Prejudices within the medical fraternity: Women and sexuality in India

My visit to a lady gynecologist in India a few months back has been bothering me to no end. Hence by ranting about the experience here I would like to know your thoughts on it and share if you have had a similar experience as I did. As a young woman in her early twenties, a check up with the gynecologist would be so embarrassing to the point of invoking a sense of outrage was not what I had perceived. I learnt after the visit that the situation gets especially tricky and complex if you are a young assertive, vocal and ‘sexually active’ female.

That day I set out with my best ‘male’ friend to visit a gynecologist clinic to seek medical help for my prolonged menstrual cramps which didn’t cure with previous medications I had been self-administering. I say ‘male’ best friend because my boyfriend was unavailable that day to accompany me to the clinic hence I tagged this close buddy along. The clinic was in a shabby building in the suburbs of Bombay, as we entered the corridor, a board indicating Dr Sunita Pinto, gynaecologist- 2nd floor was hung on the corridor wall. Having climbed the second floor, we saw a long corridor where patients were seated, mostly young pregnant women with their husbands. I have deliberately made this presumption because apparently there can be no other explanation for visiting a gynaecologist as I learnt later. 

I walked through the seated patients sensing an uncomfortable vibe, the situation made me even more uncomfortable when I felt their morally inflicted gaze fixed on me. The moment my friend and I took a seat in a corner my friend was asked by an acquaintance that happened to be there with his wife about details of his sudden marriage to me without informing anyone. After an explanation of how we were just good friends, the curiosity still didn’t wilt away. The acquaintance further probed my friend if I was brought there for an abortion of an accidental pregnancy and several justifications followed thereafter. In the meantime we had to spend quite some time waiting in a queue so we killed time by chatting away, to my surprise the helper staff at the clinic were being extremely rude to me and insulted me several times in front of the other patients. My fault being ‘I was a young unmarried woman happened to be present at the gynaecology clinic’, the purpose of my presence didn’t matter (not that I need to or owe anyone present any justifications) but the reason for my visit had already taken shape in their conservative minds.

The humiliation does not end here, after both of us entered the room where the doctor was seated, she asked me a few questions about my sexual activity one of which was whether the guy who accompanied me inside was my husband/boyfriend (Since it was my first visit to a gynaecologist and the concern was not very serious I imagined to be given another orally administered medication prescription therefore I asked my friend to come inside the room with me) but as a routine check up she had to conduct the ‘two-fingers’ test that would be done only in the presence of a person who was my sexual partner, which was fair enough. So I answered her in the negative and asked my friend to wait outside in the corridor, moments later the doctor began insisting that the guy was my boyfriend, after much persistence from my side she gave up. During the ‘two-fingers’ test (which I wasn’t aware of at that time) I was asked to spread my legs in front of two other female helper staff, I imagined her inserting some medical instrument for examination hence with the quickened anxiety overcoming me I promptly asked her if it was going to hurt a lot. I was appalled by what was thrown at me next ‘it doesn’t pain you to take a penis inside you and a mere finger is giving you anxiety’!! I was left speechless!!

The whole point of narrating the above incidence is to highlight the sheer prejudices and moral policing that exist in the Indian society. In this strongly patriarchal societal fabric it is hard for an unmarried young woman to be honest and vocal about her pre-marital sexual activity. Surprisingly enough even the female doctors in the medical fraternity speak the patriarchal language of controlling women’s sexuality by ways of instilling guilt and shame when their real job is to only treat the medical condition that they have been trained at. If as a young woman I was disgusted and humiliated by a female gynecologist’s attitude and beliefs, one can imagine the horror and pain rape survivors have to go through when examined by doctors. Rape survivors are re-raped and are made to re-live the ghastly experience by prevailing perceptions, the details that are sought from them and the tests that they are made to undergo.

This may be a small issue but it reflects how the society we live in makes every misogynist attempt at controlling a woman’s sexuality by associating it with the ideas of family honour, using pre-marital sex as a device for slut-shaming etc. No one wants to comprehend that a young woman who is capable of engaging in sexual relationships can be responsible and adept at making individual choices about her own sexuality. To start with, we really need gender sensitizing education imparted within the medical curriculum where medical students are taught to deconstruct their prejudices against any gender.

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