Virginity and the Johanne Marange religious customs
THE state has outlawed virginity testing as a human rights violation.
However, it is surprising to note that Johanne Marange Apostolic Church (JMAC) still teaches and conducts mandatory virginity testing.
Apart from JMAC, there are a number of cultural groups in the country that are still practising virginity testing, which is commonly referred to as “chinamwari”. The virginity testing by JMAC is in sync with both the cultural beliefs and the Hebrew text.
In line with the Hebrew text, Psalms 68: 24-26, girls who are praise worshippers must be virgins with the understanding that you cannot sing for God if you are dirty (Psalms, 68: 24-26 ESV).
Since the Bible is the founding document for theological discourses, churches are however found to interpret the sacred text differently and section 60 of the Zimbabwean constitution allows for freedom of worship.
Thus, the nexus between theology and human rights discourse remains an elusive concept. Virginity testing is one of the common practices in JMAC and is associated with dignity in line with the customary laws.
Virginity testing has, from a cultural and traditional perspective, been a method of protecting the girl child from sexual exploitation. The elders would make the girl reveal the exploiter and the paedophile is confronted and at times made to pay damages.
This was done to protect the girl child even though it would be done without the girl’s consent. The concept of consent does not, according to the law of the country, apply to persons below the age of 18.
Anyone below the age of 18 years cannot legally consent to any sexual act or union and it is illegal for anyone to consent on their behalf on issues that pertain to marriage or indulging in sexual acts.
Radical feminists the world over are up in arms against any cultural practice that perpetuates patriarchal hegemony through violating the dignity of the girl child and women. The JMAC practice of virginity testing is widely criticised as a gross human rights violation.
Within the practice of virginity testing, the naming and shaming of those who after testing were found not to be virgins is cited to be impairing the dignity of the girl child.
Meanwhile, virginity testing is also regarded as one key catalyst in child marriages, where all those girls deflowered are allegedly married off to older men within the church without seeking their consent.
The constitution of Zimbabwe has set the age of legal consent at 18 years, meaning any sexual engagement with a minor is statutory rape and that no minor is allowed either to be sexually abused or married off before reaching the legal age of majority.
The JMAC is thus found to be violating the law, hence the need to align its theology to the new constitution.
While JMAC refutes the fact that it permits child marriages, through observation and document exploitation from gender-based civil society organisations and community-based organisations, the church is implicated in a number of cases where the rights of the girl child are found to have been violated.
The JMAC doctrine views losing virginity as a sin against both the church and God. JMAC, like the Roman Catholic Church on the power of atonement, teaches that the church, through Mutumwa Marange, has been given the power to intercede for the wrongs done and bring about expiation.
In the process, the JMAC punishes any girl who loses virginity by marrying them off to older men in the church. This process of marrying them off to older men is usually done without the consent of the affected girls. This is done during their rituals known as pasika, meaning Passover ceremonies. This church is known for relying on the Old Testament text which is influenced more by the Hebrew culture in their practice of marrying off girls.
In the secular realm, domestic violence is one of Zimbabwe’s greatest hurdles despite an array of policies and laws to curb the same. One of the most contentious issues that trigger domestic violence is virginity which, in turn, spills into paternity disputes.
Marriage in African societies revolves around the concept of virginity, hence the concept of a beast known as “mombe yechimanda” which is part of the bride price. In African traditional religion, when a woman gets married, her aunties are found to be so much concerned with whether she was a virgin or not.
There are ways through which they have to know of this virginity status of their niece, and this information is shared amongst some family members. In most cases, even her in-laws will have to know about this status, thus defying the right to privacy. This will determine whether “mombe yechimanda” will have to be paid or not. The issue of privacy is a human rights issue according to the constitution of the land.
As such, the aforementioned practice is an infringement on the rights of women. Every citizen regardless of gender has the right to privacy, which is unfortunately being apparently violated by the JMAC theology, through the parading of the deflowered girls in front of congregants without seeking the consent of the affected persons.
Virginity is an element that belongs to the private sphere and not subject to public scrutiny.
The study highlights some of the verses in scripture which expose women and children to the whims and caprices of human rights abuse. Whilst the canonisation of the scripture is a disputed academic discourse, with commentators arguing for and against the quantum of inspiration of the scripture, Canaan Banana in “Rewriting the Bible” highlighted the need to revisit our hermeneutical methodologies so as to be contextually relevant to the existential realities in Zimbabwe.
Banana advanced for the domestication of theology for it to be relevant in the present situation. In the era of fourth-generation rights, the scripture must be relevant to the modern demands. The JMAC literally interprets the scripture and purposefully relies more on the Old Testament.
Thus, the majority of the JMAC teachings are derived from the Old Testament. For example, Deuteronomy 22: 13-19 is one of the widely revered verses in JMAC’s theological doctrine on virginity. The verse resonates with the theological teachings and practices in JMAC.
The Old Testament verses referred hereto help to locate the fulcrum of the JMAC theology and how these selected verses enhance human rights violations. To note, Deuteronomy and Leviticus are major sources of the JMAC theology.
In JMAC, if a member of the congregation marries a virgin, he is not allowed to divorce her unless by a special grant by the church. To prove that she was a virgin, she must ensure that her first sexual intercourse with her husband is done on a white sheet and the blood that comes out after losing virginity would be kept as proof.
