Among the Zulu-speaking people who live outside the city of Durban in South Africa, girls as young as six line up on straw mats to have their sexual purity certified with a grade of ‘A,’ ‘B,’ or ‘C’. A grade of ‘A’ means she is a virgin. A grade of ‘C’ means she is not a virgin. A grade of ‘B’ places her somewhere in-between. This grading occurs systematically at virginity testing events in many Zulu-speaking communities, where the tradition of virginity testing has resurfaced as a localized response to the region’s growing HIV/AIDS epidemic.
In The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault argues that sexuality became an increasingly important part of individual identity in Western society, despite the repressive discourse that suggests otherwise. Foucault explored the religious, medical, and psychological institutions in which societies theoretically repressed sexuality while actually bringing these issues into the forefront of Western culture. Foucault’s theoretical framework dealt exclusively with the West, but in the context of an increasingly globalized regime of health, I will use this paper to explore his ideas as applied to the phenomenon of virginity testing in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa.
KwaZulu-Natal has a thirty-nine percent prevalence of HIV infection, the highest among all the South African provinces. In response to this quickly growing threat to public health, many communities in KwaZulu-Natal have seen a resurgence of traditional virginity testing of young girls. Though this return to tradition began in a grass root, bottom-up fashion, it has garnered the support of government officials and many NGOs concerned with the region’s growing HIV/AIDS epidemic. The practice of virginity testing enforces sexual purity by searching for the physical evidence of the nontangible idea of virginity. This custom is legitimized within the community and in more expansive institutions through a lens of public health.
Virginity testing also highlights related fears about the perversion of traditional gender roles. As I will explore in further detail later on, framing the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the context of changing gender roles of youth cultures permits communities to moralize a medical crisis. This allows communities to deal with suffering actively and from within the community, in a context where medical solutions may be either unavailable or ineffective. Within a patriarchal culture, virginity testing simultaneous reinforces and is reinforced by cultural notions of certain bodies as polluters and others as vulnerable to pollution.
Advocates and Opponents of Virginity Testing
In the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, virginity testing, or ukuhlolwa kwezintombe, is a public event. The virginity of the girls in each community thereby reflects the purity, and health, of the community as a whole. The girls are systematically examined in large numbers without much privacy, reinforcing the idea that women’s sexuality is of public concern. The way in which virginity testing is conducted also enforces the idea of a collective sexuality, whereby the “health” of the community is located in the sexuality of a group of certain kinds of bodies.
Virginity testing advocates are found among the well-educated government and NGO officials who are dedicated to the idea of an “African Renaissance”. This idea of cultural revival supports the rediscovery and application of indigenous African systems of knowledge to the problems facing Africa today, most notably, the HIV/AIDS epidemic. (LeClerc-Madlala, 536). Seeing that foreign intervention often does more harm than good, advocates for an African Renaissance encourage localized, community solutions to issues of poverty, disease and education. While the attempt at cultural revival is well founded, it also raises many questions. Specifically, it brings up the conflict between tradition and modernity—a conflict that is pervasive in the discussion on modern virginity testing in KwaZulu-Natal.
The biggest opponents to virginity testing have been a largely female group of officials from South Africa’s Human Rights and Gender Commissions, who argue that virginity testing constitutes “a new form of violation of and violence against women” (LeClerc-Madlala, 536). Challengers of this tradition argue that familial and community coercion plays a role in the virginity testing events, especially for the youngest girls who may not even realize why their genitals are being examined. Furthermore, opponents argue that virginity testing events go against South African constitutional rights to privacy and bodily integrity. These concerns about social oppression are largely framed by the debates over tradition versus modernity, “whereby culture is equated with tradition and the democratic constitution is equated with Western-style modernity that… espouses foreign ideas” (LeClerc-Madlala, 536).
The most outspoken supporters of virginity testing are older South African women who are often heads of their household, supporting children or young relatives orphaned by HIV/AIDS. These rural women often “see virginity testing as the only way to reinstill what they view as the lost cultural values of chastity before marriage, modesty, self-respect, and pride” (LeClerc-Madlala, 535). The role of these women in virginity testing is contradictory and intriguing. While their involvement in advocating for and organizing virginity testing events empowers an age-set whose voices are often overlooked in larger society, these women simultaneously enforce a social oppression of the next generation of women. By bringing back the idea of virginity testing, they are allowing a cycle of oppression to continue.
It may also be noted that these older women have economic reasons to support virginity testing. As previously stated, the most outspoken supporters of virginity testing are women who are in charge of an extended kinship unit due to HIV/AIDS deaths. Their desire to prevent the disease within their own families may be closely tied to the economic hardships they already face. Simultaneously, many of the older women who organize virginity testing events become “experts” in testing and earn a living by teaching women in other communities their profession. Their advocacy of the procedure then reaches beyond morality and tradition and opens up an economic sphere of “medical professional” that is very often closed to rural women. Their involvement has become a way to “empower older women in a society where women’s voices have been historically muted but where women… have always held power and authority over younger women” (LeClerc-Madlala, 547).
