Dusk breaks in South Africa as droves of young topless Zulu girls, donned in traditional costumes, make the journey across the plains. The sun slowly climbs to the top of the clear skies as the scantily clad – mostly underage – girls reach their final destination. They will queue and wait for their turns in the blistering heat to have an elder woman verify that they are still virgins. Some undergoing the virginity test are as young as 7 and others are as old as their 30s.
Once it is the girl’s turn, she must lie on the dusty ground on a mat – her legs spread apart – as an elder woman examines her. Any modesty or shame must be left behind; oftentimes, there is a swarm of people gathered to watch as the girl is assessed. The old woman searches to see if the hymen is still intact. Other signs that may also be considered are firm bottoms and breasts, and a flat stomach. It is also claimed that a virgin can be identified by simply the way in which she walks.
In her paper, Virginity Testing: Managing Sexuality in a Maturing HIV/AIDS Epidemic, Anthropologist Professor, Suzanne Leclerc-Madlal described the grading system. To receive an “A” grade, “the color of the labia should be a very light pink, the size of the vaginal opening should be very small, the vagina should be very dry and tight, and the white dot or white lacy veil (hymen) should be clearly evident and intact” and the girl should “look innocent”.
Those graded with a “B” had a labia that is “a deeper shade of pink than those of the ‘A’ grade virgin, the vaginal opening slightly bigger, the vagina not so tight, and the vaginal walls slightly lubricated. The white dot and lacy veil are said to show evidence of ‘being disturbed’ ”. This suggests that sex or abuse may have occurred.
Girls who are consigned to a “C” grade have a “vagina that is ‘too wide and too wet’. No evidence of a white dot or veil can be found, and the girl’s eyes betray her as someone ‘who knows men’.”
Once a girl has passed the virginity test, a coloured dot will be pressed on to her forehead and she will be issued with a certificate of virginity. Cheering and elation will erupt amongst the masses for another proclaimed virgin.
Rooted in strong societal and familial influence, the girls are happy to be regarded as “chaste” and thousands proudly take part in the ceremony every year. Once all the girls have undergone the virginity test, there is dancing, singing, eating, and celebrations all around – attended by both men and women from the community.
The highpoint of the virginity test is the ability to take part in Umhlanga or the Reed Dance ceremony that occurs annually. Thousands of underage girls and women will travel to perform in front of the King of the Zulu nation, Goodwill Zwelithini.
As part of the ceremony, the girls dance while topless in traditional attire, which includes colourful sashes, chains and beads, and mini skirts that reveal their bare bottoms. Each girl will take a long reed, which they will carry above their heads and then place near to the King. If her reed breaks before, her virginity will be discredited.
The King revived the dance ceremony in 1991 to encourage Zulu girls to remain virgins until they are married, and as a preventative measure against HIV/AIDS.
Supporters of the virginity test attest that it is the best way to prevent unwanted pregnancies along with the HIV/AIDS virus, which is widespread in these parts. Estimates are that around one third of Zulu women are infected with the disease. Yet opponents of it have argued that it could make these girls more vulnerable to rapes due to the mistaken belief that unprotected sex with a virgin can cure AIDS. With rape being a worrisome problem in South Africa, women rights groups estimate that a woman is raped every 26 seconds in the country.
More controversially, scholarships were introduced by the state to young South African women who could prove that they were virgins. In 2016, the mayor of a rural town in KwaZulu-Natal awarded these “maidens’ bursaries” to 16 teenage girls so that they could study at university. He said that it was an effort to tackle the growing teenage pregnancy and HIV rates.
These scholarships triggered a nationwide debate and uproar, and eventually the country’s commission for gender equality ruled that it was unconstitutional stating, “Any funding by an organ of state based on a woman’s sexuality perpetuates patriarchy and inequality in South Africa.”