In South Africa, it is a tradition for some cultures to take part in virginity testing. The young girls would go into a tent and a doctor would feel their vaginas to feel if they were virgins or not.
If the girls were not, then they parents would be informed and it is a huge disgrace for the family. I once saw a documentary on it and it made me feel uncomfortable. I think the thing that made me feel the most discomfort about the concept of virginity testing was that it is a tool used to regulate and police women’s bodies and sexualities.
A while ago I read an article in a newspaper about a Church in Limpopo that annually had virginity tests as a means to encourage women to remain virgins until they are married. The article interviewed two women who were in their mid-30s and had remained virgins because of their convictions. After the testing the women received certificates, to say that they were virgins and had passed the test. In 2013, the year I read this, of 500 women had taken part in it and only two had ‘failed’ the test.
Virginity testing in the context of a patriarchal culture means that women are not given any space for sexual agency. It is sexist and means that the only acceptable arena for women to explore their sexuality is within the confines of a marriage. Thus if women want to explore their sexuality and exercise sexual agency, they first need to aspire for and attain marriage.
It paints an image that a women is so much more when she is a virgin than when she is not.
This is rooted in cultural practices that are still practiced today in South Africa. For instance when a man impregnates a woman he is not married to, he is required to go the woman’s home and compensate the family for what is referred to as ‘damages’. This exposes how deeply imbedded patriarchy is within our culture.
It presents women as commodities that need to be compensated for, for being ‘damaged’.
It then reinforces the notion that virginity equates purity. And this is a narrative not only sold to us through the media but in our homes, through our mothers, aunts and grandmothers. It then gives more than enough room for things such as virginity testing to flourish and to continue being practiced even today. It means that as much as feminism advocated for women’s sexual/reproductive rights, in African cultures that is not acknowledged. It means that our sexuality is never our own; when we are single, it is our families and when we are married it is our husbands. With such mentalities being so pervasive, it leaves no room for women to navigate and negotiate their sexuality. Virginity testing therefore bears huge testament, that despite progress in gender equality, our sexuality is not something in which anybody is willing to allow us to won or embrace.
For more on sexual practices on the continent check out how Africans really love their sex toys, an article on whether culture precludes us from having the right to safe sex and a look at women to women marriage in pre-colonial Igbo land.
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