Skip to main content
eScholarship
Open Access Publications from the University of California

TESTING VIRGINITY: HIV/AIDS, MODERNITY & ETHNICITY IN POST-APARTHEID SOUTH AFRICA

  • Author(s): Leak, Tia-Nicole
  • Advisor(s): Martin Shaw, Carolyn
  • et al.
Abstract

TESTING VIRGINITY: HIV/AIDS, MODERNITY & ETHNICITY IN POST-APARTHEID SOUTH AFRICA TESTING VIRGINITY: HIV/AIDS, MODERNITY & ETHNICITY IN POST-APARTHEID SOUTH AFRICA

At the heart of this thesis is an examination of virginity testing as a practice steeped in tradition and born anew to fight the scourge of HIV/AIDS among the Zulu in South Africa. Virginity testing as an HIV/AIDS education and prevention program contrasts with the nationally-supported and internationally-funded loveLife program which acknowledges sexual activity among youth and tries to build their individual commitment to increasing their life opportunities. I argue that both the provocative loveLife campaign and the cultural revival of virginity testing are modern productions with particular histories and social trajectories. The modern practice of virginity testing, while not effective as a bio-medical intervention in HIV/AIDS education and prevention, finds it success in ethnic revitalization. I trace the changing understandings and embodiments of Zulu ethnicity as the political economy of South Africa changed. Paying special attention to the value placed on the story of King Shaka from the colonial time to the present, I submit that Zulu was represented through bellicose masculine images in the early colonial period and in the extractive capitalist system, Zulu ethnic identity was mobilized for worker solidarity; under apartheid, Zulu was a language of community and a political boundary. In the post-apartheid moment, the Zulu king, represents the Zulu ethnic group. Virginity testing and the associated Reed Dance and the ritual for the rain goddess Nomkhubulwane contribute to the legitimation of the Zulu king as representative of the group. I argue that the Reed Dance takes cues from the Ncwala (ritual of kingship) and the umchwaso (a chastity rite for unmarried girls) of the closely related Swazi monarchy and that the Reed Dance is one of the few public instantiations of kingship in modern Zululand. The young women who participate in the Reed Dance must have passed a virginity test. In the absence of the former powers of Zulu kings, the present king marks his dominion over young women's bodies. One chapter is devoted to women's responses to the King's edict that women should cover their nude bodies in the Reed Dance ceremony. This deviation from tradition tests the King's authority and gives evidence of the sense of pride and pleasure that young women derive from their participation in the ceremony.

This dissertation also shows the agency of women engaged in virginity testing, as organizers, testers, and participants. Virginity testing is the not the first time that Zulu women have organized to counter what they saw as the deleterious effects of industrial capitalism and migrant labor on family life and authority over children. I investigate the Bantu Purity League and the Women's Wing of the Inkatha Yenkhululeku Yesizwe as precursors to the present virginity testing movement. In all these instances, women believe that their welfare could be best secured through a re-affirmation of values that include patriarchal power. In a sense, they take power in their own hands to ensure the survival of the family and male authority. Another instance that underscores women's sense of their own agency in the virginity testing movement is their opposition to the Children's Rights Bill introduced to South Africa in 2005. Virginity testing advocates saw this Bill as eroding cultural practices and actively campaigned against it.

The virginity testing movement is not monolithic. This study is indebted to the openness of the virginity tester Nomagugu Ngobese, who created the modern Nomkhubulwane ceremony, which requires that girls be virgins to participate, and who trained a large number of virginity testers. I also interview testers from different backgrounds and who employ a range of approaches to the incorporation of information on sexuality into their virginity testing programs. When virginity testers look for signs of virginity, they look for more than an intact hymen. They note firmness and ... of other body parts and are concerned with the general posture and conduct of the young women who undergo testing. The young women who participate in virginity testing come from a wide range of backgrounds and not all of them maintain their virginity. Most participate for the sense of camaraderie and to learn about and show respect for Zulu customs.

I hope to widen analytical discussions on the structural factors that should be considered in HIV/AIDS education and prevention policies to include culture, custom, and ethnicity. Based on 15 months of fieldwork, I argue that the convergence of a growing sense of individuality, freedom of choice and human rights introduced by democracy and the simultaneous decrease in political and economic opportunity promised with democracy facilitated the re-emergence and appeal of traditional practice and conservative values. Virginity testing is a significant cultural institution that has tremendous potential to intercede in a host of developmental areas that are of importance to women and girls and the goals of human rights institutions and AIDS policy developers. Further, attending to the workings of history and the myriad ways individuals engage the contested terrains of culture, gender and rights can serve as a counter point to the decontextualized understandings of gender and culture that dominate many HIV/AIDS and gender interventions.

Main Content
Current View