VIRGIN SYMBOL AND BODY:
CHRISTIAN AND AFRICAN TRADITIONAL BELIEFS ON SEXUALITY IN RELATION TO THE PROBLEM OF HIV/AIDS

 

Schoolgirl escapes being a sacrificial virgin wife –a tradition that required the king to sleep with a virgin on the eve of his marriage – because "the ritual … is out of step with modern living" (Joseph Ssemwogerere, the Buganda Kingdom Prime Minister). Quoted from the Sunday Independent: September 12 1999!

 

1. Introduction: Background and Problem

One Sunday, I read an article that reported that more and more virgin girls are being raped by men who believe this will "cleanse" them of the disease AIDS. After finishing reading, it once again freshly daunted me that these beliefs around the symbol of virginity had actually shaped my early general education on sexuality by both my African and Christian Catholic traditions. As a uniquely embodied African Christian woman in South Africa, I have experienced my body through the learned roles and expectations from both my community (family and relatives) and Christian (Catholic) tradition, apprehended and communicated to me through the symbol of virginity. Virginity, as a symbol of purity in both my (African) culture and (Catholic) Christian tradition meant behaviour and practices fitting the image of purity, as contrasted with polluting activities. On the one hand, my mother told me that, in order to have a blessed and stable marriage I should enter into the institution of marriage in a pure bodily condition, that is, not having known any man through sexual intercourse. My Roman Catholic Sunday school teacher (who was a nun), on the other hand, instructed me that virginity is a gift of holiness from God. Basing this education in sexuality on Pauline tradition, she went on to quote St. Paul:

Now concerning virgins…if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that…I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord…And, the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit…I say this for your own benefit…to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.

As the study will show as it progresses, the religio-cultural value and prestige awarded to the symbol of virginity does not necessarily mean honour and prosperity for female virgins, as culture and religion have tended to proclaim. The symbolic meanings and rituals attached to virginity often result in the vulnerability of women and children, as they generate and aggravate tragic beliefs of sexual cleansing from diseases such as AIDS, as noted above.

The main purpose of this study is to establish whether there is an association between cultural ideas and religious beliefs about the symbol of female virgin, and sexual practices as explored and communicated through symbolic beliefs about virginity amongst the isi-Xhosa speaking people in the Western Cape province. To achieve this purpose, this study will specifically investigate: (1) the practice among men with HIV/AIDS of having sexual intercourse with virgin girls, believing that this will cleanse them from the disease; (2) the practice of abstinence from sexual intercourse by girls believing that protecting their virginity until marriage will lead to a blessed and stable marriage life. My interest is to explore the sources or the social agencies (the Church and Family in African communities) that generate these beliefs through their systems of education on sexuality. I want to find out whether the Church teachings on sexuality in general and on HIV/AIDS in particular do or do not lead to the appropriation between the virgin doctrinal symbol of purity, and HIV/AIDS as the polluting agent that needs to be cleansed, for example. This symbolic/metaphoric connection might not be overtly made by the Church, but to the ordinary believer, whose beliefs are exercised outside the doctrinal boundaries of the Church, and are thus uncontrolled and unsupervised, the association might be implied. How can the Church manage these symbolic beliefs responsibly?

Sociologists and anthropologists have already written a lot on how the body mediates and constructs reflection (belief) and action (practice) in society. The anthropologist, Mary Douglas, and Bryan Turner, a sociologist, have particularly offered instructive insights on how religion is the centre of this social construction of the body as symbolic of relations between men and women. My aim is to go further by problematizing, in particular, the body of the female virgin as a "natural symbol" that mediates socio-religious beliefs, practices and symbolism concerning what it means to be a woman or a man in my own African Christian context. I will emphasise the religio-cultural and symbolic dimensions of this context by examining and analysing the religious and social beliefs and practices relating to sexuality, in terms of particular thematic concepts of belief, symbol, ritual/practice, and society/community. With this purpose in mind, my study will deal with a series of critical questions which, I feel, have been ignored by both theological and health educators on sexuality in general and HIV/AIDS in particular: (1) in what way does the symbol of the virginal body of a female serve as a religious and cultural "institution" of sexual education for African female adolescents in particular; (2) Are the beliefs attached to the virgin as symbol contradictory or complementary to beliefs and practices of sexuality as experienced in the wider communities; (3) how have these exclusive theological symbols/metaphors of pollution and impurity, such as plague, contagion, and leprosy, - as associated in contrast to the symbolic, virtuous characteristics of virginity - shaped or influenced the beliefs, practices, and attitudes towards sexuality in general, and to those with HIV/AIDS in particular?

