She turned the page, and there it stared at her, unblinking, insistent, and bold: “What was the last date of menstruation?”
Stunned, she stole a glance around. Nobody was looking at her. But, caught on the wrong foot, it took her a solid minute to compose herself.
Should she answer the question? Why do they want to know? Isn’t that like invading her private space? Should she call up Mom?
That intrusive question is one of many queries that figure in the admission form of the reputed Banasthali University, an all-women, residential education academy in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Established in 1935 by freedom fighter and Rajasthan’s first chief minister Ratan Shastri, the institute offers classes from the primary to PhD level. The questions about the applicant’s menstrual system and pregnancy history have been around for decades.
For Devyani Sharma, the admission form with its abrasive questions was a deal breaker. Sample these:
Why did Banasthali University need Devyani’s gynaecological profile? That, and the other questions of similar nature, made her so uncomfortable, she left without applying for admission. “I did not want to study at a place where personal space was a joke,” said Devyani, who went on to graduate from Essex University in London, where nobody asked to know about her menstrual cycle. She’s 24 today and it was back in 2014 when she had sought to apply to Banasthali Vidyapith.
Devyani is not coy about her bodily functions. She said she does not normally mind talking about her menstrual cycle as it’s a natural phenomenon. “But filling up a University admission form with such personal details is a no go. Period,” she said.
Here’s the University’s latest admission form for the session covering 2016-17 and it has questions along the same lines.
Twenty-three-year-old Kriti Sharma is a Banasthali alumnus and she remembers being stunned when she saw the admission form back in 2011.
Her first reaction was to stride up and confront the University administration. The response she got was that the residential academy is “100 years old” (actually, 81) and has a large number of women studying under the same roof.
So, Kriti was told, keeping a complete medical profile of every student ensured her “wellbeing” and would “pre-empt any emergency.”
Kriti took the explanation in good spirit, and concluded that the questions were not as offensively intrusive as they had seemed at first look. She graduated out of the University in 2015. Today, in hindsight, she agrees that they are needless and should go.
It’s not as if every student of the University has issues disclosing her gynaecological profile. Ritul Rastogi, who joined the academy as a student of class VI and stayed on till BTech, found the questions innocuous. To her, the university’s explanation that giving the information is in the student’s benefit makes complete sense. She said the questions were asked so that hostel wardens had a complete knowledge of each student’s health profile at hand.
When 101reporters.com sought to know the relevance of such personal details for admission, vice-chancellor Ina Shastri seemed surprised that the form needed to be questioned.
She said the “health assessment form” was prepared by the university hospital’s doctors and that the questions pertained to various aspects of human physiology — a gynaecological profile being one of them.
“The hospital has complete medical records of the students, should there be a need for them,” she said. These questions are indeed part of the “Health Assessment” section in the admission form, which asks various questions including whether the student has any “chronic skin condition” or “mental health problems” and so on. Had this been a form that students had to fill once they’d got admission, it may still have made sense. As it stands, the questions smack of moral policing.
Damayanti Gairola, 60, who joined Banasthali Vidyapith as a pre-teen in the late 1960s and lived on the campus till she completed BSc in 1976, recounted an unpleasant episode that may explain the ‘rationale’ behind the gynaecological profile.
When she was in middle school, she remembers an incident that led to a furore in the University.
“One day, the cleaning staff found a dead newborn in the hostel toilet,” recalled Gairola. “This sent shockwaves in the institute that prides itself as one that shields its girls from outside influence and outsiders.”
Apparently, the ‘guilty’ mother was discovered because lactation gave her identity away. When her parents were informed, they blamed the university for failing to honour its promise that their daughter would be safe.
Reportedly, the University, which had a couple of male staff on the campus, denied any breach and alleged that the girl must have conceived before she got admitted to Banasthali. Reportedly, after this scandal, the university included the gynaecological profile in its application form.
The argument that the questions are for the girl students’ own good found little favour with women’s rights activist and secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, Kavita Krishnan. “Such an act of inexcusable violation of privacy should not be masqueraded as showing concern towards the students. They have no business and, more importantly, no right to ask such personal questions,” she said.
Shagufta Sufee, professor and student coordinator of Indraprastha University for Women, was equally flabbergasted at the institution’s “curiosity” to know the menstrual cycle of every student. “I’ve never heard of such a thing. Apart from violent intrusion, it is beyond logical rationale,” she laughed. “Why do they need this information? Will they give sanitary napkins to the girls every month?”
Asking these questions of applicants is not only invasive, it also suggests that the information has some bearing upon the admission process. After all, if a student said she’d been pregnant despite being unmarried, would this information make her a less worthy candidate than a single student without any history of pregnancy?