Feminine aspirations: initiation rites in contemporary Malawi
Jessica Johnson (University of Birmingham)
Paper short abstract:
This paper focuses on contemporary female initiation rites in rural Malawi. I examine the novel ways in which messages about HIV and human rights are incorporated into the rites, reflecting shifting aspirations for femininity and women’s sexuality and confirming the rites’ enduring importance.
Paper long abstract:
Taking inspiration from Audrey Richards' classic study 'Chisungu', this paper focuses on contemporary female initiation rites in rural Malawi. It is based on twenty months of ethnographic research, and forms part of a broader study of gender justice. I examine the innovative ways in which messages about HIV and human rights have been incorporated into initiation rites, reflecting shifting aspirations for adult femininity and women's sexuality, without undermining the continuing significance of the rites for female sociality and social reproduction. Initiation ceremonies are explored as an important venue for women's maintenance and re-negotiation of a moral community, and thus for the shaping of expectations for gender roles and sexual and marital relationships. The paper illustrates the reflexivity with which Malawian villagers contemplate their customary practices in the light of changing circumstances. It also alerts us to the relevance of changing aspirations for young girls' futures, as well as the strength of feeling of the majority of villagers who hold not only that initiation remains essential preparation for adult life, but also that the social importance of female initiation extends beyond the serious business of passing on traditions (miyambo) to their daughters and matrilineal heirs. My argument demonstrates that the association of women with 'tradition' is by no means a necessary corollary to their marginalisation or subordination, and nor should we assume that it is always somehow antithetical to women's rights.