In her first summer break home from the American university where she was studying, K* sought an appointment with a gynaecologist to understand why her periods were irregular.
Unlike many doctors, this one skipped the euphemistic are-you-married question and asked directly: “Are you sexually active?”
Ok, thought K, so far, so good.
Then came the next question: “With goras or desis?”
The doctor laughed while asking the question, as if presenting it as a joke would make it less inappropriate or offensive, recalled K.
In the backdrop of Roe v Wade there has been no small measure of chest-thumping here in India. The stunning overturning of abortion rights and, by extension, the autonomy of women over their bodies by the US Supreme Court, gave rise to a closer scrutiny of our own laws.
But while abortion may have been legal in India since 1971, it’s not always an easy ride as women navigate judgmental doctors. Even a routine visit to a gynaecologist, for many, especially those who are single, can be a minefield.
Are you married?
In the small town where M lives, everyone knows everyone. If you’re spotted in the market, you can be sure the next door neighbour who saw you will tell your mum. And if you take an appointment with the gynaecologist for any reason, it will most certainly get back to your family, she said.
So, M waits for work trips to Delhi when she can make an appointment. At least there, she added, the only problem you have to deal with is a judgemental gynaecologist and not that it will get back to your family.
But even in Delhi, “You can see the disapproval when you tell them you are sexually active and especially when you inform them that you don’t have a regular partner,” said M.
Top of the list of peeves for unmarried women is the ‘are-you-married’ question as code for ‘are you sexually active’.
But social reality is somewhat more complex. For instance, Mumbai-based gynaecologist Dr Parikshit Tank told me his patients seldom come alone. Most are accompanied by a mother, an aunt, elder sister – and sometimes all of them.
“She’s not going to be comfortable answering questions about her sexual activity in their presence – even if she’s married,” said Tank. He gets around the problem by asking her relatives to wait while he takes her to a separate examination room where there is a greater degree of privacy for him to get the information that he needs to diagnose her better, he said.
“Try asking an unmarried young female about her sexual activity in tier 2 or 3 cities when she’s accompanied by family and watch the chaos unfold. You will be beaten to pulp,” said Srinagar-based clinical oncologist Dr Wajahat Ahmed. Some years ago, he said, a female doctor colleague asked a patient with severe UTI (urinary tract infection) about her sexual history, sparking massive outrage among her relatives who had accompanied her who then marched straight to the head of department to complain that the doctor had called their daughter badchalan (without character).
But it’s not always unmarried women.
In her mid 30s, L, a mother of two, told her gynaecologist–a busy doctor at a fancy corporate hospital in Delhi–during a routine annual examination that she was experiencing a loss of sexual desire. The doctor was taken aback. “So?” she asked. “You have two children don’t you?”
It turned out, eventually, that L had a thyroid disorder, something that a more sensitive doctor could have spotted earlier if she hadn’t been so preoccupied making moral conclusions about sexual desire.
Times are changing, but not fast enough
For a young woman, going to the chemist to ask for an over-the-counter morning after pill, a DIY pregnancy test or even condoms can be fraught.
A friend, then 20-something and unmarried, told me how she had gone to buy condoms from a corner store in Boston. When the man behind the counter turned out to be Indian, she mumbled the word condom and quietly paid up when he handed her a packet of cardamoms.
But times are changing, said Dr Tank. An older generation of doctors could be harsh and unsympathetic, he conceded, but this isn’t always true for younger doctors.
For many women, this change isn’t happening fast enough. In 2015, Amba Azad put out a call on Twitter for an outsourced list of gynaecologists ‘we can trust’.
It isn’t just about patient discomfort over being judged by their doctors, but about accessing healthcare and diagnosis when it’s needed.
Unmarried women in India do not routinely go to the gynaecologist for an annual pap smear or check-up. Single women are often denied trans-vaginal sonograms to preserve ‘virginity’.
And while abortion might be legal in India, it needs to be seen more through the lens of sexual health and reproductive rights rather than limited to family planning and maternal health, write Sonali Vaid and Sumegha Asthana.
[*Names of women have been suppressed out of respect for confidentiality.]
P.S: After I submitted this to the editors of this newsletter, I read Nisha Susan’s excellent piece on more or less the same subject in Mint Lounge.
BIG CONTROVERSY: Two women, a Goddess and a new outrage
On Monday, independent film-maker Leena Manimekalai tweeted a poster for her documentary film Kaali that was to be shown as a part of a film festival at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto.
Depicting a woman dressed as the Goddess Kali smoking a cigarette with the LGBTQI rainbow flag visible near her, it set off a wave of outrage with demands for her arrest and multiple police complaints filed against her on the grounds of ‘hurting religious sentiment’.
In Ottawa, the Indian high commission asked the festival organisers to withdraw the poster. The Aga Khan Museum apologised and withdrew both poster and film from the festival.
Enter Mahua Moitra, member of Parliament for the TMC. Asked to comment on the poster controversy at a media event, Moitra said: “For me, Goddess Kali is a meat-eating and alcohol-accepting goddess.” Elaborating, she added that as a Hindu she had “the right to imagine Kali in that way; that is my freedom.”
