Violent forms of ukuthwala reveal longstanding brutality against women

To understand South Africa’s present condition, in which violence against women and girls is endemic, we must travel back to an unfamiliar past. Digging deep, answers can be unearthed to questions about forms of gendered abuse that unrelentingly flourish today. It is important to do this work, as violence against women cannot be eradicated without exploring the rationalisations that sustain it.

Undoubtedly, the subject of the intersection between culture and violence is complicated by a long history of racist and stereotypical depictions of black culture under apartheid. This is compounded by continued debates about how culture is defined and which traditions are authentic. Despite this complicated terrain, it is critical to understand how practices embedded in custom, even if contested, significantly affect women’s lives.

Abusive cases of ukuthwala (the Xhosa term referring to the practice of kidnapping a girl or woman for purposes of marriage) have highlighted the uneasy relationship between culture and violence. My research seeks to understand why communities and families still frequently condone the kidnapping, assault, and rape of young girls for purposes of marriage even as such actions are challenged.

Where do the justifications for these practices come from? How are these convictions connected to other contemporary forms of violence against women? The purpose of this research is not to suggest that certain communities or groups are innately violent, as that is not the case. Rather, my goal is to comprehend why violence has so visibly persisted to the point that it is considered acceptable under particular conditions.

In-depth research, such as that of Dr Elizabeth Thornberry’s on sexual violence among Xhosa-speaking groups in the Eastern Cape, has documented that violent forms of ukuthwala existed as far back as the 1800s. Building upon this foundation, my research draws on both historical sources and contemporary quantitative studies about Xhosa-speaking communities in the Eastern and Western Capes.

Tracing the history of relationship customs amongst Xhosa communities from the 1800s until modern times shows that many of the aggressive acts associated with ukuthwala today are based on longstanding customary notions. Moreover, these beliefs interlink with a range of modern manifestations of abuses against women, and can be seen from rural areas of the former Transkei in the Eastern Cape to sprawling urban townships like Khayelitsha in Cape Town.

To illustrate these findings, let us focus on the issue of rape. In former times, men too raped women and girls whom they had thwala-ed. Although this was not considered to be an ideal tool, it was often sanctioned by the families and communities of assaulted girls, as is the case today. Why is this so? To begin to answer this, it is necessary to scrutinise the definition of rape.

As in all parts of the world, rape has been defined differently across various eras. Historically, only certain categories of sexual violence against women were considered to be criminal under Xhosa law. Whether an act was deemed to be rape depended on the relationship between the man and the woman and the intent behind the man’s use of force.

In the case of ukuthwala, the act of sexually assaulting a woman in order to make her submit to marriage was viewed as legitimate precisely because of the context of marriage. J Van Tromp, a legal scholar who studied Xhosa-speaking groups in the Eastern Cape in the early 20th century, explained: “In Xhosa law a series of connected acts is viewed as a whole and is judged retrospectively from the viewpoint of the objective sought and attained… the brute force employed against the girl can be condoned by her later consent and the violation of the bride’s father’s consent can be condoned by his final agreement to the marriage”. In essence, because marriage was such a sacred institution, and its attainment a significant and respected goal for a Xhosa man, this excused and justified violent acts that might precede matrimony.

A 2005 study by researcher Kate Wood, titled “Contextualising Group Rape in Post-Apartheid South Africa”, details the existence of these particularised forms of sexual violence in an urban township in the former Transkei. During interviews elders confirmed that in their communities, rape during ukuthwala was overlooked in the past.

One woman recalled, “Some guys would hold you down for your husband-to-be. If a girl has strength, then men would turn out the light, holding your legs open for the guy to sleep with you. Whatever you try to do, they are holding you down. Even if you cry, old people wouldn’t care, they knew what was going on.”

Notably, in the same study, most participants disagreed that sexually violating a woman during the ukuthwala process constituted rape. Significantly, one elder stated: “Today it would be called rape.” This statement vividly captures how differently sexual violence can be viewed depending on place and time.

Here, elders acknowledged that modern norms have begun to shift cultural perceptions of rape but this is still not wholly accepted. The continued patterns of violence against girls who are thwala-ed highlight the present-day relevance of the long-standing view that it is acceptable to sexually assault a woman to make her a wife.

The concept that a man is within his rights to violate a girl or woman under certain circumstances, is present in a range of other contemporary environments. The aforementioned study also explored a form of group rape known as “streamlining”. It found that young men use “streamlining” to punish or discipline their girlfriends or “loose women”.

They generally deny that this is rape, asserting that the women deserve it. The violent practice is considered useful for achieving certain goals, such as proving their manhood among peers and keeping women in subservient positions.

Further demonstrating how rape is made acceptable, a1996 study conducted among Xhosa youth in Khayelitsha concluded that violence is a “consistent feature of female adolescents’ sexual lives”. In parallel with the theme of rape being sanctioned when girls are thwala-ed, many adolescents interviewed felt that sexual assault is not rape when committed in the context of a relationship.

Connecting historical practices to current abuses lays bare that the beliefs that perpetuate extreme acts of ukuthwala have a long lineage and do not exist in isolation. These ideas shape other acts of gendered violence that at first glance may appear distant or unrelated. As we determinedly advocate the elimination of violence against women, we must view culture as not merely an insular force, tucked away in rural areas. Culture refers to ways of doing and thinking justified by what has gone before. The challenge lies in advancing the traditions that protected women and girls – for they too existed – and using these to bolster our modern conceptions of human rights.

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