easier. “I’ve trained myself to poop every single morning and then shower. Sometimes the poop takes time, and on so many mornings I’ve been late for the 9 a.m. or 9:30 a.m. lecture because of that.”

Some students felt that the gesture would mean much more than immediate relief. “It’d be freedom!” declared Alizah, her eyes sparkling at the prospect. “It would be an acceptance of who we are as Muslims.”

Alizah’s comments speak to an underlying tension for many Muslim students on campus: the feeling that you don’t really belong. While there are many sources of this unease, the water-in-the-washroom issue is a major one precisely because it affects Muslim students across race, class, and gender—and affects them every single day. Yet it remains outside the bounds of polite discourse, leading to a certain unease even within Muslim students when it comes to discussing the issue.

“Unless I’m like best friends with someone, I wouldn’t ask even a fellow Muslim if I could borrow their empty plastic bottle,” admitted Wakeel, a senior.




The silence around the lota is not universal, however, as Lisa pointed out: “Women—regardless of religion—are recommended to use water to wash after giving birth, and using water has a host of health benefits. Also, because of periods, etc., I think girls are more open to discussing these things. Personally, one of my most memorable early experiences in Princeton was bonding with fellow Muslim girls over our lota practices.”

The need to use water to wash thus shapes the experience of Muslim students in diverse ways. It can foster community, encourage creativity, and build fond associations with a place—Murray-Dodge, for instance. Nonetheless, for most students, the need is primarily experienced as an everyday challenge, a reminder of Muslim difference on a liberal campus—perhaps even an insight into the nature of life. As one student who graduated last year put it, “Our lives in this world are a test, and I consider all the inconveniences associated with being clean as part of that test. It’s difficult for sure, but ‘Allah loves those who keep pure,’ and I hope these small efforts of mine make me worthy of that love.”

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