The lady in front of me in the queue put a packet of condoms on the counter and we both could see the cashier’s eyes flicker over her left hand, obviously checking if she was married. Not seeing one, he looked at her and smirked. I watched her look at him straight in the eye and I’m sure we both almost wished he would say something. I know I wanted to give his judgmental mind a lecture he would never forget.
Watching this reminded me of a story I had been told a few years ago by a friend who was intent on spreading the word about a gynaecologist in Colombo who had put a colleague of hers through an extremely humiliating experience.
Let’s call her M. So M had gone to see this gynaecologist regarding an issue she was having and during the routine questioning at the beginning she had given her basic details – age, relationship status etc. When the time came for her to be examined he had looked at her vaginal area, after not more than 5 seconds spread her legs a little more and asked her “I thought you said you are not married?” She had been mildly puzzled and responded that she was indeed unmarried. The doctor had roughly pushed her thighs aside a little more, called the nurse (an elderly matronly individual) over to him and said “Bandala naa lu, eth ara balanna, hyman ekak naa” (She says she is unmarried, but look, no hymen).
M had said that she had felt so judged, so violated – to an extent that she had actually said being raped would have been a walk in the park compared to this mental and physical anguish. She had remained on the bed while he continued checking her issue, and said later that she wished had gathered the strength to tell him off and stop the examining then and there. He had lectured her while writing her prescription and had told her that she would find it very difficult to find a husband as she did not have a hymen. She had told him that if it meant not being married to the likes of him she would find herself extremely fortunate and walked off.
Her humiliation did not end there unfortunately – at the pharmacy while she was waiting for her medicine she had been hassled by the pharmacist (a woman) who refused to give one particular pill after she checked on M’s marital status. It was only after M had firmly said that she is well aware that the pill was not meant to be taken orally, that while she was not married she did not have a hymen and if the pharmacist had such a problem with giving this pill she would take her business elsewhere. She had subsequently been given the medicine while other people at the pharmacy had heard every word of this exchange and she left the building with several judgemental eyes on her.
Every time I remember this story I feel humiliated imagining the experience of M. I cannot imagine what she and countless others have gone through (and continue to go through) in the hands of these archaic doctors and nurses still unfortunately serving in our healthcare system.
It was appalling that the doctor never considered that she could have been married before (divorcees, widows – I wonder if he had heard of those terms?), whether she had been raped or molested, whether she had been active in sports and the possibilities can go on. But no, he functioned on two possibilities – 1) Married, no hymen. 2) Unmarried, hymen intact. He had not even bothered to check and treated his patient very badly.
What is dangerous about such conservative people working in our healthcare system (and this also includes people working in pharmacies who are as important as a doctor given the level and frequency of interaction) is that they are also unwilling to accept the changes in culture and lifestyle in Sri Lankan society – such as pre marital sex which has over the years become more and more accepted and part of the lifestyle of Sri Lankans, specifically among the young generation. One can take whatever stand they like on the issue but it needs to be recognised that Sri Lankans ARE indeed having sex and sometimes they are having sex with people who they are not married to. So behaving like a condom is a prize exclusively for married folk contributes to several issues – unwanted pregnancies, abortions, HIV/AIDS, STIs etc.
The value placed on a woman’s virginity, the growing acceptance of pre marital sex are discussions that have been taking place for years and not one I intend to get into by writing this piece. The intention of this piece is however, to speak out to the women who have had the humiliating experience at the hands of a pharmacist or a doctor – who were judged because they did not have a ring around a finger to justify the choices they wish to make with their own bodies , to those who do have a ring around their finger but still have to endure the glances of people when buying a condom or a morning after pill and also to those who have not had the misfortune of such experiences but should know that it can happen to them.
Speak up. If you have had a bad experience at the doctors – tell other women about it, tell other doctors about it, write to the management of the hospital. If you encounter a judgemental cashier or pharmacist – don’t be ashamed. Look at them directly in the eye and challenge them. If you see another girl or woman experiencing this – show your support, speak up on behalf of them. Just as they are entitled to their opinions, you are entitled to yours. If they choose to make theirs known to you, even by smirking at you – make sure you make your opinion known to them, but never explain yourself and give reasons.
Talk about it. Why these things still happen is because any topic related to sex, reproductive organs, and contraception is treated as taboo. By talking about any incident you hear you might even enlighten some people that a hymen can be damaged in many ways. By talking about it you can prevent someone from going to dreadful doctors and instead seek out the many wonderful open minded doctors who doexist in Sri Lanka.
We cannot change the old fashioned views of people nor can we make them accept the changes in our society. Individuals speaking up will not bring about a revolutionary change among the conservative doctors, nurses, pharmacists and cashiers in Sri Lanka. However, it will in some way ensure that even one woman out there will never experience the violation M did. That even one woman out there is having safe sex because she was able to buy a condom because the cashier’s attitude did not make her leave the store without buying one. That even one woman feels like she can go to a doctor without feeling nervous and not contemplate for days about whether she will be judged.