2. Literature Review

What follows are some of the influential literature that will assist me in formulating and conceptualising my research themes as the study progresses. Of essential significance is the literature that unpacks the virgin as symbolised through the Catholic doctrinal belief (virgin conception), the body as symbol (body as social mediator), and cultural symbolic expressions. This range of interpretations will assist the study to holistically interweave the virgin symbol with its associated religious-cultural beliefs and practices of sexuality, and to analyse how these beliefs and practices have shaped and affected the sexual relations between women, children and men in our contemporary society.

2.1 Virgin Doctrine: Symbolic Beliefs of Purity and Asceticism

The literature by feminist theologian, Jane Schaberg, and Religious Studies scholar, Donald Capps, has had a major influence in my choice of argument in this study, not primarily because they challenge patriarchal and biased interpretations of the doctrine of the virgin conception; but because they draw important attention to the possibility that the religio-cultural value and prestige awarded to the virgin symbol does not necessarily mean honour and prosperity for female virgins, as culture and religion have often proclaimed. Schaberg and Capps have made an uncomfortable and maybe controversial association between religion and child abuse. They both allude to the doctrine of the virgin conception of Jesus as the religious belief that has had a direct role in legitimising what Capps terms, a dissociative process. Capps argues that the possibility that Jesus might in fact have had a human father is rarely entertained in Christian churches. The possibility of the childhood traumas Jesus might have experienced as a result of being an illegitimate child is denied by the doctrine of virgin conception, thus creating a religious ethos in which the traumas of children are not taken seriously by the vast majority of Christian parents who still subscribe to this doctrinal belief. Schaberg, on the other hand, argues that the belief in a virginal conception is a later, distorted interpretation of the infancy narratives (Lukan and Matthean) propagated by an ascetic ethos of the Church Fathers. She contends that Mary was the victim of rape, and this notion, she asserts, is vividly endorsed by Luke and Matthew who were responding to the widespread allegations that Jesus was an illegitimate child. If the doctrine of virginal conception is referred to as the religious belief that normalises the dissociative process by stretching a veil of secrecy or denial over the actual circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy and Jesus’ conception, could the same doctrine not simultaneously be alluded to as affirmative in the associative process between the pure and ascetic attributes attached to the symbol of virginity and that of the polluting and profane symbolic characteristics generally attached to the AIDS epidemic, by the Church in particular?

2.2 Body Symbol: Mediator of Society/community

There are at least three theoretical frameworks through which the body has been conceptualised in the contemporary debate on the question of the body in society. All three overlap and interweave with one another The first is based on the notion that the body is a physiological potentiality which is realised socially and collectively through a variety of shared body practices within which the individual is trained, disciplined, and socialised. Marcel Mauss, Michel Foucault, and Bryan Turner are the prime scholars to have developed this approach. The second theory conceptualises the body as a system of symbols; it is the carrier or bearer of social meanings and symbolism. For this approach, the body is the conveyer of culture and shared meanings, especially in ritual and religious practice. This is the theory that has appealed to me, for it does not only encompass the other two theories, but it also shows vividly how illnesses and diseases such as AIDS, are regarded as polluting agents of the body physical. Here the body is not only the prime constituent of personal and social identity, it also constitutes the deepest prejudices and discriminations arising from its high moral dichomatization of male/female, sick/healthy, old/young, and white/black. The pioneers of this theory are Mary Douglas, Anthony Synott, and Emily Martin. The third approach to the body interprets the human body as a system of signs that stand for and express relations of power. The body here is regarded as a problematic text, that is, as fleshly discourse within which the power relations in society can both be interpreted and sustained. Thomas Laqueur is one of the many who have explored this approach.

