Imagine that you live in a country wherein if born today you had a 75% chance of dying before the age of 40. What if 40% of the adults currently had HIV? Imagine that everyday you awoke to the reality of back breaking poverty while the ruler of your nation lived in luxury (for some North Americans this is already a reality) How would you stretch the 1US dollar that your days labour would bring? What if your government barely bothered with a sham display of democracy?
If your worries were not difficult enough, there is a ceremony which your gender forces your participation in. The reed ceremony. As a young virginal woman you must agree to dance top less for the pleasure of the king, or risk having your family cow seized by the government. If that were not enough to cause for you to feel despondent, the bonus of your participation in this years festival is the possibility that you will be selected to become the kings 14th wife. If chosen you cannot refuse to marry, but in return for your sexual service, and child rearing, he will assure that you live in comfort. This is forced prostitution and yearly young women must participate in this cultural charade, to please the king of Swaziland, Mswati III.
The annual domestication of this nations virgins has become world famous. Now western perverts eagerly pack their bags and travel so that they can freely ogle the young women. This is a voyeurs delight and travel ads play on this to encourage tourism. One white European tourist was quoted as saying, "It is the only place in the world where we can see bare-breasted women and buttocks". Another said, "It's a unique celebration and it's one of the few places we can see bare-breasted women".
While I will acknowledge that for some women this event is a celebration of their culture, I cannot help to question the ways in which this reinforces the cult of virginity. The dance exists to unify the king with his people, and to encourage young girls to save their virginity until marriage. Even though abstinence in a culture with such a high rate of HIV is a positive message, it should be equally married to messages about the importance of safe sex practices.
As a western woman I am loathe to criticize the cultural practices of another. I understand that I am approaching this with a specific western lens, informed by my race, gender, class and education. My experiences largely differentiate me from the women of Swaziland. I will however unequivocally state that forcing women to participate that wish to abstain is patently wrong. A woman's autonomy and agency must be respected. It is equally damaging to encourage western men to descend upon the country for the purposes of sexual voyeurism. This opens women to assault and is demeaning. It cannot possibly be a safe space if men are invited to freely take pictures for their personal collection. It cannot be a safe place if men can openly state that the purpose of their visit is too see naked women. I will respect the desire of women to participate in a cultural event that does not lead to lasting physical harm, as I believe it is important even when we disagree to acknowledge the agency of another, however just because something has a long standing cultural heritage does not mean that it does not maintain the gender hierarchy, or promote patriarchal practices that demean women.