Question the purpose of culture

2010-09-18 10:01

Many years ago, while listening to a radio show on the importance of remaining true to our cultural heritage, an older woman called in to make a simple point. While agreeing that cultural heritage was important, she invited us to think about whose purposes it served. Whose culture was it?

Her question has been at the forefront of my mind throughout Heritage Month.

All through September we’ve been waking up to news, images and discussions of the reed dance, virginity testing and ukuthwala.

Practices that render women’s bodies hypervisible are dangerous and need to be questioned.

Linking and equating a young woman’s value to her virginity makes virginity her duty.

She has to retain it until a suitable man arrives.

The man, on the other hand, has no similar responsibility, so this isn’t an equal partnership.

Given the high levels of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, her life could be at risk.

Based on the assumption that women’s bodies bear reliable ­evidence of whether they are virgins or not, women who have “lost” their virginity through rape bear the shame and responsibility of their violation.

Not all survivors of sexual ­violence report it or are believed.

We hear frequently that some men believe that sexual intercourse with a virgin can cure HIV/Aids.

When we perpetuate practices that place the majority of our country’s people – young women – at risk, we need to face the possibility that some inheritan­ces do more harm than good, and either adapt them or abolish them.

Reminders of how ­respect for other people’s culture is the cornerstone of a ­tolerant society do not change this.

I refuse to consider myself an outsider to anything African.

Along with the older woman whose words continue to haunt me, I insist on asking questions about the purposes of culture.

If we accept that our inheritance comes from our many varied ancestors, then we must also accept that we are tomorrow’s ancestors.

It’s time to take responsibility for the consequen­ces of “cultural practices” we pass on.

We need to truly own them and enable them to do cultural work: enhance human life and value, not endanger some of our most vulnerable.

» Gqola is a feminist writer and author of What is slavery to me? published by Wits Press

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