The cloth would be presented to the parents and, after that, dowry – including “mombe yechimanda” , if she was a virgin, would be charged. Leviticus 21:13-14 prohibits marrying widows, divorcees and any girl who has lost her virginity whom it describes as a harlot (Leviticus, 21:13-14 ESV).
Similarly, in Deuteronomy 22: 13-19, when a girl had already lost her virginity, the parents of the girl should present her before the whole congregation and the father presents the girl to the elders of the church for a wife (Deuteronomy, 22: 13-19 ESV).
JMAC, being an indigenous church, borrowed heavily from both the Jewish tradition and African traditional religion, which amongst other things, revered the sacrosanctity of virginity.
In Zimbabwe, the constitution stipulates that subjecting any person to dehumanising treatment is a human rights violation. The constitution goes on to say that citizens have the right to privacy and self-determination.
In JMAC, like African traditional religion and Jewish culture, where African indigenous churches borrowed their theologies, women are not accorded the same rights as those that are enjoyed by their male counterparts.
JMAC teaches that girls who lose their virginity must be paraded, named and shamed before they are married off to any member of the church, without their consent. Old women in the church conduct virginity testing annually, especially towards their pasika, the Passover feast.
In African traditional religion, there is also the “mombe yechimanda”, which is a beast paid only for the virgins.
During the first sexual encounter, girls ought to produce the blood-stained white cloth as evidence of their virginity which will be shown to aunties and parents of the girl as proof that she was a virgin and “mombe yechimanda” can be paid. This means that in the JMAC, women do not have matrimonial privacy and the right to dignity and self-determination.
Interestingly, men are not obligated to undergo virginity testing.
In African traditional religion, Jewish culture and the JMAC teachings, males are encouraged to marry virgins and despise widows, divorceees or any women “profaned” by fornication (Isaiah, 62:5 ESV).
Sexuality is very central in the discrimination against women in JMAC. Women are viewed as inherently evil, just like the biblical Eve. The fall of humanity from the glory of God is ascribed to Eve and is spread to the generality of womankind. Thus the JMAC, like the African traditional religion and Jewish culture, teaches that women in their menstrual cycle are unclean and their uncleanliness can affect men.
Since JMAC’s theological teachings extend to the social sphere, male congregants are not allowed to have sexual intercourse or eat food prepared by a woman on her menstrual period. Thus, women on their menstrual period are discriminated against. In JMAC, women on their menstrual period are not allowed to participate in church activities, including singing.
In addition, the church teaches that women should not touch or wash the garment for the man, including her husband or son. St Augustine of Hippo believed that humanity’s sinful nature inherently got inherited from the fall of the first parents (Adam and Eve).
In Genesis 3:12, Adam blamed Eve for disobeying God, and in Genesis 3: 16 God said to the women, “I will greatly multiply thy pain and conception, in pain thou shall bring forth children, and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Genesis, 3:12 ESV).
Thus, all the bad things in the world are being blamed on women in general and Eve in particular. In the JMAC, as in most African indigenous churches, women and men do not sit together. The sitting arrangement itself is a clear indication of gender imbalances.
The scripture objectifies a girl child where the kings would require virgins to keep themselves warm as was the case with King David. 1 Kings 1:1-4 says, “Now King David was old, advanced in age, and they covered him with clothes, but he could not keep warm” (1 Kings 1:1-4 ESV).
So, his servants said to him, “Let them seek a young virgin for my lord the king, and let her attend the king and become his nurse; and let her lie in your bosom, that my lord the king may keep warm.”
So, they searched for a beautiful girl throughout all the territory of Israel, and found Abishag the Shunamite, and brought her to the king. In addition to that, fathers would donate their virgin daughters as ransom to redeem other men. Genesis 19:8 says, “Now behold, I have two daughters who have not had relations with men, please let me bring them out to you, and do to them whatever you like. Only do nothing to these men, in as much as they have come under the shelter of my roof” (Genesis, 19:8 ESV).
The scripture does not treat a girl child with any dignity and hermeneutically JMAC has literally incorporated these verses into its theological teachings. Thus, the Lieubumahs Muparidzi regularly refer to these patriarchal verses in order to theologically legitimise the abuse of women and a girl child in particular. Leviticus 12:2, 5 goes on to say that if a woman bears a male child, she is unclean for seven days, but if it is a girl child, she is unclean for 14 days. Clearly, there is disparity between a girl and a boy child (Leviticus, 12:2,5).
In assimilating the Jewish culture, parents in JMAC are conduits of abuse as they concede to sexual abuse and exploitation on behalf of their daughters. A number of cases of sexual abuse involving the girl child and parents do translate to the violation of the fundamental rights accorded to children by the constitution and all the treaties and conventions to which Zimbabwe is a signatory to.
In JMAC, if a child refuses to take church orders such as arranged marriages, both the concerned girl child and her parents get ex-communicated and permanently banned from JMAC membership (Mare, 2015:61). The ban is more of a theological curse than mere punishment.
JMAC teaches that, whatever is bound here on earth is also bound in heaven (Matthew, 16:18ff). In order to have the parental support, the JMAC church introduced very punitive measures against parents who wilfully defy church teachings.
In JMAC, offenders of church doctrine are not only excommunicated and banished from the church for life, they are made to know that they are destined for hell.
In addition to that, JMAC teaches that no non-JMAC members enter the kingdom of God (ibid, 2015:60). Thus, JMAC, being one of the oldest African indigenous churches in Africa, proclaims to be the only church that is still teaching and practising the true gospel as it was handed over by Moses.