Before attempting to even answer that, another question should be asked: Whose virginity is in question? Just a few decades ago, this question would have been easy to answer but not so much now in the 2010s with the rise of gender equality and the subsequent attenuation of patriarchy. Back when patriarchy stood proud and unquestioned, men had property interests in the sexuality of women. This helped them retain their control over women and never at any point did the woman belong to herself. There was always a man: either a father, a ward in the father’s stead or a husband. Virginity was important at marriage, the woman’s virginity to be precise. In the contemporary African society where culture has been influenced by Western values and modified by a growing appreciation of basic human rights, is it still sustainable to expect women (alone) to protect their virginity?
Traditions and Cultural Double-Standards
Joyce Nyakato writing for New Vision gave quite an elaborate understanding of virginity in the Ugandan cultural context. She said “virginity was something to be proud of” in the traditional society and paternal aunts were charged with giving chastity talks to girls from a young age. In certain communities, the price for losing virginity was death and it is believed that many girls were drowned in Lake Bunyonyi and Kisizi Falls. As for men, the double-standard is apparent as there was no emphasis on their virginity. This position is almost uniform in different cultures in the continent. Sadly, while most aspects of African culture are losing their place in the modern societies, culture shoppers have cherry-picked only those aspects of culture that assert the dominance of men and the sustenance of patriarchy. Even today, men will expect a woman to be a virgin yet their own virginity amounts to nothing. As Erin McKelle says, the sexual double standard says, “Women are shamed for having sex and men are rewarded for it.” She then goes on to rightly conclude that virginity should be ditched for good because it is sexist! However, the question at this point becomes: if virginity had not been exploited to oppress women, would it be relevant to modern culture? The form of puritan behaviour it advocates for though heavily criticised might be an answer to sexually transmitted diseases and will encourage a culture of respect for marriage. Traditionally, marriage was held in high regard but the demystification of sex has managed to take away some of that age-old respect for the institution. Suffice to say, over-mystification of sex has also resulted in a culture of silence about reproductive health which has been problematic. There is need to strike a delicate balance which is healthy but not an affront to African social constructs which make Africans who they are.
Culture not a lease to oppress
In South Africa, a controversial scholarship, the Maidens Bursary Scheme was introduced by the Mayor of uThukela district in January 2016. It became the subject of a huge constitutional argument over its virginity requirement. The South African Commission for Gender Equality ruled on the 17th of June 2016 that the “programme discriminated against women because male students were not subjected to the same tests”. The uThukela requirement represented social double-standards that impose the requirement of chastity for women and not for men. It seems some agents of patriarchy have attempted to stultify the constructive evolution of African culture by choosing to retain the commodification of women even though it is no longer sustainable in the face of most constitutions and international conventions. Culture should not be used as an excuse to infringe on the rights of the oppressed lest it defeats its own purpose of enforcing social cohesion. Why should females be subjected to a higher standard of morality than males? This is discrimination and no matter what patriarchal pundits say, the fact that it is a part of African culture does not make it any better. Culture is not a lease to oppress. In the case of the uThukela bursaries, the municipality had argued that its aim was to lower teenage pregnancy and HIV infections but the fact that the responsibility to prevent these was placed squarely on the girls’ shoulders is cringe-worthy. Where are the men in that equation? This might be the reason why HIV infections remain a problem; women are being called to be chaste while men are on a rampage, sleeping around.
Virginity has been used to perpetuate a culture of female commodification but some women find it important. The bottom-line is no one’s worth should be determined by sexuality. Also, the decision to have or not to have pre-marital sex should be personal as no one should have property interests in another’s sexuality. Just as well, virginity should cease to be regarded as a wholly female condition as no one is exempt from sexual discipline. The double standards of expecting women to abstain when men get more social respect for their “sexual conquests” are self-defeating. What is expected of women should be expected of men otherwise the whole virginity expectation has no place in modern society.
Image source: Africa Facts