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

Eesha Pandit

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. The offending questions are after the jump.

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:

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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 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.

UPDATED: iPhone, iPad Apps Allow Men to Track Women’s Menstrual Periods. Seriously.

Jodi Jacobson

UPDATED: At first I thought it was a joke. Then I didn't know whether to laugh, cry, scream or call Margaret Atwood.  But this morning I opened the paper to read that new iPhone apps allowing men to track the menstrual periods of their girlfriends or wives are flying off the virtual "shelves."

This article was updated at 10:26 am Saturday, April 24th, 2010 to include details on the features of the iPhone/iPad application, Code Red and to basically change my mind on whether or not this is funny.

At first I thought it was a joke.  Had to be, right?

And then I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, scream or call Margaret Atwood.

But this morning I opened the paper to read in the Washington Post Style Section (of course) about new iPhone applications that allow men to track the menstrual periods of their girlfriends or wives (or to allow any man to track the menstrual periods of his girlfriends or wives depending on the level of fidelity and cultural milieu applicable).

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And on one hand it could be seen as funny–especially as Monica Hesse relates the story in the Post.  She writes:

Men: We are sorry.

Here we have been assuming that our lady-business skeeved you out, that you heard “menstruation” and you went “lalalalalalala.”

We were wrong.

How else to explain “Code Red,” the new iPhone period app that — and this is really linguistically unfortunate — also works on the iPad?

“Code Red,” writes Hesse, “keeps track of periods.”

It keeps track of them for men. It is, in fact, strong enough for a woman but made for the men who love them, or at least want to monitor their bodies the way that creep-o just might on “Law & Order: SVU” before Detective Benson punched him in the head. Just sayin.’

How it works: Type in the first day of your partner’s cycle for a few months. Then sit back and wait for the helpful reminders to pop up on your Apple device. During PMS time, for example, a female symbol appears sporting devil horns. A frisky ovulation alert tells you when your chances for getting down are looking up.

Menstrual apps for men are a booming market, says Hesse.

“PMSBuddy,” for example, is proudly “saving relationships, one month at a time.” “PMS Meter” features “hilarious sound effects.” And the infamous “IAmAMan,” which is nothing if not unapologetic, allows users to track the menstrual cycles of several women at once, for those special times when you are a big cheater.

At a deep cultural level, she writes, “one might speculate that the proliferation of these apps all ties into some deep fear of womanhood — an attempt by men to make sense of what they do not understand.”

And yet, she notes:

One might offer the possibility that men would chart the life cycle of a fruit fly if they could do it on an iPad, that this is really all about gadgetry. One might also say this is gross.

And the more I looked into it, the less funny and the more gross it became.

Just take a look at the MEDL website at which features of the Code Red app can be found.

First of all, the app is described as “Men’s best defense against the monthly Her-ricane.”  (You know: Women are moody, unpredictable, controlled by their hormones.)

The e-brochure helpfully offers that:

Men no longer need to fear the wrath of menstrual madness. MEDL Mobile is pleased—and very relieved—to introduce Code Red: a simple but powerful menstrual calendar for men to keep track of—and survive—their girlfriend’s/fiancé’s/wife’s monthly cycle.

Menstural madness?  Let’s just reinforce that age-old and completely discredited notion that women are determined by biology and beset by “nervous disorders,” and that any and every response to life or thought a woman has can be traced back to this unfortunate reality.

And the creators of this app make clear they are determined to make the world safer–and more sexually promising–for men.

“Code Red will be a life saver for thousands of guys out there,” said Kevin Harrison, Co-Creator, “Its each guys personal color coded Terror Alert System…”

What makes Code Red so much more valuable than other period tracking apps, they suggest “is the profound simplicity and ease of use.”  Use for what?

When the tracking starts, Code Red will provide special alert messages for every phase in her cycle. There are five different alerts, and each calendar day comes equipped with a wealth of tips and advice to brave even the most violent of storms.

