As an unmarried woman in Pakistan, I couldn’t access a cervical screening – here’s why

cervical screening, pakistan

Bleeding between periods was a frequent event in my life. After the results of the ultrasound of my pelvis came out as normal, my gynaecologist told me that it could be a hormonal issue, for which she prescribed some combined oral contraceptive pills. When that didn’t address the issue either, she told me that I needed to have a cervical screening.

However, she needed the permission of my husband or fiancé before conducting the ‘invasive’ screening. The only problem was that I didn’t have a husband or fiancé.

This happened at one of the most renowned private hospitals in Karachi, the commercial urban hub of Pakistan. The fact that doctors ask you unnecessary private details about your life as a woman shows how deeply ingrained patriarchy is in our country.

Myths around virginity

The fears around a woman’s loss of ‘virginity’ are insurmountable. Myths around ‘virginity’ are also common. Women in Pakistan have faced detrimental consequences for not being perceived as a ‘virgin’: some have been divorced, while others have been killed. The patriarchal society of Pakistan places a high premium on what it assumes to be a woman’s virginity.

Nonetheless, it would be useful if everyone obsessed with the idea of virginity could sit down to think about what it really is and why such importance is attached to the idea.

Is virginity lack of any sexual activity? Is a woman a virgin if she masturbates through clitoral stimulation or if someone else stimulates her clitoris? Does virginity mean having a hymen that isn’t ruptured? But hymens, which are often worn away naturally after adolescence even without having vaginal sex, can be ruptured by cycling, swimming and exercising among other non-sexual activities. So what is the real issue here?

In Pakistan, the most common way of ‘verifying’ whether a woman is a virgin or not is to check for bleeding after her wedding night. The bleeding is assumed to be a consequence of the hymen getting ruptured through vaginal sex. However, that again is a myth and most women bleed due to internal injuries that occur as a result of having sex without the woman being aroused enough.

How patriarchy controls women’s sexuality

Virginity is a highly problematic concept perpetuated by patriarchy. It is aimed at controlling a woman’s sexuality (as there is no way to keep such a check on a man’s sexuality) and reflects the status that patriarchy accords her, which is that she is ‘owned’ by the men in her life.

Before marriage, it is the fathers and brothers who are the guardians of the woman’s sexuality and are responsible for stripping her of any agency over her own body. After marriage, her body belongs to her husband, who, along with potential future sons, will be the guardians of her sexuality for the rest of her life.

It is sad to note how patriarchy takes precedence over the health and wellbeing of women and other non-male populations. I have had my cervical screening done in the UK. It is one of the most important examinations that everyone with a cervix must take seriously. The screening can detect cell changes in the cervix, which if left untreated, may turn into cancer. It also looks for human papillomavirus (HPV) that can cause cancer.

According to the NHS, if you have a cervix and have ever had any kind of sexual contact with anyone, you could get cervical cancer. The cervical screening can help save lives that are in potential danger. The procedure may be slightly uncomfortable, but it takes barely five minutes.

Sexual health matters. The bare minimum that bourgeois states should be doing is to grant us free and accessible healthcare and train medical staff to be helpful and considerate instead of patriarchal and judgemental.

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