Ukuhlolwa kwezintombi: Virginity testing amongst the Zulu tribe of South Africa
Every year thousands of young women around South Africa are tested to find out if they are still virgins – someone who has not had sex. Some respect this as a cultural practice, others find it degrading. This ritual amongst the Zulu tribe of South Africa is called “Ukuhlolwa Kwezintombi”
Ukuhlolwa kwezintombi has been historically regarded as a vital social tool to bring pride to the virgin girl, the parents and the community as a whole. The big motive was to receive the full lobola especially inkomo kamama (the eleventh cow). Urbanisation, industrialisation, acculturation, education and religious beliefs led ukuhlolwa kwezintombi to its near demise in twenty years ago.
In recent years its resurgence has been noticed in most areas of KwaZulu Natal and townships to fight against women abuse, teenage pregnancies and HIV/Aids. It is met with a variety of views and emotions with some considering it as valuable while others consider it outdated and irrelevant.
Virginity testing is regarded as a custom of cultural value and the country is in the process of African Renaissance. In 2005 South Africa was set to ban the age-old Zulu custom of virginity testing on young girls even though traditionalists have vowed to disregard the new measure.
The tradition, which involves the inspection of girls’ genitalia, has drawn an outcry from human rights advocates who say it is an invasion of privacy and degrading towards women. But traditionalists see the practice as an integral part of Zulu culture, and argue that it promotes sex education while also preventing the spread of Aids in a country where one in seven people are estimated to be HIV-positive.
Meet Nomalanga and Amanda, 2 girls who have gone through this process of ‘ukuhlolwa’.
Nomalanga* (27) grew up in Sobantu, a township in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu‑Natal. She remembers her experience of virginity testing: “It was usually done in a room or enclosed area where a virginity tester would sit on a grass mat, wearing gloves. The woman or girl coming for her testing would lie down and spread her legs wide open. The tester would then open your vagina (like when you enlarge something on your touchscreen phone) with both hands in the vaginal opening. She would look inside, apparently to see if your hymen (see box on the next page) was still intact, or if the size of the vaginal opening had been enlarged by a penis.”
Amanda Ndlangisa (26) is a producer at a popular TV station. Her experience of virginity testing was slightly different. “Some testers would use a liquid in a small cap and pour it into the vagina. The idea was that if you are still a virgin, only a small bit of that liquid would flow into your vagina, but if your vagina has been opened by sleeping with boys, then the liquid will flow in easily,” Amanda explains.
For both Nomalanga and Amanda, however, virginity testing is not just about checking for a hymen or vaginal tightness. Amanda describes how the ceremonies would be accompanied by singing, dancing, talks and teachings from the older women “about what it meant to be a woman, about the need to have self-esteem, to be proud of who we are, and not to let men make us feel less good about ourselves”.
Nomalanga also says she enjoyed the ceremonies and the teachings. She particularly remembers the reed dance as an exciting time for everyone in the Zulu nation. This annual dance takes place in Nongoma, at the King’s palace. It is preceded by an official virginity testing ceremony.
In Amanda’s family, her grandmother decided to test the girls in the family herself at home. She did this to protect one of her granddaughters, who was raped when she was 12, and was therefore no longer a virgin.
She wanted to avoid gossip in the community. Amanda remembers having her first virginity test when she was 7 years old. She wasn’t told what the procedure was or why it was being done. Now, as a young adult, she believes that her grandmother was fearful that she and her girl cousins would get raped and they wouldn’t be able to tell her.
Amanda says she hated being examined and prodded by her grandmother and other women. She says she would have preferred her grandmother and her mother to have educated her about sex and to let her make her own decisions.
Sex talk taboo
“talk about sex was taboo in a traditional family like mine. No one explained anything to me about what sex was, what virginity was, or why I had to protect it. We were only told that we shouldn’t let boys touch us and that we should keep our virginity, because that is … the pride of our families.”
Nomalanga’s experience was similar. She says her father was the one who insisted that his four daughters get tested and that he would get the results. No-one ever explained to her or her sisters why it was being done. Even when they were at university, far from home, her father would regularly send for them to come home to get tested. Nomalanga says she “hated and felt angry about” the invasion of her privacy, the fact that she was forced to do this by her father, and that most often it would be performed by a total stranger who would be touching her private parts. When nomalanga’s father found out that one of his daughters was not a virgin anymore, he disowned her and never spoke to her again.