Bum deal for Zulu maidens

The recent call by the Zulu royal house for maidens to cover their rears at this year’s Reed Dance is both puzzling and offensive.

A week after his 60th birthday and shortly after announcing that his sixth wife will be his last queen, the king is now closing shop and rewriting tradition. All must cover up.

Thousands of Zulu maidens make their way to Enyokeni Royal Palace in Nongoma every year to celebrate their culture, their purity and their king—King Goodwill Zwelithini. Months are spent preparing the outfits: strings of colourful beads are worn over bare breasts and short beaded skirts adorn bare buttocks to denote chastity and signify maidenhood.

At the crack of dawn the maidens make their way down to the river to bathe in the cold water to wash away bad luck.

They then proceed to a nearby field where a group of old women tests each maiden’s virginity.

The elderly women tasked with guiding the maidens place the girls in groups, checking that each is dressed appropriately.

They coach those deemed “potential queens” on how to behave around “Isilo” (The King).

Underwear is one of the first things the women collect from the girls. From here the dance, which involves lifting legs and possibly exposing more than “innocent buttocks”, follows.

I was pure and proud, but still very private. I did not feel comfortable exposing my rear in public, so I put my underwear back on soon after being tested. I tried to conceal this by tucking my drawers into my butt when the elders came around.

Fancied as a potential queen I was checked and double-checked and finally caught out.

I was asked to remove the offending item of clothing and threatened with my grandmother’s discipline because I was disrespecting my culture and Isilo.

We were told not to wear underwear under our short beaded skirts, because “we were pure and had nothing to hide”.

We were told that Zulu maidens who wear only beads formed part of a long-standing tradition: “The king does not think of you in a sexual way, he sees you as the pure maiden you are, he sees the beauty of culture, he is not fazed by your bare breasts or your bum and private parts.

“Celebrate your body, and your culture, don’t be ashamed of what might show when you lift your legs, it’s part of your culture, many have done this before you and many will continue too.”

We were sold. We believed in what our elders said, we believed in our culture and our king, we gave up our underwear and we sang and marched with freshly cut reeds, with little concern for where his eye might fall. We filed by, hoping to become his next wife.

But now the king feels he has enough queens and this year it will be the duty of the first royal wife to choose the last wife. After years of feasting his eyes the king now argues that nude buttocks could decrease the credibility of the Reed Dance and make the maidens vulnerable to exploitation.

But this order to cover up is an infringement of Zulu culture, which belongs to the people and not solely to the king. His exit from the Reed Dance is not sufficient reason to change a practice that has been in existence for generations.

Additional reporting by Sinayo Daba

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