2.3 Virgin Mary: Christian Virginity and Sexual Ethics

One of aims of this study is to carry out a holistic exploration of the virgin symbol. By holistic I mean an approach that closely interweaves the virgin symbol with both the cultural and religious aspects of beliefs and practices associated with sexuality, and analysis of how these beliefs have shaped and affected the relations between women, men, and children. Theological scholars who have problematised the virgin symbol tend to reduce the problem of virginity to the figure of Mary, mother of Jesus, based on the doctrine of virgin conception. This reduction to one aspect of the virgin symbol often lends narrow interpretations to flaws in dichotomies such as virgin/mother, celibate/sexually active, and so on. For instance, Kyung Chung Hyun, a South Korean feminist theologian, has argued for Mary’s virginity as a ‘relational reality’. For Chung, Mary’s virginity is her ability to be a self-defining woman. This self-definition, through Mary’s virgin birth, is her ability to initiate the end of the patriarchal order, because virginity is the symbol for the autonomy of women; it symbolises a woman who does not lead a derived life as a daughter/wife/mother of men, Chung firmly asserts. She concludes by saying that the word ‘virgin’ should be reflected in a positive sense of being a woman whose identity is not given to her by a male. On the other hand, Delores Williams, an African-American womanist theologian, has contested this advocacy by Chung. Williams argues that the term ‘virgin’ should not be used to describe women’s independence, because the values assigned to virginity are the same values that are assigned by patriarchal biblical and cultural traditions. In responding to the claim made by Chung that virginity symbolises the autonomy of women, Williams imposes this question:

Can there be such a thing as an underived life for Christian feminist women who are daughters/wives/mothers of men and women, but who do not want their femaleness defined by the virgin/virginity language?

By this question, Williams attempts to highlight that, for African-American women, a family is of utmost importance; thus, for women’s liberation and survival, there would be a concern about the loss of Joseph in the working out of the Christian story about Jesus and his mother. The loss of Joseph as an active participant in the unfolding of the birth narratives amounts to a breakdown in the portrayal of family.

The importance of challenging the submissive image of Mary that has been doctrinised by the Roman Catholic Church is not dismissed or underrated here. Neither is the importance of bringing Joseph back to the scene as the father of Jesus in order to re-appreciate the devalued family institution cast aside. However, the virgin symbol can mediate more than the issues these women theologians have described and analysed. For example, within this symbolic framework of virginity advocated by Chung, vulnerabilities as a result of being a virgin have proven to be realities of cleansing tragedies. Bringing Joseph back to complete the survival circle of the family might overlook the fact that, in some cases, women are better off without husbands because of the ongoing sexual harassment and abuses that occur within this family sphere.

4. Methods of Collecting Data

This study is borne out of concern, commitment and interest about issues of sexuality as experienced amongst the isi-Xhosa speaking peoples in the Western Cape, a group I also belong to. The study is concerned about the victimisation, stigmatisation, discrimination, and persecution that have been aggravated by the fear of HIV/AIDS. It is committed to a symbiotic community participation, mobilisation, and communication in examining and challenging the regressive, stagnant and destructive internalised traditions on sexual beliefs and practices. The study is interested to hear what the ordinary local Christian people have to say about their realities as experienced socially and sexually. Some communities in South Africa may have unique needs and sexual cultural realities when it comes to issues of sexuality in general, and HIV/AIDS educational campaigns in particular. Failing to consider these religio-cultural differences might be deadly. How will this study take cognisance of the importance of understanding these particular worldviews on sexuality and HIV/AIDS? This question brings us to methodological questions. How do I, as both a researcher as well as an "insider" create a healthy balance between an experiential (subjectivity) as well as academic (objectivity) research? How do I write in solidarity with the participants without undermining the integrity of the study by clouding it with one-sided biases? With these questions in mind we now turn to the research design.

A research of this nature requires a methodology that will, on one hand, bring out the context of a cultural and religious sexual worldviews and behaviour of ordinary African Christian communities; and that will, on the other hand, enable these communities to reflect critically on their experiences of sexuality. A participatory form of research is suggested for this study. We believe that Action Research Method – a qualitative research methodology - informed by the theory of Paulo Freire’s critically transitive consciousness process, will assist this research study to facilitate a process whereby people can think through and develop strategies that bring about change in their lives and in Church.

