Image Credit: Kartik Mistry
In India, when a woman is on her period, her life is put on hold. In the city of Surat, 100 female government employees were forced together in groups of 10 in the hospital and were stripped naked as they underwent invasive “finger tests” to check if they were menstruating. This was to ensure that they were fit for work. There are claims that the test is mandatory for any female government trainee to continue working after their three-year probationary period. A few of the women have disclosed their experience of the event and described their surroundings. They noted that the door was not fully closed and the only thing blocking the view was a thin sheet of curtains. They stated that the female doctors who performed these procedures were often rude to the patients, and even questioned harshly on whether the unmarried women in the groups were pregnant, which in India is seen as a taboo. There have been further similar reports across the state.
This traumatic invasion of privacy is “highly deplorable” as quoted by their union, although worryingly the tests themselves in principle were not objected to but rather the method used.
This is in stark contrast to the male treatment, which merely included a general fitness test, that looked at the eyes, ENT, lung and heart tests, as well as an overall check-up.
This issue was alerted by the union of a few women who were brave enough to discuss their trauma. Shaikh (the general secretary of The Surat Municipal Corporation Employee Union) alleged that doctors performing the finger test on women in a group was demeaning. “If they [doctors] had any doubt about an employee’s health, they should have got tests done in an acceptable manner. Asking even unmarried women about past pregnancies is downright insulting.” He later goes on to state “we demand an immediate halt to such insulting and inhuman tests. I have never heard such a test on women employees anywhere else.”
In the 21st century women must still go through ‘virginity tests’, as it is deemed a condition that would influence their work performance. This is not a new trend in India or other countries such as Pakistan. Menstruation is often seen as taboo, and in western countries such as the UK there’s still an attitude of disgust when it comes to periods. However, this is not a new trend, especially in rural parts of India where sanitary napkins or just rags of cloth were the predomiant materials used by women until the early 2000s due to the high expense of sanitary pads. Muruganantham later helped women buy more affordable pads with his invention and helped destigmatise it, if only a little.
Tampon sales according to a Euro monitor survey, are at a sluggish rate of 2-3 per cent, seven times lower than sanitary napkins. Roughly, only 5 per cent of the Indian female population are aware of this facility. This can be explained by the fact that virginity is still seen as pure in most parts of the world, and is something a woman must keep sacrosanct, hence why tampons in India are so hard to come by - because of the pervasive and continuing myth that it will break a woman’s hymen, and affect her virginity. Therefore, general healthcare for women in parts of rural India remains to be scarce.
This event in Surat seems coherent to the attitudes surrounding female healthcare which is what these women have been shamed and degraded for. Considering that this happened at a government level, concerningly, shows that this is a systemic issue that is prevalent amongst the political elites in India who permitted this to happen to their own employees.
However, there are signs of change in India. In 2018, the government scrapped the tampon tax which reduced the price down 12 per cent, thus making it more affordable for women to have access. In comparison, the UK government is still waiting to do this since legislation was passed in 2016.
Yet, it seems that Prime Minister Modi may be more focused on international image. His meeting with Trump, during his maiden visit to the country, focused more on issues like security and foreign trade. For now, while India may be a rising global power, domestically it remains that not all citizens will reap the benefit of this international status.