The arguments for and against virginity testing are compelling on both sides. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault writes that “the sex of children and adolescents has become… an important area of contention around which innumerable institutional devices and discursive strategies have been deployed” (Foucault, 30). The choice in KwaZulu-Natal to focus on the sexuality of the community’s youngest women in order to combat a disease that does not discriminate by age or gender reveals specific conceptions about vulnerable bodies within those communities. Virginity testing moves society away from locating identity within individual sexuality and instead establishes a collective compulsory moral and physical purity for specific bodies. This collective purity theoretically ensures the health of the community as a whole, enforcing virginity testing as a localized, gendered response to the enormity of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Locating Purity in the Body
The results of the public virginity tests are shared with all who attend the event on an alphabetical grading system. The three tiers of virginity are labeled ‘A,’ ‘B,’ and ‘C’. While a C-grade certifies a failure of the test and an A-grade guarantees a girl’s purity, it is the bridging B-grade that tells us the most about the values that such a system is enforcing. A grade of ‘B’ is given if the testers determine that the girl “may have had intercourse once or twice” or “may have been abused”. Consequently, “active complicity in the sex act” bears weight on whether a ‘B’ or a ‘C’ grade is given. Though the physical requirements for being given a B-grade all imply that vaginal penetration has occurred, the real bearing of virginity seems to be a purity of mentality, ensuring that even if a girl has had sex or been touched inappropriately, it happened in the context of the girl’s own passivity (LeClerc-Madlala, 540).
Within biomedical frameworks, there is no institutionally agreed upon medical definition for virginity. Therefore, the criterion that certifies “purity” in virginity testing in KwaZulu-Natal reflects the “folk constructs of the body and ethnomedical beliefs of health and illness” of that culture (LeClerc-Madlala, 539). While virginity is often considered a medical and physical state of the body, there are non-biological aspects that are considered in virginity. For example, an important factor in virginity testing in KwaZulu-Natal is that “a girl’s eyes… reflect virginity in that they ‘look innocent’” (LeClerc-Madlala, 540).
The virginity testing phenomenon in KwaZulu-Natal reflects a collective awareness of the roles of certain kinds of bodies in the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In many areas of South Africa, traditional “notions of pollution are associated with sexually active women and their bodies” (LeClerc, Madlala, 541). This reference of sexual pollution within the body lends itself to an understanding of the HIV/AIDS epidemic as not only inherently sexualized, but also inherently gendered. To inform her own fieldwork, LeClerc-Madlala refers to the research of Ingstad (1990). Ingstad, conducting research on HIV/AIDS in Botswana, found that “informants often used female sexual anatomy as a point of reference when describing women as unclean and as potentially carrying more disease than men” (LeClerc-Madlala, 545).
Moral conceptions about female sexuality are reflected in how female biology is symbolically conceptualized in certain communities. In Zulu-speaking areas of KwaZulu-Natal, the vagina is seen as a site of potential disease associated with its “’nesting’ qualities: not only do babies grow there, but potentially deadly ‘germs,’ including HIV, may also ‘grow’ and ‘hide’ within them” (LeClerc-Madlala, 542). Consequently, “dry vaginas are conceptualized as ‘clean’ and disease-free, the imagery reflecting the moral character of its owner” (LeClerc-Madlala, 542). The standards of purity in the virginity testing event reflects these ideas about bodies and pollution.
The control of female sexuality is also framed by traditional Zulu expectations of femininity. The ideal Zulu woman is “demure, soft-spoken… serves her husband, her children, and her in-laws” (LeClerc-Madlala, 543). Many of the older women in these communities are fighting against the “popular perception of the modern young woman as…assertive and active in pursuing her sexual interests” (LeClerc-Madlala, 543). This behavior is often seen as women attempting to act like men, a set of behaviors that fall outside the boundaries of accepted gender morality. While virginity testing explicitly controls bodies, it simultaneously controls systems of values.
In South Africa, there is a “pervasive ‘national denial’ of the enormity of the AIDS problem during an era that most people expected to reflect post apartheid promises of ‘the good life’” (LeClerc-Madlala, 534). With this constant threat to the health of its citizens, the communities in KwaZulu-Natal have allowed traditional rituals such as virginity testing to resurface as a way of preventing another generation of ill bodies. However, opponents to the virginity testing events argue that while the tradition claims to be an attempt to fight HIV/AIDS, it is a rather ineffectual way of doing so. If the resurgence of virginity testing truly is a sexualized response to the threat of HIV/AIDS in South Africa, why are boys and men not included in the tradition?
Virginity testing in Zulu-speaking communities of KwaZulu-Natal represents a medicalization of sexual control and traditional gender roles. Its resurgence, while claiming to be in response to a growing HIV/AIDS epidemic, also coincides with an era in which young women have been liberated on a global scale in terms of their own bodies and sexuality. In response to rapidly changing gender roles, communities have drawn lines of causality between the liberation of female sexuality and the increasing prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Virginity testing reemerged as a way to bridge these simultaneously threatening forces, one that is located in a cultural consciousness, the other located in a world of illness and biology. Virginity testing shapes the meaning of “health” for specific bodies in these communities by labeling sexual purity as healthy and sexual activeness as unhealthy.
Virginity testing is supported as a way to suppress childhood and adolescent female sexuality. However, as Foucault hypothesized, it actually reveals how important sexuality is to the identity of Zulu-speaking communities in South Africa. Rather than being confined to a private sphere of the home and marriage, female sexuality is, quite literally, laid out and examined in public in order to guarantee the purity and “health” of a community. While post apartheid South Africa is often influenced by Western modernity, the trend of virginity testing reveals that anxieties about female bodies and sexuality continue to influence many community’s responses to modern epidemics such as HIV/AIDS. The contributions of tribal traditions, state modernity, and biomedicine are all revealed in the medicalized morality enforced by virginity testing.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage, 1988. Print.
LeClerc-Madlala, Suzanne. Virginity Testing: Managing Sexuality in a Maturing HIV/AIDS Epidemic. Medical Anthropology Quarterly. 15 (4): 533-552