This article examines the extent to which the Chikunda women construct their gender and sexual identities through chinamwali, and how this in turn influences their social status within the community.
The Chikunda, a matrilineal ethnic group found in the Luangwa district of Zambia, practice an initiation ceremony for girls interchangeably called chinamwali or chisungu, a customary practice performed when a girl experiences her first menstrual period. There is no difference between the terms chinamwali and chisungu as they refer to one and the same practice hence, for uniformity, I will use the term chinamwali to refer to the initiation practice.
The aim of the ceremony through the symbolism of menstruation is to transform a young girl into a woman (see: Drews 1995: 103; Richards 1982; 52; Udelhoven 2006: 87). Among the Chikunda, the rite is practiced either at the onset of puberty or when a woman is about to enter marriage, or at both stages. In the case where the ceremony takes place at both stages, the two stages may be separated with instructions at the onset of puberty focused on general matters like cleanliness during menstruation, and those relating to marital duties deferred to the time before marriage. This article focuses on the chinamwali practiced at the onset of puberty.
African initiation rites such as the chinamwali where women are expected to learn about practices such as labia minora elongation, to learn to show respect, and to be expected to function as heterosexual, subservient wives, persist in some parts of Africa because of the need for women to conform to cultural norms of what it is to be a woman and to avoid being stigmatised. Though historically, there have been contestations on how sexuality, particularly female sexuality has been viewed from a western-centric point of view as noted by researchers such as Thomas (2003: 22), Kanogo (2005:77), and Tamale (2005), what this means for womanhood is that questions arise about the significance of such gendered practices which are framed as cultural or traditional in a post-colonial African context. I agree with the assertion that we should be careful not to brand all African traditions as harmful, because there is a thin line between harmful culture and valuable practices such as women kneeling for men and elders (Akumi 2018: 1), which are also taught in chinamwali, and symbolise respect, and are no different from other representations of respect found around the world such as bowing or removing a hat before greeting an elder. This example is useful in revealing on-the-ground debates surrounding female initiation rites, and motivated me to undertake the study of how the Chikunda construct their lived realities from their understanding and experience of chinamwali which forms the basis of this article.
To begin with, it is important to give an understanding of female initiation from an African feminist perspective. The aim is to give an understanding of the overarching theory of the study which foregrounds the experiences of women and guided the whole research process. It is also to frame our understanding of female initiation in Africa within the broader power relations between women, and between men and women. I will then describe briefly the historical background of the Chikunda and their location in Zambia. Next, I will give a summary of the methodological approach taken and then conclude with a summary and analysis of my findings.
Female Initiation from an African Feminist Perspective
I believe that for a study on a traditional African female practice to be meaningful, it is necessary to engage the African feminist theoretical perspective to examine analytically the lived realities of women through the articulation of their voices, and to make recommendations towards promoting their social lives and status in the larger community. This was done after reviewing the historical eras of feminism, and the western originating feminisms, namely Liberal, Radical and Marxist feminisms. When weighed on merit, as opposed to African feminism, I found that these feminist theorisations share similarities with African feminism, particularly in their global goal to address women's inequalities.
However, as has been noted, it has been said that western epistemologies have generally failed to take into account local cultural realities in their explanations for phenomena which affect indigenous people (see: Ampofo 2004; Ogundipe--Leslie 1994; Aidoo 1998; Walker 1983; Nnaemeka 1998; Hudson-Weems 1991).
From the findings in the study of chinamwali, a girl becomes a woman through this socially constructed process. Thus, I found the discourse on feminist theory relevant to the study as it considers the relationship between culture and the constructions of sexuality and gender identity. The feminist discourse has expanded in scope by looking at practices that occur in the "private sphere", such as female initiation. Topics on the female body have generated exciting research by feminist scholars such as Mackinnon (1989), Tamale (2005, 2011), and Arnfred (2004), who have focused on the female body as the site where representations of difference and identity are inscribed. They have also explored tensions between women's lived bodily experiences and the actual meanings inscribed on the female body. In this context, some research has examined female initiation as a practice linked to patriarchy and the need to control women and their sexuality (see for example: Kamlongera 2007; Diallo 2004; Machera 2004). Mackinnon (1989: 113), in her theory of gender as a theory of sexuality, says that the social meaning of sex (gender) is created by the social objectification of women where they are targeted as objects to satisfy men's desires. As a result, gender hierarchy is tied to sexualised power relations where men occupy the sexually dominant positions and receive sexual favours from women who occupy sexually submissive positions, and who should in turn give sexual favours to men.
Since chinamwali is a traditional African practice, I turned to insights by feminist scholars who identify themselves with African feminism, arguing that African women's problems are unique to African people as their cultural heritage defines every facet of their lives including their position in society. African feminist thought can be said to be influenced by a third wave of feminist thinking as it places emphasis on context with regard to how women experience patriarchy, and as has been noted by Ukpong (1995: 4), is specifically a response to the African context. In general, the premise of African feminist theory is that African social and cultural experiences are not reflected in those of the West and that those from the West fail to take into account African cultural realities (see for example: Ebunoluwa 2009; Mangena 2003; Ampofo 2004). Therefore, this African feminist perspective is useful to the study of chinamwali as it acknowledges the influence of culture in shaping African women's gender and sexuality identity, as well as serving to oppress them. This perspective also offers a broad understanding on the construction of African women's identity.
Female initiation rites which are seen as a powerful institution that shapes a person's sexual and gender identity, have received attention from various scholars, including feminist scholars (see: Arnfred 2004; Diallo 2004; Tamale 2005, 2011). Indeed, these scholars have sought to undertake exploratory studies on the practice, contributing to the body of knowledge on female initiation from a feminist standpoint, enabling us to understand the significant role of female initiation practices in the construction of sexual and gender identities.
For example, African feminists acknowledge the centrality of motherhood and scholarly work has been done to emphasise this aspect. From the findings in the study, child bearing or the ability to be a mother is seen as an important aspect of being a woman--a key aspect to the construction of a woman's identity. Similar to what Mungwini (2006: 206) notes among the Shona of Zimbabwe, a woman's ability to bear children is an important aspect of womanhood among the Chikunda. Applying the perspective to the study allowed a critical feminist framework to the study of chinamwali as it meant I could explore how socially constructed expectations of women contribute to shaping their gender and sexual identities.
Brief Historical Background of the Chikunda
The Chikunda are believed to have emerged from the slave armies of Portuguese prazos or estates first...