Sibongile* takes off her panties and lies on the mat, her legs apart and knees raised. She swallows nervously as a middle-aged woman wearing latex gloves parts her labia. Behind them, a bulky line of older women holding up blankets blocks the inspection from outsiders.
There is little reason for the virginity testers to confer over Sibongile. “She’s a virgin. See, the hole is very, very small,” tester Busisiwe Mncwabe explains as Sibongile gets up, and the next girl lies down to be tested.
Sibongile gets a sticker on her forehead, and ochre clay painted on each cheek. For today, she and the hundreds of other girls who are marked as virgins are the focus of attention and praise.
Bulwer, a small rural town in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, has been at the centre of the revival of the old Zulu tradition of virginity testing.
Every spring for the past seven years, girls have gathered in the town for the annual Nomkhubulwane Festival. The festival essentially celebrates virginity, starting early in the morning with the testing itself and progressingto the slaughtering of a bull and dancing competitions. It ends the following day when all the virgins plough and plant a field.
Cambridge University anthropology doctoral student Fiona Scorgie, who has been researching virginity testing in a village near Bulwer for the past year, says Princess Nomkhubulwane is “one of the few female deities in the Zulu mythology, usually represented as princess of the heavens”.
Local school teacher Nomagugu Ngobese is generally credited as the force behind the revival of virginity testing. In the mid-morning heat, Ngobese leads the hundreds of tested girls down to the river where they will wash off the clay and cleanse themselves in the cold water.
“The girls are so proud. Talk to them, you will see. They enjoy it. They feel special. But the Gender Commission is fighting with me. They say that we are exploiting them,” snorts Ngobese, who is president of the Nomkhubulwane Arts and Culture Organisation.
She explains that she and other women decided to revive virginity testing to “save our daughters from having illegitimate children, the HIV/AIDS and the rape”.
However, Joyce Piliso-Seroke, Chairperson of the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE), has condemned virginity testing “as an example of culture and tradition (that is) flouting the provisions of the Constitution”. One of the CGE’s key concerns is that females and not males are being tested.
Ngobese shakes her head. “Well, after all it is the girls who are the ones who fall pregnant. They are the ones who leave school to take care of the babies. What we are trying to do is teach them to be strong enough to say ‘no’. We want to build their self-esteem and make them proud to abstain from sex.”
But Gender Commissioner Beatrice Ngcobo says the CGE is exploring “the best alternatives to virginity testing”.
“We cannot prevent the testing,” says Ngcobo. “Only the people can stop it. But we can engage with people and point out that the testing violates a girl ‘s rights to freedom of choice and to privacy. We believe that parents must take responsibility for their children’s sex education.”
Scorgie says it is “unfortunate that views have become so polarised on virginity testing”. She believes that, while the testing is controversial, it does offer an opportunity for older women to teach girls about sex and to encourage them to wait until they are ready for sex – thus providing a valuable weapon against HIV/AIDS.
Tester Busisiwe Mncwabe, who comes from a village nearby, has brought a group of girls with her for the festival. She is insistent that girls are not forced to take the test.
Khanyisile*, a 16-year-old from nearby Impendle, has come to the festival to assist her mother to sell food. “I don’t like this testing and I won’t do it,” she says.
There seems to be a tacit agreement that girls who are not virgins should not take the test – but that may mean that they have to choose between failing the test and telling their parents that they have had sex.
While Mncwabe insists that it is “impossible” for the testers to make a mistake, medical practitioners disagree. However, the main test appears to be psychological – non-virgins who are given the choice by their parents simply stay away as they fear being stigmatised.
But Mncwabe says there were a few girls who failed the test that morning, and that they were asked to “stay away from the virgins”. These are, in all likelihood, girls whose parents made them attend the festival. They may well face punishment when they return home.
“We do feel sorry for the ones who have been raped, but they also can’t join the virgins,” adds Mncwabe.
Hlengiwe Nzimande, 18, says she and her friends have come to the festival because “our grannies and mothers want to be sure that we are still virgins”.
While the older generation attaches symbolic and cultural value to virginity, the younger ones are far more pragmatic. Their main reason for abstaining from penetrative sex, they say, is to prevent HIV/AIDS infection.
“It’s very easy to be a virgin if that’s what you want to do. And it’s very important because it means you will avoid HIV/AIDS,” says Nzimande.
Eighteen-year-old Eric Ngcobo, one of the few young men hanging around the Nomkhubulwane Festival, says the festival makes him feel “proud as an African”.
“I am proud of my culture. We need to keep our culture and protect ourselves against HIV,” says Ngcobo.
He vows that he will “never put pressure on my girlfriend” to have sex. “I want to marry a virgin so that I know that she is HIV negative,” adds Ngcobo.
According to Ngobese, workshops are also held with young men to encourage them to remain virgins too. However, it is very clear that young women are seen as the custodians of virginity, and that virginity is a female virtue.
After a small black bull has been slaughtered, Ngobese sprinkles its fresh thick blood on the ground and prays “for these girls who are virgins, and that they can have good marriages”.
She asks me, as we return to the massive marquee for the afternoon’s dancing, whether I would allow my daughters to take part in such a festival. At that moment, the city seems far away. There, it was easy to adopt a politically correct stance and simply condemn virginity testing as a sexist practice.
But here, in Bulwer, the girls are celebrating 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.
Here too, in rural KwaZulu-Natal, communities are being decimated by HIV/AIDS and young women are most at risk of infection.
Virginity testing may well be a crude cultural weapon against the pandemic, and those girls who “fail” the test may be ostracised. But if culture can be mobilised against a disease so cruel that it is snatching our youngest and finest, should we stand it its way?
The CGE’s Ngcobo believes that we should, as the testing “entrenches women’s oppression”.
“Whose culture is it? Why was it revived? Where is the statistical proof that virginity testing is preventing HIV/AIDS and reducing teenage pregnancies,” she asks.
However, Ngobese and many others believe that the tests have encouraged many young girls to delay becoming sexually active.
“We are saving our children and this is our culture,” says Ngobese, as she gazes towards the nearby mountain from which people in hang gliders have been leaping all morning, oblivious to the festival below them. “This is renaissance. We are reviving the things we lost under Westernisation. We are finding our identity. We will never quit.” –
Health-e News Service.
* Names changed at the girls’ request.