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Ayesha Susan Thomas has spent the last several months, buried in medical textbooks – not, as one might suspect, because she’s a medical student trying to pass an exam, but because her research centres around approaches to the female body in Indian medical textbooks. At EET 2.4 we will read some parts of these and look at the consequences of violence and misogyny codified in our health care systems.
A Textbook of Forensic Medicine in standard use across the country today, defines the breasts of a virgin as “hemispherical, firm, plump and elastic”, while that of a “deflorate” woman as “enlarged and flabby”. Texts spend entire chapters on How to Determine Female Virginity, how to identify a “false virgin” and explain with the help of a handy table that Rape is a biologically “natural” offence. According to these texts Lesbianism is akin to Bestiality in its “unnaturalness” and Masturbation is a sexual “perversion” in the same category as Necromancy.
India’s population is often conflated with the poverty epidemic, suddenly making women’s sexual choices political. Virgins are prized because they are the future of the nation. Deflorate women are considered to be ruining the population metric, increasing poverty and working against the national interest. Conversely, upper caste and class women are encouraged to reproduce (within the patriarchal family structure of course) in order to populate the country with more upper class, upper caste people in a very eugenics-esque masquerade. Forced female sterilisation is still India’s most-used contraceptive method. Usually, these are funded by population control plans that blackmail women into the operations at risk of losing ration cards or by promising their family members fridges and cars. Hysterectomies are also common in farming communities like Beed, Maharashtra, where female farm workers are told they could choose to either undergo the procedure or face unemployment.
The obsession with virginity manifests in strange ways across the consumerist spectrum. The semantic virtue attributed to the virgin is demonstrated in the way we describe so many other things, from olive oil to un-furrowed land. In this dynamic, the female body is no different from a bottle of extra virgin cold-pressed olive oil or in a more literal sense, a patch of land on which seeds must be sown for eventual harvest. While the explicit ownership of the female body may be condemned and illegal today, these implicit markers of ownership remain and are in fact widely encouraged.
Nobody cares what part of the foreskin tears or doesn’t tear the first time a man has sex. Nobody analyses a rapist’s penis to determine whether or not it has raped. What we choose to study and how tells us as much about our own preoccupations and obsessions as it does about the subject of study itself, if not more.
If everything boils down to the myth of female virginity, then what is the cost of this gendered myth-making in a medical textbook? What are the consequences when an Indian doctor believes in the myth of female virginity?
Because women are things
In the blue forest
Under a tree heavy with scent
You will find a woman
White-faced, waiting, hot like fruit
That’s been sitting in the sun
At the thought
Of your arrival
And smell the juice that runs down your chin in rivulets
Of fevered blood
Blue blood that stains your fingers and leaves prints
Of palm and foot and knee
In the soil
Under the tree
In the forest
Heavy with scent
About Exploring Exciting Texts:
Exploring Exciting Texts began in 2017, as a series of monthly events hosted by Indian Ensemble with the aim to academically engage with various kinds of texts. Having done over 22 events, the events have developed a regular-audience base of people who are curious and want to engage in discussions and debates. These events draw an eclectic mix of people ranging across students, art practitioners, academicians, and young professionals.
Ayesha Susan Thomas
Ayesha Susan Thomas is an Applied Theatre Practitioner who works primarily at the creative intersections of education, gender and sexuality.
Until June 2019, she taught IBDP/IGCSE Theatre at Dhirubhai Ambani International School in Mumbai.
She has also worked as a workshop facilitator, dramaturge (The Inspire Passion Project 2014), and director on a range of projects.
In a former life, she curated the Literature section at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival Mumbai, and performed as a Christmas Elf at an amusement park near Bradford. She has an MA in Theatre and Global Development from the University of Leeds, UK and a BA in English Literature from the University of Mumbai.