It has the following features:

  • Fully automated menstrual calendar
  • 5 special alerts for each phase of her cycle
  • Dynamic animations for each alert
  • Helpful suggestions to survive each phase
  • Links to local vendors for presents, groceries and goods (via Google Maps)
  • Advanced calendar toggle settings

The special alerts will be particularly helpful to men who apparently can not communicate verbally with their partners:

  • Smooth Sailing Alert — Let’s you know when she’s feeling like a team player.
  • Horny Alert — Let’s you know when you’re able to score.
  • PMS Alert — Let’s you know when to hit the (cold) showers.
  • Ovulation Alert — Let’s you know when to sit on the sidelines (unless you’re ready to start a junior league).
  • Code Red Alert — Let’s you know that it’s game time and you’re way out of bounds.

“Every month, women go through the same ups and downs, but the men in our lives never seem to catch on,” said Lisi Harrison, Co-Creator and Author of New York Times #1 Bestselling series’ The Clique and Alphas.

Are they really that stupid?

If this is a joke, it’s a lucrative one for the creators. While MEDL Mobile, the company that distributes “Code Red,” will not release sales figures, Hesse says that the application has climbed as high as 35 on the Lifestyle division of the Apple app store — a category that includes hundreds of applications.

The developers told Hesse:

“We were sitting around in a meeting where we go over submissions,” Swartz says, when he mentioned “Code Red.” “About half the people there were young guys, and one said, ‘I will pay $20 for that right now.’ Actually, he said $19.99.”

They decided to price the app at $1.99.

While at first I thought it was a bit funny–we all need to be able to laugh at ourselves and our ingrained stereotypes–it really is sad and also troubling at some deeper level.

I mean, let’s face it.  Women’s menstrual periods have been the subject of fascination, disgust, and control by men for centuries.  Orthodox and Hassidic Jews won’t touch a woman they do not know for fear she may be “unclean” (menstruating).  Women in parts of rural India are sent to sleep with the animals or out in the fields when they are menstruating.  In many societies, girls who reach menarche are married off right away, for fear that they might otherwise become sexual superwomen without the control of a man.  The menstrual cycles of girls and women throughout the world in various cultures–and even in the United States, as noted recently by Bianca Laureano on Rewire–are monitored by their parents and their husbands as a means of figuring out what they might be doing with their bodies, whether they are on birth control, and whether they might be having sex and gotten pregnant.  Women still have to combat the notion that they are “emotional,” “nervous,” “incapable,” “unpredictable.”

So it’s not like there is anything new about the combination of horror, control, and confusion that comes with menstruating.  It’s the ultimate “in-your-face” reminder to men that despite any level of subjugation, we can still do something they can not.

But that it is so popular is a reminder of our cultural schizophrenia around sex, power, and gender. On one hand, despite record numbers of sexually transmitted infections and despite still-too-high levels of teenage pregnancy, we can’t get the federal government to stop spending money on failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Networks and cable stations will sell sex 24-7, but many still refuse to air responsible ads for contraceptive methods or such controversial things as condoms, or information about sexually transmitted infections.  We can’t quite accept socially that there is a spectrum of sexuality inherent in being human and that not everyone is embraced under the culturally constructed “one (heterosexual) man and one (heterosexual) woman” notion of marriage.  We still hide condoms in drugstores and some men still have problems buying tampons for their significant others because its….embarassing.

And it is worth noting the the current wave of laws at the state and federal level and the general level of hysteria around women’s rights to choose pregnancy and childbirth in the United States has a lot to do with control over their bodies. So the notion that an iPhone app marketed specifically to men is flying off the virtual shelves is a bit creepy in more ways than one. I’m thinking if in fact the tea-partiers are right, and the government is going to be implanting microchips in anyone, women will be first.

It is also worth watching how well this app does elsewhere in the world.  I am not kidding.  Yesterday, for example, a story on Apple’s first-quarter profits indicated that sales of the iPhone and iPad are booming in places like China, India, Pakistan and elsewhere.  These are cultures in which women’s periods are indeed more openly the source of control (here, we like to pretend we are protecting “life,” not controlling women’s lives.  In China, the one-child policy still leads to forced sterlization and forced abortion, and in ultra-conservative Islamic cultures women are not only blamed for being raped, they are killed for it).  I’d love to know whether and how such an app sells in these places.  Yeah, I know it is possible to track menstrual cycles otherwise and that technology here only reinforces misogyny, it does not create it.  But nonetheless, the “unintended” applications are worth monitoring. 

