It makes my blood boil when I hear things coming out the mouths of some Africans that seem more suitable in the mouths of the most extreme and ignorant racists. I do realise that most Africans do not know their own history and most people today associate female initiation with nothing but female genital mutilation. However no one is going to demonise African female initiation rites on my watch. Criticism is fine but I will not tolerate ignorance. Furthermore, if anyone tries to reduce female initiation rites to a mere ‘finishing school’ where girls learn how to cook and try to attract a suitor is misinformed as there is so much more to these rites than that.
I am happy the first time I came in contact with the rites of passage was when I was reading about homosexuality in African traditional religions and I understood that historically they acted as forums of sexual education and expression. When I heard African female initiation been reduced to nothing but female genital mutilation, I was really incensed and decided to search for articles and books on the subject. And guess what? 90% of what I found was about female genital mutilation. I calmed down as I realised that there is a huge problem and a dearth of information.
Determining on what you read, female genital mutilation is practiced by a few or many African ethnic groups. I am very determined to bring an alternate perspective on the African female’s rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. Of course I will be taking a historical perspective since it seems only the shells of the original ceremonies still remain. Historically rites of passage were an important link between the youth and adults in a community. It instilled responsibilities in the youth and facilitated the internalisation of cultures.
A female initiation rite consists of one or more ceremonial events which are mandatory for all girls of a given society. These ceremonies are celebrated between their eighth and twentieth years though according to other sources, it is between their sixth and sixteenth years. Female rites of passage into adulthood are not present in every African tribe (of course). Furthermore, some of these female rites of passage involve the infliction of extreme pain on women in the form of genital mutilation and extreme tattooing while others do not.
The educational aspect of rites of passage has been stressed as the equivalent of the schooling of Western children. A very large number of rites contain periods of instruction and/or tests of competence for the initiate as adulthood is never an easy thing to attain. Female initiation rites are more than educational devices however. Apparently, it is only when women play very important roles in their society that female initiation rites will be celebrated. As it is an attempt to assure the girl and those around her that she is ready and competent enough to complete future roles. Female initiation rites also stress the importance of the woman’s role in the society.When women’s degree of participation in their society is high, the female initiation rites are considered more important in order to assure the competence of the young girl.
During the ceremonies and festivities that characterised female initiation rites, girls were taught how to take care of themselves, they received sexual education, they participated in mock ceremonies laced with heavy symbolism usually regarding marriage, child-birth and mensturation. The girls were taught how to ‘comport’ themselves during their periods and how to use menstrual cloth. Depending on the location of the ethnic group, the girls are told the importance of the hard work in the farm or the importance of fishing, trading and other commercial activities.
The ancestors were also respected during these rites with the initiates being taught to respect their families and relatives, not to share the secrets of their initiation rites and to behave in a manner that will reflect kindly on their teachers (the experts and sexual instructress*). They were also usually taught how to please their husbands which usually involved instructions to never sexually refuse husbands except during their periods or gossip about her husband’s sexual behaviour. Yes, I do not like that either but as I am been extensive I will include even what I do not approve of and before you say ‘aha! this is an obvious example of repression…’ do keep on reading!
Sexual education was imparted through songs usually with hidden sexual meaning. For example, sex was taught as been pleasurable for its sake rather than for the sake of producing children among the Swahili of Mafia Island. Among these people, though a girl was expected to be a virgin when she married, it was also expected that married women will engage in extra-marital affairs.
‘Listen my girl, I tell you, if you get water, wash yourself. If you are leaving your house, first go to the bathroom and wash thoroughly, and then start your journey. You never know, there may be a strange penis waiting for you on the path, and you might feel like going off into the bushes with him, but if you aren’t clean, you will feel embarrassed, and he will laugh at you.’**
Women are taught that while they will enjoy sex, it is also one of their most powerful levers and that though a girl is not supposed to refuse her husband, she can refuse a lover. Among this group, boys are taught to beware of the demands their mistresses may make.
I have slept around all right, but my reward has been small
What good has it done me? It hasn’t got me earrings or a nose-pin!
This is just one example of female initiation rites that are not preparing women to be ‘good wives’ to their husbands but to be sexually active adults in their own right. Female initiation ceremonies provided platforms in which the youth learnt the ‘laws of the land’ and their own cultures. Once completed, the young initiates were adults in their society and no longer children.
African rites of passage have been severely distorted. Cultural domination due to Christianity and Islam, colonization and neocolonization have lead to the reduction of female rites of passage into nothing but genital mutilation in some cases and complete disappearance in other. Most of these rites as practiced today have lost their significance.
Really anyone who views these female rites of passage into adulthood as nothing but barbaric to me is showing serious signs of having drunk the Kool-aid. After all, that sort of mentality suggests that African rituals are primitive and that anything coming out of the ‘dark continent’ must be barbaric and savage. Everything is not perfect and rosy, however that does not mean we should not maintain a balanced point of view when regarding our own African culture. I know most of us do not care about our ancestors but please do not insult their memory. There is really more to African culture than people care to even imagine and it sad that ‘people’ also includes Africans themselves. If we Africans are not bothered to separate the fact from the fiction, learn our own history and ‘demystify’ our own culture, who will?
*Among some ethnic groups, a girl had a ‘sexual instructress’ who was usually her father’s sister or her grandmothers. (I find that so amazing!) This sexual instructress was the woman who helped a young girl though her first rite of passage, her first period. Excluding the sexual instructress, there was also an ‘expert’ who played the role of a teacher during the initiation ceremonies.
**It is funny how the ‘strange’ man is reduced to his organ. This quote is from an initiation expert explaining a certain proverb. Taken from Caplan (see references).
Caplan A.P., ‘Boys’ Circumcision and Girls’ Puberty Rites among the Swahili of Mafia Island, Tanzania’, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 46, No. 1 (1976), pp. 21-33
Judith K. Brown, ‘A Cross-Cultural Study of Female Initiation Rites’, American Anthropologist New Series, Vol. 65, No. 4 (Aug., 1963), pp. 837-853
Mutisya P. Masila, ‘Demythologization and Demystification of African Initiation Rites: A Positive and Meaningful Educational Aspect Heading for Extinction’, Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Sep., 1996), pp. 94-103
Sudarkasa Niara, ‘”The Status of Women” in Indigenous African Societies’, Feminist Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring, 1986), pp. 91-103