Why Virginity testing reverses the empowerment of women

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More than 500 bare- breasted virgins and their supporters hold a march in Pietermaritzburg on 14 July 2005 on their way to the Kwazulu-Natal Legislature to protest against the passing of the Children’s Rights Bill approved by the South African National Assembly.The Bill outlaws virginity testing which is practiced in some African traditional communities.The traditionalists called for the practice to continue as it an integral practice of Zulu custom and tradition.Once the Bill is approved, it will effectively make anyone practising the tradition, or parents who give their consent to it will be gulity of an offence. PHOTO:www.rajeshjantilal.com

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Riverlea, Johannesburg, South Africa, August 20, 2011. Virginity testing is an ancient Zulu and Southern African Nguni custom that was revived in the time of Aids to try and find a way protect young girls from the disease, as many fall victim to rape and abuse. It is also a way to celebrate celibacy in a nation with massive HIV rates. Despiote this, there are many critics who say that it either humiliates the girls or marks them as targets for rape as there is a persistant belief that sleeping with a virgin cleanses one of Aids. This ceremony in dumpland near Soweto was named as Umhlonyana or Sweet 16 ceremony to acknowledge Lerata Ndlela’s adolescence (she turned 15). Two of the girls were found not to be virgins, and Gogo Thembi Sibisi, a scion of Zulu culture, counselled them and sent other group adults to meet with their parents. One of the girls had been raped by an adult neighbour and the other had sex with a boy of the same age – both pre-teenagers.. Photo Greg Marinovich / Storytaxi.

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Many cultures across Africa firmly believe in the practice of virginity testing, given that an intact hymen is universally recognised as an indication that no sexual intercourse has occurred (at least where it’s narrowly defined as only vaginal penetration).

I, for one, coming from a Christian background where premarital sex is discouraged and shunned, understand the value that is attached to virginity as a sign of purity (as defined by not having transgressed a commandment from God) and the pride which is associated with having raised a woman who can openly declare her obedience to God in this regard. Given my understanding of the religious context of virginity testing, I do acknowledge that there are many other ardent believers of this practice whose motivations are more cultural rather than religious.

I do not, however, support this practice (religious or cultural) for a three main reasons.

  1. The inaccuracy of virginity-testing is the most glaring flaw in this practice. Apart from evidence that a hymen can be torn by many more things than penal penetration, it is also obvious that sex has become more than simply vaginal-penal penetration. What does that matter, you may wonder? A woman with a perfectly intact virginity but without a hymen (http://www.yourtango.com/201172815/7-things-you-didnt-know-about-hymen) can be publicly shamed and shunned while another who has had a series of sexual endeavours which “don’t count”  all but for a definition dysfunction is hailed as the virtuous angelic saint of her time. If that kind of mistake is not discouraging enough then that alone is telling of how lowly the dignity of women is esteemed.

 

  1. This practice is done to women alone and not men and that is a fact which cannot be ignored. Not in a world where people have fought tooth and nail for women to be treated and seen as human beings by those who previously (and presently) saw it culturally and religiously justified otherwise. That women are capable of learning as well as men do, working, earning equally well is a heap of evidence that a woman has worth beyond what lies between her legs – whether it’s intact or not, whether she’s fertile or not, whether she can bear a son or not… therefore to continue a practice that places so much emphasis once again in the same place we’re trying to take it away from is taking leaps in the wrong direction. It places a non-reciprocal expectation of self-preservation which feeds the culture of misdirecting and reducing a woman’s self-worth.

 

  1. For those who were unaware, stressing and obsessing over the preservation of virginity of one sex promotes unhealthy and untruthful ideas about sex and sexuality. Men should not own sex. Men should not own or feel entitled to own anyone else’s sexuality but their own. It is unfortunately not a belief exclusively held by African cultures that sex and sexuality belong to men. Women are constantly objectified and portrayed as mere things which exist for the gratification of men. Disagree? Read up on the ‘male gaze’ which women are constantly projected through in the media, film, on the streets… We forget that women are human too, that they too have natural desires and inclinations and rather than teach them about healthy and safe ways to deal with them we shame women for them. This is why a man can sleep with a woman in the same community and he’ll be praised while she’s slut-shamed. He is crowned while she is treated as though she is dirty but made dirty by whom? Because according to society, the man is simply being a man. And away he walks with no sense of responsibility, no obligation towards her or anyone else.

Am I just another learned black woman who has spent too much time and energy trying to assimilate myself in white culture only to abandon her own? Far from it. But we are humans who have reached and stayed at the top of the food chain for a reason – we are critical thinkers who advance and when we cease to do so, we’ll stagnate and self-destruct. It is ‘our’ culture that said a widow must wed her husband’s brother, that a man must marry as many wives as he pleases, that he can beat his wife if she disobeys him, that he can take a concubine if his wife is infertile, that twin children be cast into a river or forest because they were thought to be evil. Should we have held on to all of those practices simply because they are our culture?

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