The Supreme Court, on 29 September, ruled that all women, whether married or unmarried, are entitled to safe and legal abortion till 24 weeks of pregnancy. This judgment is historic, for it ultimately ensures that a woman alone has the authority over her body. The ruling has received praise from women's rights activists and health professionals alike, with many pointing out its significance in a post-Roe v Wade world.
The fact, however, remains that the permeation of patriarchy with respect to a woman's body is not limited to pregnancy or abortion. Even for basic tests concerning reproductive health, women must hold up their marital status, and often, they are denied services if they are unmarried.
Why? Because of a little tissue called the hymen in the vagina, which is widely associated with the concept of virginity, but in reality, has nothing to do with it. The myth of virginity, or the misogynist misconception that a woman's worth is defined by whether or not her hymen is intact, is so pervasive that women often face discrimination when they are undergoing vital tests for reproductive health.
It remains to be seen whether the SC ruling will change these ideas that are deeply ingrained in Indian society, but the experiences of several women reveal a mindset that dictates that their bodies don't belong to them but to someone they might marry in the future.
Here are real-life stories of several women who were discriminated against by doctors and health professionals, solely to appease a patriarchal sociocultural context that upholds this myth of virginity.
'Not Married? No Pap Test!'
Kritika, a 30-year-old native of Trichy in Tamil Nadu, was advised to get a pap smear by a gynaecologist in Chennai after she complained of recurring pelvic pain. But when she approached a local hospital, the gynaecologist first asked her if she was married.
When she said no, the doctor asked her why she was not.
"The doctor told me that if my periods are regular, I do not need a pap smear test. She said that unmarried women are not eligible, assuming that I was sexually inactive. I thought I would be shamed by her if I revealed that I was, in fact, sexually active," she tells The Quint.
"She ended up advising me to get married and gave me a lecture about how, when I get married, everything will be alright. I used to have intense pelvic pain and I needed a medical examination, not a lecture."Kritika, a 30-year-old native of Trichy
Kritika says that she was so traumatised by the way the doctor behaved that she had to go to Chennai for a pap smear test, where she was then asked to get a biopsy done. "So, it was a serious medical condition, and had I stayed mum and not sought medical attention, I could have been in grave danger," she adds.
'Things Changed When I Said I'm Married'
Thirty-four-year-old Deepti, a PhD scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, has had Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) for a long time. "Every time I went for an ultrasound, they made me drink so much water and undergo that really uncomfortable process where they press your abdomen (thus bladder)," she tells The Quint.
"I have even tried to quicken the process by going to the hospital early in the morning and drinking loads of water beforehand, so that I didn't have to wait. But they still didn't let me go immediately, and by the time my turn came, I was so full I thought I was going to burst. And I couldn't use the bathroom until the test was over. Sometimes, you have to do it multiple times, too."
This has been the case for Deepti at several hospitals, across cities like Mumbai, Hyderabad, Trivandrum, and Kochi. But it was only recently that she realised she didn't necessarily have to undergo this uncomfortable process.
"The last time I went for my PCOS test, the technician asked me if I was married. I randomly said yes. And just like that, I realised I didn't have to go through this, because they instead performed a transvaginal ultrasound (a type of pelvic ultrasound used by doctors to examine female reproductive organs, which involves inserting a probe into the vagina). Until then, I didn't know it was possible. I didn't even know it was an option."Deepti, a 34-year-old PhD scholar
Deepti says she has always told healthcare professionals that she was either 'unmarried' or 'living with a partner,' but using the word 'married' made things so much easier for her. "It's as though these simple tests are a secret, which only married women have access to," she quips.
Women Speak Up on Social Media
In a post on Facebook, on 30 September, a day after the Supreme Court judgment, Priya (name changed), a poet from Kerala, wrote: "The doctors and health workers at a private hospital in Pathanamthitta refused to perform a transvaginal sonogram on me, which was required for a diagnosis to remove a lump in my ovary, stating that I was unmarried. Even such educated and knowledgeable doctors continue to preserve the myth of virginity."
She goes on to add:
"My body still wasn't mine. It belonged to some man who might marry me in the future. Those who are supposed to give me medical care are making decisions for me, and for what? To protect some imaginary man's ego."
Sharing her experience, Amrutha, a 28-year-old engineer, commented on the post, "A gynaecologist did the same thing to me when my vagina had to be examined. And I was severely anxious at the time because I thought I had vaginal polyps (overgrowth of cells). Even though they knew I was so anxious, they didn't examine me because I was unmarried."
But it's not just unmarried women who are faced with uncomfortable experiences.
Kavya, who has been a sex educator and coach for decades, also took to Facebook to explain how judgements are cast on married women, too. "It's a problem that goes both ways. As a person with vaginismus, I was forced to undergo a transvaginal scan, with the operator mocking my condition, saying that since I am married, I must be used to forced entry!"
Vaginismus is the body's automatic and involuntary response to some or all types of vaginal penetrations, which leads to the tightening of muscles.
Meanwhile, Soumya, a 34-year-old cyber security professional, commented, "I needed my husband's consent to have an epidural during childbirth. Is it the husband who decides whether a woman should endure pain or not?"
Will SC Judgment Help Bust Myth of Virginity?
Speaking to The Quint, Dr Suchitra Dalvie, a gynaecologist, agrees that basic procedures like a transvaginal ultrasound, pap tests, etc, are often denied to unmarried women.
She says, "In a patriarchal sociocultural context, virginity is seen as something to be prized. If one gets a transvaginal ultrasound, which means, you put a probe into the vagina, or a pap smear, in which a speculum is inserted, that will cause some tears in the hymen. And when the woman gets married, there could be serious implications for her, especially if she's married into a conservative family."
"So, in most cases, it's not so much about denying these tests to unmarried women, it's about protecting their potential position for the sake of a sociocultural norm that sees virginity as important."Dr Suchitra Dalvie, a gynaecologist
Dr Dalvie, however, termed the recent Supreme Court judgment a "progressive statement, which essentially gives women the same freedoms and rights as men, because there is no procedure that a man undertakes that requires his wife’s consent."
"Because we live in a patriarchal sociocultural context, it is always assumed that the woman is somehow secondary to or belongs to some man – she's under the 'protection' of either her father, husband, or brother. This judgment is a step in the right direction to dismantle the inherent patriarchy in our country," she adds.
(With inputs from Mythreyee Ramesh.)