When culture divides us

Jon Cayzer on how to address the system of virginity testing and maiden bursaries in SA

Remarks by Jon Cayzer to the Oslo Freedom Forum, Johannesburg, 26 March 2018


Two years ago, I was interviewed by the world’s largest oil company in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for a public affairs role. I was thrilled when, on the live video link, two vivacious women without hajibs loomed into view alongside their male counterparts. For the first but not last time in my life, my stereotype of this traditional society was upended.

But on that autumn day I, like most others, did not foresee the reforms that the Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, would unleash in 2017 that, taken to their inevitable conclusion, must, I believe, result in near universal standards of human rights in the Kingdom. Since the Arab Spring, the kaleidoscope has been shaken in the Middle East and we still do not know where the pieces will finally settle. But the trend lines are clear.  

I share this because the pursuit of human-rights in 2018 is far more nuanced and complex than might appear at first glance, especially when it comes to women’s rights. The last decade has seen great strides taken to address gender-based injustices across the world. And, with this, comes the need to continue addressing the structural and cultural inequalities that still stand. One of these can be found in the area of virginity testing and the controversial ‘maiden bursary’ system that is still being practiced in Zulu and Swazi communities. 

Maiden Bursaries is the practice of awarding scholarships for tertiary education to young woman for maintaining their virginity. Recipients of these bursaries are subject to annual virginity tests in which they are inspected by a matron in the community to make sure that their hymens are still intact. Pass and they are awarded a certificate of maidenhood along with finance for their next year of study. Fail and their bursary is taken away from them. I don’t think that I need to unpack this further for you to know the problems that arise with such a system. 

This practice was added another level of controversy when it was discovered that Dudu Mazibuko, the mayor of uThukela district municipality in KZN, was using state funds to finance a number of these bursaries. In 2016 the Commission for Gender Equality of South Africa declared the practice unconstitutional and this became a source of much contention between human rights campaigners and Zulu traditionalists.  

Moments like these bring us to a crossroad, one where we have to choose between respecting a group's cultural practices while also recognising that these treasured systems are the very things that are keeping the women in these communities at a disadvantage to the men.

There are many ways of addressing sensitive topics like this, from legislation to outreach, but one that has always proved to be incredibly useful is the tool of storytelling. We tell stories to learn, to pass on mental and emotional knowledge to others by showing or telling them experiences that are both similar and foreign to what they have. Stories change hearts in a way that legislation never will and it is for this power that they are often the first things to be censored in fascist regimes. 

We recently saw this power in South Africa when a locally produced film, ‘The Wound', dared to explore the experience of a gay Xhosa man against the backdrop of initiation and male circumcision. The movie, which won the SAFTA this weekend for ‘Best Film’ and was South Africa’s submission to the Oscars this year, was met with protest by Xhosa traditionalists who felt that it was an insult to even imagine that a gay body could exist within these spaces. Cinemas were closed down by protestors and the filmmakers had to go into hiding due to death threats made against them. 

But beauty rose from these fires. Gay men and straight women in the Xhosa community used this piece of cinema as a rally cry and challenged the protestors, demanding that they recognise their validities and freedoms. When the Film & Publications Board tried to censor the film by rating it as pornography and therefore unacceptable for public exhibition, the filmmakers and many gay non-profits hit back. They saw the constitution come to their aid and the rating was dropped, allowing the film to be viewed by men and women around the country.

This is the power of art and I believe that a similar catalyst is needed to address the system of virginity testing and maiden bursaries in South Africa. We need to start conversations around this and show women that they can have control of their bodies away from the systems of the past. We need to address the fact that these communities are using something as precious as education to do this and show them that this is no longer acceptable. 

Having worked for two consequential women political leaders in SA, Lindiwe Mazibuko and Helen Zille; taught girl children in a British school under 'special measures'; and, more recently, alongside women leaders in the private sector, I have come to an unshakeable conviction. Until all men make the relentless pursuit of women's rights part of their daily routines, inclusive economic growth to underpin a human-rights based society will continue to elude us all.

Just before he left office, President Barack Obama observed that human-rights progress is never linear. Ambassador Samantha Power wonderfully retorted he was being too optimistic. Yes and no. The world took a step backwards when a minority of U.S. voters elected a misogynist to the most important office in the world. But the overall trend lines, President Obama reminded us, are towards a better world in which all women will be free; free at last to live a life they value. We have much work to do.

Thank you.  

Jon Cayzer is a public affairs specialist for a US MNC and a SA non-profit organisation.