Virginal Powers: Zulu Tradition Fuels Sexual Myths in South Africa

The first time I heard about “baby rapes” was almost eight years ago. Someone had dropped a report on my desk about the widespread belief in South Africa that having sex with virgins would cure HIV/AIDS. The myth was causing a surge in the rape of young girls and even infants, some as young as 3mnths old.

Young Women Get Ready to Dance and Prove Their Virginity. Image Credit: The Guardian/Bloomberg

Flash forward to this morning and I could barely hold in my disgust when I saw this headline as I scrolled through the UK’s Guardian website: “Zulu King Condemns Photos of Virginity Tests At Annual Dance.”

According to the Guardian, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini is “angry and extremely concerned” about the images of the estimated 25,000 young women dancing bare-breasted in front of their polygamous king in traditional beads and fringed skirts, while awaiting their “virginity tests”, ending up on syndicated pornography websites. God forbid he actually has any concerns about the practice itself!

Now, I am all about respecting and honoring ancient cultures of the “Global South,” but I am also a little too aware about how many of these practices simply hide behind a mask of culture which allows women to be exploited, especially sexually.

This is exactly how beliefs linking women’s sexual behavior to societal and familial honor are reinforced in our minds, and vindicated through “ancient practices” like this Zulu dance. It is what creates the basis for honor killings. It almost makes you feel immoral for questioning practices that have supposedly always been there, a natural part of our cultures, right? Wrong.

We have a classic example here in the annual uMkhosi WoMhlanga,  a centuries-old practice performed by the Zulu Tribe, South Africa’s largest ethnic tribe. And while we appreciate the King’s concern about images of the 25,000 maidens dancing to prove their virginal purity getting out on the internet, someone needs to bring the focus back to how traditional practices such as these only strengthen myths that assign magical powers to virgins, causing desperate and infected adults to rape babies in South Africa, a country with the world’s highest infection rate.

Gender rights and AIDS activists both have condemned virginity testing precisely because of the role it has in spreading the belief that having sex with a virgin can cure HIV/AIDS.

But the Zulus continue to defend the practice, stating that it is actually a proven defense against the rising HIV/AIDS statistics, that “the participating maidens would be taught life skills, moral regeneration and HIV/Aids prevention methods.”

Mangosuthu Buthelezi, traditional Zulu Prime Minister and President of the Inkatha Freedom Party announced at the gathering, according to the Guardian: “It [virginity testing] encouraged young people towards chastity even before we were swept up in the devastating wave of the HIV/Aids pandemic.”

Although I abhor how traditional practices from the “Developing World” are too often used as proof of the backwardness of these cultures, I have a sneaking suspicion that traditions like these only really serve the men who they are performed for, encouraging them to have multiple partners and wives, while keeping young women in the dark about real-life risks they face, such as pregnancy and AIDS, that affect their reproductive health and rights.

It is time young women are put in control of their sexuality, and are fully informed on how to protect themselves from pandemics such as HIV/AIDS. Women must be in charge of their fertility rather than be the subject of a dance that only reinforces dangerous myths about the imagined power of their chastity.

*This post of mine was also published on The Huffington Post and Ms. Magazine.

Scroll to Top
Share via
Copy link