Although this study is committed to a qualitative paradigm, a quantitative approach, in the form of a questionnaire survey, will be necessary to broaden the scope of coverage and to enable flexibility of changing thematic questions where necessary. Utilising both quantitative and qualitative approaches, as methods of inquiry seem, therefore, to be the best for this study.

Sample

The Western Cape townships will be taken to be the general area of study, and more particularly Khayelitsha, Kaya-Mandi, Mfuleni, Langa, Nyanga and Gugulethu townships. The target group will be African Christians from the Roman Catholic Churches. These areas are chosen because they are accessible and familiar to me, and they enable me to have a clear perspective on the group on which I want to focus, that is, the Isi-Xhosa-speaking peoples. The findings, though, will not be rigidly exclusive in integration, as there are more cultural and religious similarities than there are differences between the African cultural communities in South Africa.

The study will adopt a cross-section sample method, where women, men, and youth will participate. It is a well-known reality that issues of sexuality in general and HIV/AIDS in particular have many social taboos and moral overtones in many African cultural communities. What is of importance for the researcher, therefore, is not to persuade but to have a will and ability to communicate with the locals in a mode of reciprocity. This cross-section will, hence, be necessary as we suspect that different categories of people have different experiences of sexuality. For example, it is almost a fact to expect that women will be more comfortable to talk about issues of sexuality if they are grouped separately from their male counterparts, and vice-versa. This also implies to the youth. Therefore, the choice of six townships will cater for these separate group discussions. For instance, Kaya-Mandi will be used as the piloting focus group. Khayelitsha will be used for the women manyanos discussions. Langa will be used for the men manyanos discussions, etc. A male Xhosa-speaking research assistant will be of vital importance in my fieldwork, as it could be difficult for me, as a young, unmarried Xhosa woman, to hold group interviews with the men manyanos.

The study will be using a non-probability method of sampling known as "Convenience Sampling" to identify the sample. This method of research, therefore, may not be representative of the entire Xhosa speaking peoples. Nevertheless, it can provide valuable alternative perspectives on beliefs and practices associated with sexuality in this particular region, enabling us to draw conclusions about the population from the findings of this study.

The Questionnaire

The intention of the questionnaire at this stage is to broaden the scope of coverage and representativity. Specific questions will be asked of various black members of the Roman Catholic Churches in the Western Cape to gain information on education preferences concerning sexuality and HIV/AIDS, how education in sexuality is conducted both at home and at Church, and perceptions and beliefs on the virgin symbol, as understood both in the African cultural context as well as from the Christian perspective. Pilot questionnaires will be necessary to enable flexibility of changing questions where necessary.

Focus Group Discussions

Focus group discussions are key informant interviews applied simultaneously to groups of participants, not exceeding the number of 20 persons per group. A participatory research method, known as Action Research, will be informed by the theory of Paulo Freire’s critical conscientisation process. During all the group discussions, group interviews and focus group discussions, the principles underlying this method will be adhered to. The use of the participatory method with the support of a critical conscientisation process will be justified on the basis that the participatory method brings to the fore a mutual dialogue that reflects the context of people’s cultural and religious worldview, beliefs and practices concerning sexuality, and the latter enables the community to reflect critically and challenge some of the outdated sexual beliefs and practices that are still experienced in contemporary South Africa.

Paulo Freire, the pioneer of the conscientization concept, correctly points out that critical consciousness is the practice of freedom that liberates both the researcher and the participants. On the one hand, the researcher will not just be the observer and the interpreter of words and actions, but s/he will be a genuine participant who is willing to enter a mutual communication and dialogue with the participating communities. On the other hand, the community will be self-reflective about its experience and realities. The community will critically examine and challenge the regressive, stagnant and destructive internalised myths and traditions around sexual beliefs, such as those of cleansing AIDS by having sexual intercourse with virgins, stigmatisation and excommunication of AIDS victims by killing them, and then institutionalised, irresponsible symbolic beliefs about virginity that are still doctrinised by the Church. Freire maintains that critical conscientisation is a social act of knowing undertaken in a public arena as a form of social and collective empowerment. To reflect critically, therefore, is not something that can be achieved in isolation from others, for this merely valorises personal/individual empowerment at the expense of collectively making and remaking realities with and for others. Individual reality is always embedded in social forms, which are part of a collective, cultural present.

