Ever heard of Umhlanga?
South Africa's Reed Dance is an eight-day annual festival in late August, early September that takes place in the royal palaces of both the kings of Swazis and the Zulus, in Ludzidzini Royal Village in Swaziland, and Nongoma, South Africa respectively. This event draws tens of thousands of virgin girls from the respective regions, as well as spectators from all over the world to the event. Umhlanga was created by a Swazi mornach back in 1940, an adaptation of a much older traditional rite from the 1800's called the Umchwasho, a traditional chastity rite for young girls. The King of Zulu land, Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu adopted this tradition in 1991. Since then, it has quickly grown into a highly anticipated event with Southern Africa's dignitaries in attendance and a yearly tourist attraction.
A test for virginity?
So, the purpose of this festival is to ensure chastity before marriage which is highly regarded in the culture and as a way to fight sexually transmitted diseases, namely HIV/AIDS. The eight-day event proceeds with a number of rituals, namely, virginity testing which all unmarried and young girls must undergo to be able to participate. A highly regarded madame would be responsible for conducting this test, which is rudimental at best since there's no medical professional involved. The girls spread their legs open for a hymen check. Others include the girls traveling to the fields for reed picking. The girls must pick the strongest and the tallest reeds so not to risk them breaking, for broken reeds mean the girl has been sexually active. The reeds they must either present to the king or the queen mother during the ceremony to help repair the royal compound's perimeter. The girls would gather and bathe in a body of water the day before they present themselves to the royals.
All unmarried virgin girls are expected to participate in this, including the royal family. They are usually distinguished by their feather crowns and usually play prominent roles during the entire ceremony. During the ceremony, the girls proceed to the palace in traditional attire made of beaded tassels and pieces of cloth worn around the waist, as well as beaded neckwear, bracelets, anklets and colorful sashes. Breasts and bottoms are exposed. They dance in procession towards the palace with their reeds in tow. They may also carry the bush knives used in cutting the reeds as a symbol signifying their virginity.
Here's the head scratcher
King Goodwill Zwelithini introduced this festival to the Zulus as a way to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic by delaying sexual activity until marriage. The decades long tradition in Swaziland encouraged chastity and fostered solidarity among the women. What I'm not able to understand is why so much emphasis is placed on the women? If you happen to be curious, look up Southern Africa's virginity testing on YouTube (how about I give you a head start here?) that they conduct on girls as young as twelve. The madame performs the test with her bare hands sometimes with men looking on. What I would like to know is how this tradition averts the act of sex amongst teenagers and how an intact hymen is a sure-fire proof that a girl has not had sex. It has been reported that these girls have been known to avert failing the test by stuffing meat and lace in their vaginas. From my research on this subject the emphasis on educating boys and men on the matter of sexual abstinence is not nearly enough. While it's almost taboo for the girls to engage in sexual intercourse before marriage, it is okay for boys. While this may be effective in scaring the young girls straight, what about the violation of her privacy and the right to her own body? A girl has to be subject to such public scrutiny while a boy doesn't. What about the many incidences of rape or child sexual abuse perpetrated in higher percentages by men? In Africa, this is as high as twenty percent compared to the rest of the world. In South Africa alone a child under seven is being raped every three minutes, infants have been gang raped by men, causing the need for reconstructive surgery. A twelve year old girl is ashamed and afraid to speak up on sexual abuse. What it does at best is cause emotional turmoil for the girls that fail the test who may have to live out the rest of their lives as women scarred with the stigma of sleeping around, a lower value is placed on them, their bride price lowered, they become societal moral pariahs.
Here's another, on the one hand, this tradition continues to enforce moral chastity while on the other hand thrives on exhibitionism when these girls are not allowed to wear any clothing as they parade themselves for the general public. The excuse to maintaining the tradition at status quo is that the tradition that exists today and that from the past is inextricably linked, it is not in their place to change it. It has been rumored that the king of Swaziland attends these events to find a bride, he's currently on wife #15.
This annual event has attracted perpetrators from across the globe who take images obtained at the festival and release to pornographic sites.
Girls marked as virgins become the target of men infected with HIV/AIDS who think that sleeping with a virgin will cure them of the disease.
Women have long been exploited in many parts of the world in the confines of religion and tradition for their bodies, many want them covered and not to show a sliver of skin, others like this one, want full exposure, all in the name of keeping them out of trouble.
We very much live in patriarchal societies where women continue to be viewed as properties and commodities. In the debate of men vs. women, what's good for the goose is not good for the gander.