King Mswati’s Virginity Check: Between tradition and civilization


By Temitope Oriyomi

“When two elephants fight, the grass suffers”. The clash of the two titans in the 21st century in the form of tradition and civilization could be likened to the two elephants clashing, while the grass that suffers is femininity. The question is why are women always at the receiving end of this clash?

It is no surprise that the case of the Swaziland king in the 21st century highlights the clash of the titans that undoubtedly caught the world’s attention. The media had reported almost every year the tradition of King of Mswati III testing girls’ virginity publicly with the motive of choosing a bride as well as curbing the spread of HIV and AIDS which is particularly prevalent in the country. Is sexual intercourse the only way of acquiring HIV? Why the virginity check before choosing a bride rather than HIV check? Are maidens the only victims or carriers of HIV pandemic in Swaziland? Most people would agree with me, especially the female folks, in considering this act as not only barbaric or archaic in the age of civilization, but also raising suspicious questions than answers. Thus, before diving into the big picture of what had once become a controversial issue, let’s take a short trip down the memory lane of African tradition; Swaziland tradition.

In the face of modernization and civilization, the Swazi people had retained their old custom and tradition; the Reed dance, which has been literally admired in Africa and across the world. The Reed dance or Umhlanga is a traditional festival in Swaziland where maidens sing, dance and celebrate bare-breasted annually. This form of festival according to the media, was developed from Umcwasho custom with the official purpose of preserving women’s chastity and solidarity among women.

It should be noted that under Swaziland law, polygamy is legal. Nevertheless this law has not only placed women in a disadvantageous position, it has also complicates the issue of women’s rights, which is another issue open for debate. Thus, king Mswati III of Swaziland is entitled to add to his collection of brides yearly, but in the light of HIV-AIDS pandemic, the channel through which he chooses his bride should however be reviewed. If Swaziland could adjust in some part of its culture towards western rationality, the king could also change its barbaric act of testing girls’ virginity publicly before choosing his bride. However, changing this act doesn’t mean eradicating the long preserved Swaziland tradition, it simply implies that the two titans can exist in the same space without clashing, irrespective of the conundrum.

The festival of the bare-breasted maidens could still be maintained as well as the increment of king Mswati III brides annually, alongside civilization. The traditional custom of virginity check should be guided by civilization as there are scientifically and technological ways of doing so without the ‘grass’ experiencing public humiliation across the globe. Since the real agenda behind the testing of girls’ virginity publicly before choosing a bride remains questionable in the age of civilization, King Mswati III should find new means of curbing HIV and motivating maidens/underage girls to abstain from unprotected sex, rather than insulting the intelligence of feminineness.