Fieldwork based on this method develops a critical consciousness in the community that will transform the stagnant and destructive sexual worldviews. To reflect critically by recognising and challenging the deceiving myths is something that can only be done as a community, because individual behaviour is always embedded in social forms, which are part of our collective, cultural present. Mary Douglas agrees with this Freirean notion:

The stronger the solidarity of a community, the more readily will national catastrophes (such as HIV/AIDS) be coded as signs of reprehensible behaviour. But, this should be true if the community is united in combating the disease without coded prejudices, stigmas, taboos, and excommunication helped along with the more sensitive, non-arrogant, and non-ignorant health educators who take these (sexual) worldview seriously.

Tape Recording

Since the intention is to have an 11 month period of fieldwork, the approach used and the time spent will require that all the 18 sessions (i.e. three sessions of about 2-3 hours with each of the six groups) be tape recorded - with the permission of the participants – transcribed, and analysed in detail. After the completion of each group, a workshop will be organised for the same group for critical discussions on the report that has been compiled by the researcher. The primary aim here is to give back to the community a tool, in the form of a report that will be utilised in meeting their daily challenges and fears of being sexual African Christians in the HIV/AIDS-stricken country. The group will decide how to use the report in their own Churches and communities.

5. Significance and Value of Study

My aim is that this study will contribute and add significantly to the ongoing contemporary theological debates on matters of sexuality in general and HIV/AIDS in particular.

The use of the Freiran method of critically transitive consciousness process, based on the participatory principles aims to provide the participants with a critical consciousness that will transform stagnant and destructive worldviews on sexuality.

Research of this nature will hopefully give some new insights about the otherwise unchallenged and overtly symbolic and doctrinised characteristics of the virgin symbol. Both the Church and African religio-cultural systems need to take responsibility and to prioritise the destruction of degrading and discriminating metaphors given to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The completed research report can be utilised as a form of introduction to African Christian ethics of sexuality for high school students as well as the youth in the Church. Peer pressures always happen outside the boundaries of home, and the social agents of education (the Church and the School) need to reduce the youth’s vulnerability by offering them the right information and knowledge on issues of sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS awareness, etc.

6. Time Frame/Schedule

6.1 Empirical Research

Western Cape Townships: African Roman Catholic Congregations

Phase I. Preliminary discussions with the Pastors/Priests of the proposed participating congregations. Set dates of visits. This may take two months, starting from January 2000.

Phase II: Further visits will be made to parishes in the six townships, Kaya-Mandi, Khayelitsha, Mfuleni, Nyanga, Langa, and Gugulethu. Two congregations in the Eastern Cape may also be visited if time allows. In this phase, a survey by questionnaire will be carried out. Data will be gathered on perceptions of sexual education, both at home, school, and in the Church, about educational preferences on sexuality and HIV/AIDS, on ideas about general matters of sexuality, beliefs and practices relating to HIV/AIDS, etc. This will take about two months. Starting from March 2000. Piloting.

Phase III: Focus Group Interviews. More specific and open-ended questionnaires will be developed. More focused questions. The topics include beliefs on virginity, attitudes towards AIDS victims, general and personal experiences about HIV/AIDS. Church and cultural influences in shaping beliefs and attitudes on sexuality and HIV/AIDS. Duration is three months. Starting from May 2000. Recording is assumed with the permission of the group.

Phase IV: Further in-depth Interviews. Gather additional information. Analyse. Introduce more confined topics of categorisation, labelling, prejudices, contradictions, etc. Extra-marital affairs, subordinate sexual experiences, homosexuality and the Bible, etc. Duration is also three moths. Starting from August 2000.

Phase V: Data analysis, writing up results, a feedback process involving the research participants, consolidation of findings, a report in the form of an article for publishing purposes. Duration is three months. Starting from November 2000.

In total, the research fieldwork will continue for 13 months (from January 2000-January 2001).

6.2 Theoretical Work

As indicated in the proposal the significant theories relating to the issues of the virgin symbol in particular and the body in general, have shaped my research. I will refine my theoretical position in the light of the empirical findings and start writing my doctoral thesis from February 2001. I aim to complete this study by December 2002.