Updated: Apr 15
Oil on canvas
74.5 x 64 cm.
Zulu femininity and sexuality are hotly contested. Culturally, the female body is seen as a vessel, and words like lip, mouth, shoulder, belly, and foot refer to parts of jugs or pots, which are modeled around the female form. While this was previously thought to evoke prosperity, fertility, and satisfaction, new contexts have caused this fact to come across as the objectification of women.
Traditionally, scarification of the face and womb area was encouraged for display in order to indicate a young woman's reproductive potential. Her body being an asset, she would communicate with her beads and her dances. The beads were symbolic and decorative, doing little in the way of clothing.
The Reed Dance encourages the preservation of virginity among Zulu maidens. Come from far and wide, the maidens collect reeds from the riverside and bring them in bunches as a sign of respect for the king. The maidens, who wear only strings of beads, are to bathe at the river at dawn and then be ‘tested’ by older women for purity.
It was once considered highly insulting to wear underpants during the festivities. Even demonstrating embarrassment over one’s private parts was considered disrespectful. One was expected to perform the communal leg-lifting dance with pride and joy instead of shame and timidity.
Young women were assured that the sexual connotation of private parts was a European invention. Even though there are in fact many European spectators who attend these events and bring their cronies and cameras using the images they take as they please.
On one hand, the South African government has ostracized virginity testing. According to the current leadership, the process invades young women’s privacy and encourages sexist behavior. On the other, traditional groups have protested, claiming their culture was being undermined. According to them, a Zulu woman gains her prowess from her transparent and publically celebrated sexuality.
But even the Zulu king has insisted that maidens cover their buttocks during Reed dances, spurring many questions about the implications when juxtaposed with the prior traditions. The king’s argument was that nudity may discredit the Reed Dance and make the young women exposed to exploitation.
Indeed, Zulu femininity seems to be evolving frequently and summarily. The Western model of femininity is now most prominent in urban areas. Not only has this shift been associated with the education of womxn, but also gives womxn agency to express their femininity as they please.
Yet the shift in understandings of womxnhood is also linked to domestic abuse and the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV due and teenage pregnancies. Perhaps there might be something to be gained from both schools of thought. On the one hand, shared femininity might expose some of the violence that occurs in the dark while a more modest, contemporary sense of pride might allow womxn to decide on their own terms what womxnhood is to them.