Right after summer break, Princeton students returned to a variety of drastically different living situations. In the middle of a heat wave in the first couple weeks of the semester, some students could cool off in air-conditioned rooms while others desperately relied on (mostly self-provided) fans in their non-air-conditioned rooms. Yet the inequity between living spaces is not limited to climate control: the type of bathroom available to students also varies greatly. While some students have access to a private bathroom that they may share with their roommates or with one other single dorm room, others are relegated to communal bathrooms. Communal bathrooms can be uncomfortable for all students, yet they pose a particularly challenging situation for hijabi students on campus.
Hijabi is a term referring to a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf. Many hijabis also wear modest, loose fitting clothing that cover their entire bodies. Therefore, daily tasks of using the bathroom or showering become much more time-consuming for hijabi students, given that they must enter and exit their bathrooms fully covered, since the hallways are consistently accessible to male students.
I spoke to multiple sophomore and junior hijabis across different residential colleges to better understand the unique experiences of hijabis in communal bathrooms. These conversations also revealed general struggles that all students using communal bathrooms face, emphasizing the need to improve the communal bathroom experience through supplying students with custodian schedules, increasing privacy and safety of stalls, and giving students the option to apply for accommodations.
Hijabis who use single-gender communal bathrooms are still often faced with making bathroom arrangements around the presence of men: male custodian workers who enter female bathrooms pose an added layer of anxiety. Fatima Diallo ’25, a junior in Whitman College who currently resides in Dod Hall, shared that the bathroom door is often left open, and that despite closing it, male custodial workers will sometimes still enter. “I usually close the door when I am in the sink area … but sometimes [a custodial worker] open[s] the door and [says], ‘Oh, is anyone in here,’ so that could be a possibly uncomfortable situation,” she said. This means that Diallo often must wear her hijab even while in the bathroom to avoid an inappropriate situation.
Marliini Heikkonen ’25, an exchange student for the semester from Singapore, has also been dealing with the challenge posed by the potential for male custodial workers to enter bathrooms at any time, noting that “no schedule is posted, [so] we don’t know when they come.” Male custodians’ presence in communal bathrooms is potentially uncomfortable for all female students, but even more so for hijabis since they do not allow men they are not related to to see their hair and body.
To avoid these situations, the University must make a clear policy that any custodial workers knock first before entering the bathroom. Yet, even this is not always effective to protect hijabi students: while a student is in the shower, for example, they may not hear a knock. Thus, the University should supply students with the approximate times that a custodian will clean their bathroom, so that they can schedule bathroom visits around those hours.
Even worse for hijabi students, however, are the problems posed by mixed-gender communal bathrooms. Momna Ahmed ’26, a sophomore in New College West, describes being “disgusted” on several occasions by her experience in mixed-gender communal bathrooms. Ahmed highlighted one specific situation in particular: “Some people do not close the doors … there have been instances where I have walked in on guys literally peeing standing up with the door open.” No student should have to experience this awkward and inappropriate interaction in a communal bathroom, but it can be extremely uncomfortable for female students in particular.
Yushra Guffer ’26, a sophomore in Mathey College, pointed out that if the University is going to have mixed-gender communal bathrooms, they should actually be accessible for both genders. In her hall, for example, “the communal mixed-gender bathrooms have no trash cans in them … those are only in the girl’s bathrooms.” Guffer questions, “Why are you not accommodating people with periods?” This bathroom effectively becomes inaccessible to menstruating female students, because it makes discreetly disposing of menstrual products a huge hassle. Guffer also pointed out how her mixed-gender communal bathroom stalls have gaps, which makes using them feel less safe and private. Unless the safety and privacy of all students can be ensured when creating mixed-gender bathrooms, they should not exist.
Overall, no student should have to share a bathroom with the opposite gender if they do not feel comfortable doing so. The hijabis I have spoken to understand that logistically every student who requests a private bathroom cannot receive one, but would like to be provided a gendered communal bathroom or hall at the bare minimum. Ahmed said that she “would be so glad if [hijabis] could apply for private bathrooms.” Yet, she notes that “a more realistic option would be to have gendered bathrooms.” This sentiment is echoed by Heikkonen, saying that “having the option to be surrounded by people of your gender would be really nice and less stressful.”
For hijabis who would prefer a private bathroom, the University should provide an accommodation application process. Currently, the only housing accommodations Princeton offers are for individuals needing them for medical or safety reasons. The inclusive housing offered by the University is not inclusive for those needing gender-specific accommodations for religious reasons. In providing a form for hijabis to request accommodations, the University could give them the opportunity to rank between a gendered communal bathroom or a private bathroom and request not to be placed on a floor with mixed-gender communal bathrooms.
Overall, the experience of hijabi students in Princeton’s communal bathrooms points to the broader issue of unequal housing conditions on campus. As Heikkonen points out, “We all pay the same housing amount, but our experiences are so vastly different.” From bathrooms to air conditioning to pests to square footage, the current Princeton dorm experience is highly inequitable. Historically, Princeton has not done much to address these issues. As we have seen with the lack of air conditioning, the University only chose to purchase fans after students had already been struggling in the heat wave. And even then not every student who needed a fan was able to get one.
As the University builds new dormitories, ensuring the comfort and privacy of all students should be a key priority. Whenever possible, Princeton should be constructing private bathrooms for doubles, triples, and quads, and Jack-and-Jill bathrooms for singles as they greatly reduce the amount of stress or discomfort a student will experience as a result of their bathroom situation. As for the existing dorms, Princeton must allocate resources towards renovating them to better accommodate the diverse student body that we currently have — which includes many demographics that these dorms were not originally built for. Dormitory experiences play such a big role in the overall well-being of all college students, and Princeton needs to further invest in better dorm experiences for all students on campus, not only those who were lucky enough in room draw to get the best rooms. The University must take concrete steps to reduce dormitory inequity by addressing the challenges of communal bathrooms.
Senior Columnist Ndeye Thioubou is a junior from The Bronx, N.Y. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.