Biologically Determined: Indian Women Required to Reveal Details of Their Menstrual Cycles


After significant outrage by women civil servants in India, the Indian government says it will review new appraisal forms requiring female civil servants to offer information about their menstrual cycles.

Last week, the BBC reported that the health ministry of the Indian Government sought information about the details of female employees' menstrual cycles and when they last sought maternity leave. Here are the offending questions (photo taken from BBC News Article).

The supposed justification for these questions was to assess the "fitness" of the women government officers. A personnel department representative of the Ministry for Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, Satyanand Mishra, told the BBC that the clause mandating medical check-ups was being introduced for the first time for civil servants over the age of 40.

The responses of women were justifiably intense:

One senior female member of staff said she was "gob smacked" at being asked about her menstrual cycle.

"I am completely shocked!" said Sharwari Gokhale, environment secretary in western Maharashtra state.

"I have absolutely no words to describe how I feel and I have no intention of telling them anything about my personal life. I am gob smacked."

Gob-smacked is right. What exactly could menstrual cycles have to do with a woman's ability to do her job? That's right, not a single thing. As Seema Vyas, Maharashtra's joint secretary for general administration said, "Menstrual cycles are a natural phenomenon, they are not an aberration."

This case is a perfect example of women being seen, by virtue of their biology, as somehow unfit to fully participate in public life. Although it is heartening that the Ministry of Health is reassessing the policy, the mere fact that a group of people thought that this was acceptable questioning is symptomatic of a much greater problem that affects India (and many other places, to be sure): the persistent belief that women are rendered incapable of many things because of their bodies.

To draw a somewhat tangential line, think about the recent arguments some make about women and war in the guise of arguments for protecting women (See also the fab Feministing.com response to this.). They are based on the same reasoning about women's bodies as detrimental to their full and effective functioning, and in the case of Kathleen Turner's article, as inherently unequal to men.

This is dangerous thinking not only because it prevents women from participating fully in national life, per this example, but also because it is insidious and discriminatory policy masquerading as neutral and "health related" or "scientifically grounded." It's our job to be vigilant against such shoddy and essentialist reasoning.

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