While a Kali with a cigarette might be cause for offence, it is known fact that temples particularly those dedicated to Kali accept (and serve) meat and alcohol as ‘bhog’ or food for the gods – at the Kamakhya Shakti Peeth, for instance.
But a fresh round of outrage has followed with Moitra’s own party dissociating itself from the comments. As has now become a default outrage parameter, multiple FIRs have been filed against her and the BJP wants her arrested.
A defiant Moitra tweeted: “I do not want to live in an India where BJP’s monolithic Brahminical view of Hinduism will prevail & the rest of us will tiptoe around religion. I will defend this till I die. File your FIRs – will see you in every court in the land.”
The age at which Indian men have their first experience of sex is getting older with a median age of 24.8 for 2019-21, up from 22.6 in 2005-6 and 24.3 in 2015-16.
For women, it’s 18.9, 17.6 and 19 for the same corresponding period.
Source: Analysis of National Family Health Survey data by Rukmini S.
STORIES YOU MAY HAVE MISSED
In just three days since it began accepting registrations for the Agnipath scheme, the Indian navy saw as many as 10,000 women signing up. The navy is committed to inducting 20% of women of the total of 3,000 it will recruit under the new short-term scheme.
A transgender man from Kerala, Adam Harry, 23, has said the DGCA has denied him clearance for a commercial pilot’s license since he is on hormone therapy. News website, The News Minute said he plans to approach the Kerala high court against the decision.
A week after the Gauri Lankesh assassination trial finally got underway five years after she was killed, a Bengaluru court has adjourned hearings until August. So far, nine witnesses have been examined. A charge-sheet filed by a Special Investigation Team found evidence of a conspiracy involving 18 men that targeted people they considered to be ‘anti-Hindu’. Barring one, all have been arrested.
What Shaadi.com tells us about workforce bias
That India has among the worst women’s labour force participation rates anywhere is no longer news.
Reams of research have gone into possible theories about why women quit the labour force at a time of rising educational attainment, falling fertility and expanding economic opportunities.
Now a new study finds that women who say they plan to follow their careers after marriage are seen as an unattractive prospect in the marriage market.
In Ideas for India, Diva Dhar of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation looks at matrimonial website, Shaadi.com to gather empirical data of the bias against employed women in the marriage market. Sifting through expressions of interest by prospective husbands, Dhar found that women who have never been employed are likely to get the highest number of positive responses, around 70%, from male users.
Women who have been employed but are willing to give up jobs after marriage received around 66% of positive responses. However, there is a sharp drop in responses to women who want to continue working after marriage – down to 59.6% amongst high income groups and just 54.7% from low income groups.
Read more here.
READ: In red hot pursuit
I loved this long-read on the lives of Tamil Nadu’s chilli farmers written by Aparna Karthikeyan and published in PARI (People’s Archive of Rural India).
“The women come to the field every day at 8 am and stay on till 5 pm to guard it. “Otherwise goats will eat the plants!” Every morning, they’re up at 4, cleaning the house, collective water, cooking, waking up the kids, washing vessels, packing food, feeding the livestock and poultry, walking to the field, working, sometimes going back home in the afternoon to give water to the animals. Then, back to the chilli plants, tending to them, and another half-hour walk through the ‘short cut,’ where now a dog is chased by her pups.”
Read it here.
AROUND THE WORLD
British Parliament’s old problem of sexual misconduct
The scandal that finally cost Boris Johnson his job as British prime minister was the accusation that his office had given false information about past sexual harassment against lawmaker Christopher Pincher. But, reports The Economist, the House of Commons has an old history of sexual misconduct that includes such names as John Profumo and ‘rumours of Lord Palmerston on the billiard table with the housemaid’.
Not all charges are salacious. Many are ‘straightforwardly criminal’. In May, an unnamed Tory MP was arrested on suspicion of rape, another for molesting a child and a third was suspended for drug abuse and sexual harassment.
New Zealand Cricket (NZC) has taken the lead in becoming the first cricket board to introduce pay parity in the game. “Same pay for the same work on the same day,” stated an NZC press release. But real equal pay may be a while coming, thanks to cricket’s unequal playing calendar for men and women. And, also because a large chunk of player salaries come from annual contracts where there continues to be significant disparity.
Shireen Abu Akleh likely killed by Israeli forces, no evidence it was deliberate
A US state department investigation into the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh said it was ‘likely’ that she was killed by Israeli forces but found no evidence that she was shot deliberately. Abu Akleh was shot in the head on May 11 despite wearing a flak jacket marked ‘press’.
BEFORE I GO
On July 4, Justice G.R. Swaminathan of the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court wrote to members of the bar informing them that lawyers who are young mothers could ask for a specific time slot to argue their case.
The gesture has been widely welcomed. But, there is a counter opinion. Should the judge have made the concession to all young parents, mums and dads? Others argue that the judge was only recognising social reality where it is mothers who shoulder much of the childcare responsibility.
What do you think? Should the policy have been gender-blind, or should the concession be made only to working mothers? Write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org