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Virginity testing in South Africa: re-traditioning the postcolony.

Cult Health Sex. 2006 Jan-Feb;8(1):17-30.

Virginity testing in South Africa: re-traditioning the postcolony.

Vincent L.

Department of Political and International Studies, Rhodes University, South Africa. L.Vincent@ru.ac.za

ABSTRACT

Umhlanga is a ceremony celebrating virginity. In South Africa, it is practiced, among others, by the Zulu ethnic group who live mainly in the province of KwaZulu Natal. After falling into relative disuse in the Zulu community, the practice of virginity testing made a comeback some 10 years ago at around the time of the country’s first democratic election and coinciding with the period when the HIV pandemic began to take hold. In July 2005 the South African Parliament passed a new Children’s Bill which will prohibit virginity testing of children. The Bill has been met with outrage and public protest on the part of Zulu citizens. Traditional circumcision rites are also addressed in the new bill but are not banned. Instead, male children are given the right to refuse to participate in traditional initiation ceremonies which include circumcision. This paper asks why the practice of virginity testing is regarded as so troubling to the new democratic order that the state has chosen to take the heavy-handed route of banning it. The paper further asks why the state’s approach to traditional male circumcision has been so different to its approach to virginity testing. Finally, the paper asks what these two challenging cases in the country’s new democracy tell us about the nature of liberal democratic citizenship in South Africa 10 years after apartheid’s formal demise.

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