Reed dancers: Virginity testing is our culture
Though Ukuhlolwa Kwezintombi has been widely criticised, participants in the reed dance stand by the ancient practice
With their reeds standing tall, they marched in the bitter cold, bare-breasted and proud, singing pledges of purity.
Before they could present their reeds, a symbol of their virginity, to the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, these fair maidens have to pass the test.
Ukuhlolwa Kwezintombi (virginity testing) is an ancient, and widely criticised, tradition in which older women examine the vaginas of young girls to see whether they are still virgins.
This practice is the key to taking part in the annual uMkhosi womhlanga (reed dance) hosted by the king at his eNyokeni palace in KwaNongoma, North of Durban, and which began on Friday.
Ziphokuhle Selepe has been a custodian of the practice of testing for more than 20 years and said she wishes to pass it down to the next generation, as those who did before her.
“It is safe, we are trained on how to treat a maiden, it is part of our culture and we love our culture,” Selepe told Times Select on Saturday.
The 50-year-old from Nquthu is the head of the 715 maidens from her district and has 49 women working under her.
Selepe said that contrary to popular belief, testing does not happen only once the maidens get to dance, but on a monthly basis.
“(Every month) We meet and we wake up early in the morning and bathe in the river with the maidens. We then line them up outside the tent and they go in one at a time,” she explained.
She described the process vividly: “We look to see if there is any creasing in the inner lining, among other things.”
Selepe stressed that all women who conducted the testing receive a week’s training.
Critics of the practice, mainly human rights and feminists groups, have called for a complete ban on the testing, saying it subjugates the bodily integrity of women.
The government has tried to outlaw virginity testing in the past, but this met resistance from the king who revived the reed dance, and its practices, in 1984 after it had been largely neglected in Zulu culture.
Nokwanda Mhlongo, a participant in the reed dance, said that although there were some flaws within the system of testing, they did not warrant the type of negative reception and criticism they had received.
“Why can’t Africans practise their culture freely without ridicule and scrutiny? We all volunteered to be here, it is us willingly coming here year after year,” she said.
“As Africans, we constantly have to prove that our culture is worthy of practising, that our culture meets the standards. I hate that our culture always needs to be put into a box,” she added.
Mhlongo, 23, braved the cold and rain on Saturday to take part in her ninth reed dance, and said she would do it all again.
“I come here for the culture, for the history, for the people, for the Zulu nation, for Africans. Not even the rain could stop me.”
She planned to attend uMkhosi womhlanga for “as long as my spirit leads me ... This is my happy place, I enjoy being here.”
Both Selepe and Mlongo agreed there was far greater value to umhlanga then just testing.
“Being here teaches us endurance, it builds and strengthens us as women,” said Mhlongo.
Selepe added: “The kids we work with respect us, we teach them respect, self-love and education ... we always tell them that there is no life in liking boys but you can find life in your independence,” said Selepe.
This year’s reed dance was led by Princess Cebolabo, and more than 40,000 maidens from as far as Swaziland descended on eNyokeni palace for the three-day celebration hosted in partnership with the Department of Arts and Culture.