(BTW, can we get a misogyny meter app, please?)

So I kind of agree with the response given by Kevin Harrison, “co-conceptualizer” with his wife Lisi of the product, to a question by Hesse who asked: “Isn’t Code Red kind of….funny?”

And I think it probably is funny, to the Harrisons and MEDL, who must be laughing all the way to the bank.

Report Fails to Measure Effects of Poverty on Peruvian Women

Karim Velasco

A new report assessing poverty reduction in Peru analyzes socioeconomic status through many lenses -- except gender.

It’s been almost fourteen
years since the Cairo Conference on Population
and Development
, thirteen
years since the Beijing World Conference on
and eight since the
United Nations adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and still women can so easily, yet so inexplicably, be ignored by government discourse in some Latin
American countries, including here in Peru.

Three weeks ago the Peruvian
National Statistics Institute (INEI) released its 2007 Technical
Report on Poverty
in Peru. 
The report — which applied the same methodology and procedures used
to measure poverty in 2006 — was received with optimism and great satisfaction
by government officials and the media since it stated that the poverty
rate decreased 5.2% in 2007 (39.3%)
compared to the 44.5% rate in 2006
.  In the same way extreme
poverty decreased from 16.1% in 2006 to 13.7% in 2007
.  This
means that for the first time in more than 20 years the poverty rate
was below 40%.   

However, despite the
good news, there is not even a single reference in any
of the report’s 31 pages about women and their poverty status; neither
the charts nor tables include data related to women. Are women more
or less poor? Is their poverty status similar to men’s? Have they
also reached the best scenario in twenty years? This is not possible
to know from the report. On the other hand, the report does give detailed
information about poverty incidence rates in urban areas (25.7%) and
rural areas of the country (64.6%), where people are four times poorer
than the poor people in urban areas. Sixty-three percent of people whose mother tongue
is an indigenous language are poor, whereas only 32.6% of the people
whose mother tongue is Spanish are poor.  The report also identifies
the profiles of the poor: households consisting of five or more family
members, with a young head of household, with only primary education or
no education at all, working on agriculture, fishing or mining. After
examining all these criteria, it is difficult to understand how the
report can omit every reference to women, who comprise half of the
Peruvian population

This is even more shocking
when taking into consideration that for this year’s report, various
international institutions that work on gender issues themselves, such
as the Inter-American Development
and the World Bank, provided technical assistance to the INEI. It
seems contradictory that apparently none of these institutions demanded
that the report included a gender perspective.  

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The Advisory Committee set up to review the methodology applied by
the INEI and formulate relevant recommendations issued a statement listing
its main findings, which were principally related to minor changes in
the sample, the accuracy of the methodology used and the importance
of INEI’s transparency policy. Again there was no mention regarding
the lack of gender related or sex disaggregated data needed for a comprehensive
estimation of poverty.  

The relation between
women and poverty has been extensively researched. According to UNIFEM "poverty traps women in multiple layers of
discrimination and hinders their ability to claim their rights (…)
Not only do women bear a disproportionate burden of the world’s poverty,
but in some cases, globalization has widened the gap, with women losing
more than their share of jobs, benefits and labour rights. (…) economic
policies and institutions still mostly fail to take gender disparities
into account."  Arriagada believes that the gender analysis "highlights
the heterogeneous character of poverty, and therefore, helps to understand
it better and to adjust policies to eradicate it." 

Fortunately, despite
the INEI report’s deficiency, there are several institutions and NGOs
that have been working on gender and poverty issues in the country,
monitoring the fulfillment of the MDGs. UNIFEM, for instance, has been
funding projects regarding gender participatory budgets and assisting the Round Tables for the Fight
against Poverty in outlining gender sensitive budgets. Likewise, UNDP
provides technical assistance to design poverty reduction policies and
to promote the role of women in development. 

The INEI’s report is
supposed to reflect if poverty reduction strategies are working and
help to outline and implement new policies to eradicate poverty. 
The question is then how can poverty reduction policies be properly
reviewed from a report where half of the population is not being considered? 
It is time to realize that no real changes will be achieved unless gender
analysis is seriously taken into account.