A photograph of hundreds of bare-breasted Zulu maidens wearing little more than strings of colourful beads. In the article below, a quote from one of them: “I’ve always wanted to be part of this… it’s by choice – and there’s nothing wrong with it.” Further down the page, a call from a feminist group to ban these kinds of events: “It is such a negative cultural thing.”
This is typical of the press coverage of Umhlanga, the annual Reed Dance festival held at the Enyokeni Royal Palace, in Nongoma, KwaZulu Natal. The festival takes place during September and celebrates the purity of Zulu maidens who – and here’s the bit that many feminist groups and human rights organisations object to – have to undergo virginity tests to prove themselves as worthy participants.
The process of virginity testing is reported to always be quite similar: girls line up, and then lie on their backs, spreading their legs to expose their genitals. The woman performing the inspection has a brief look at each girl’s vagina – and, according to some reports, her eyes, knees and breasts – before making her judgement. If the girl is found to be a virgin she is commonly given some sort of mark: a sticker on the forehead or clay markings on the face.
Detractors of virginity testing often argue that these tests violate girls’ rights to bodily integrity, human dignity and equality. They invoke images of oppressed rural girls forced to strip naked, poked, prodded and humiliated, while entrenching the view that women must remain pure for the benefit of patriarchal men. This superstitious barbarism has no place in a liberal democracy like ours, they argue. Those poor, oppressed girls!
Except that these images are completely at odds with what actually happens at events like Umhlanga. Participants sing and dance. Elders, traditional leaders and government officials gather to pay tribute to the maidens, and in the evening cattle are slaughtered for a feast. In the words of one observer “the girls [celebrate] in a manner usually reserved for men: by dancing as Zulu Warriors do, chanting, singing and marching. They have clearly claimed the day and are enjoying the rare public expression of their power.”
On top of all this, the participants themselves insist that they are there out of choice. They say things like “We go through the virginity test because we want to. After all, it is my body to do with what I want” and “When I’m doing it, it feels good. We are not being forced by our parents – it’s by choice.” These hardly seem like the voices of the oppressed.
But it seems like no matter how much the participants insist that they are voluntarily and enthusiastically taking part, critics remain unconvinced that they have made a ‘real’ choice. This takes a liberal feminist critique of virginity testing into difficult ethical territory. It seems to be saying “these girls should be free to make their own choices… as long as they are choices we approve of.”
Some might counter that this is not about choice; it is about preventing harm to children. Virginity testing objectifies teenage girls and young women, and violates their rights whether they know it or not. So it should still be banned.
But the issue is not simply harm: it is harm with consent, and we should always be suspicious of state intervention aimed at curbing that to which we have given our consent – even if it is to something painful or physically harmful. After all, at the age of 16, these same girls can consent to having sadomasochistic sex, or any number of other things that might cause them physical harm, if that’s what they want.
Cosmetic surgery, for example, is indubitably more intrusive than virginity testing, entails the possibility of serious health risks, is permissible for children and has a clear connection to socially inspired constructions of beauty and desirability. Moreover, with the popularity of television shows such as Extreme Makeover, cosmetic surgery has become no less a public spectacle than virginity testing. Yet few people in modern liberal democracies would argue that the state has any business restricting the rights of those who choose to have cosmetic surgery.
Finally, there is the argument that marking out virgins will make them targets for rape, owing to the prevalent myth that sex with a virgin can cure Aids. But of course, this is just another instance of blaming the victim for her rape. Being marked out as a virgin should not increase your risk of being raped any more than wearing a mini-skirt should. The support that Slutwalk recently received in South Africa was hugely heartening, but if you believe the victim is never to blame when they are raped this applies to sluts and virgins in equal measure.
None of this is to say that virginity testing isn’t bad for women – perhaps it is. But for the girls who find a rare moment of empowerment when they choose to participate in these ceremonies, a ban on virginity testing would not be liberating; it would be one more way that are forced to surrender control of their bodies.