Negotiating identities through the ‘cultural practice’ of labia elongation among urban Shona women and men in contemporary Zimbabwe


  • Hellen Venganai Stellenbosch University



Labia elongation, Shona women, sexuality, identities, culture, Zimbabwe


Dominant Eurocentric discourses on African traditional cultural practices linked to sexuality construct these practices as retrogressive for women in these localities. These discourses take the form of women and sexual rights promoted by some women activists and scholars, whose work mainly focuses on the so-called traditional rural women as victims of these gendered sexual practices. In many ways, such approaches manufacture and exaggerate differences between Western and African women, while reproducing colonial discourses that construct Africans as backward. This article interrogates the modern-traditional binary which underpin conventional representations of some sexual practices as cultural. Following African feminist scholars who argue for research which explores the significance and meanings such sexual practices hold for those women who engage in them, this article draws on a study I conducted with Shona speaking women and men in Zimbabwe who participated and/or were interested in the practice of labia elongation. The targeted women and men, in their 20s -30s, live in relatively affluent houses in Harare, and are identified as urban, modern and middle-class. The study sought to explore why such women (as well as men) who identify as modern were so interested and invested in a sexual practice that has often been constructed as traditional and cultural. By exploring how women and men invoke notions of culture and tradition, the article demonstrates the creative and complex ways in which the young adults position themselves in relation to this practice in particular, and in relation to gender and sexuality more generally.

Author Biography

Hellen Venganai, Stellenbosch University

PhD Candidate, Department of Sociology & Social Anthropology


Amadiume, Ifi (2006): “Sexuality, African religio-cultural traditions and modernity: Expanding the lens”, CODESRIA Bulletin, 1, 1-9.

Arnfred, Signe (2011) Sexuality & gender politics in Mozambique: rethinking gender in Africa, Woodbridge: James Currey.

Bagnol, Brigitte & Esmeralda Mariano (2008): “Vaginal practices: eroticism and implications for women’s health and condom use in Mozambique”, Culture, health & sexuality, 10:6, 573-585. DOI: 10.1080/13691050801999071

Charmaz, Kathy (2006): Constructing grounded theory: A practical guide through qualitative research, London: Sage Publications.

Clark, Jude (2006): “Looking back and moving forward: Gender, culture and constructions of transition in South Africa”, Agenda, 20:68, 8-17.

De Robillard, Benita (2009): “Girls and virginity: Making the post-apartheid nation state”, Agenda, 23:79, 85-93.

Garuba, Harry & Sam Raditlhalo (2008): “Culture”, Nick Shepherd & Steven Robins (eds.): New South African Keywords, Sunnyside: Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd, 33-44.

Hall, Stuart (1996): “Introduction: Who needs ‘identity’?”, Stuart Hall & Paul Du Gay (eds.): Questions of Cultural identity, London & New Delhi: SAGE Publications, 1-17. DOI: 10.1017/cbo9780511566011.002

Hollway, Wendy (1989): Subjectivity and Method in Psychology, London: Sage. Kaarsholm, Preben (2005): “Moral panic and cultural mobilization: responses to transition, crime and HIV/AIDS in KwaZulu-Natal”, Development and change, 36:1, 133-156.

Kaarsholm, Preben (2006): “Culture as cure: Civil society and moral debates in KwaZulu-Natal after apartheid”, Current Writing: Text and Reception inSouthern Africa, 18:2, 82-97.

Koster, Marian & Lisa Leimar Price (2008): “Rwandan female genital modification: Elongation of the Labia minora and the use of local botanical species”, Culture,health & sexuality, 10:2, 191-204. DOI: 10.1080/13691050701775076

Machingura, Francis & Paradzai Nyakuhwa (2015): “Sexism: A Hermetical Interrogation of Galatians 3:28 and Women in the Church of Christ in Zimbabwe”, The Journal of Pan African Studies, 8:2, 92-113.

Makahamadze, Tompson, Anthony Isacco & Excellent Chireshe (2012): “Examining the perceptions of Zimbabwean women about the Domestic Violence Act”, Journal of interpersonal violence, 27:4, 706-727. DOI: 10.1177/0886260511423239

Mano, Winston (2004): “Renegotiating tradition on Radio Zimbabwe”, Media, Cul ture & Society, 26:3, 315-336. DOI: 10.1177/0163443704041176

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade (1988): “Under Western eyes: Feminist scholarship and colonial discourses”, Feminist review, 30, 61-88. DOI: 10.1057/fr.1988.42

Morgan, Kathryn Pauly (1991): “Women and the knife: Cosmetic surgery and the colonization of women’s bodies”, Hypatia, 6:3, 25-53. DOI: 10.1111/j.1527-2001.1991.tb00254.x

Mwenda, Kenneth (2006): “Labia elongation under African customary law: A violation of women’s rights?”, The International Journal of Human Rights, 10:4, 341-357. DOI: 10.1080/13642980600976369

Negrin, Llewellyn (2002): “Cosmetic surgery and the eclipse of identity”, Body & Society, 8:4, 21-42. DOI: 10.1177/1357034X02008004002

Pattman, Rob (2001): “The beer drinkers say I had a nice prostitute but the church goers talk about things spiritual: Learning to be men at a teachers’ college in Zimbabwe”, Robert Morrell (ed.): Changing men in Southern Africa, Durban: University of Natal & Zed Press, 225-238.

Pattman, Rob (2015): “Ways of thinking about young people in participatory research”, Johanna Wyn & Helen Cahill (eds.): Handbook of child and youth studies, New York: Springer, 79-92. DOI: 10.1007/978-981-4451-15-4_20

Perez, Guillermo Martinez, Esmeralda Mariano & Brigitte Bagnol (2015): “Perceptions of Men on Puxa-Puxa, or Labia Minora Elongation, in Tete, Mozambique”, Journal of Sex Research, 52:6, 700-709. DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2014.949612

Scott, Joan (1988): “Deconstructing equality-versus-difference: Or, the uses of poststructuralist theory for feminism”, Feminist studies, 14:1, 32-50. DOI: 10.2307/3177997

Sofola, Zulu (1998): “Feminism and African Womanhood”, Obioma Nnaemeka (ed.): Sisterhood, Feminisms and Power: From Africa to the Diaspora, Trenton & Asmara: Africa World Press, Inc, 51-64.

Spronk, Rachel (2009): “Sex, sexuality and negotiating Africanness in Nairobi”, Africa, 79:4, 500-519. DOI: 10.3366/E0001972009001041

Tamale, Sylvia (2006): “Eroticism, sensuality and ‘women’s secrets’ among the Baganda: A critical analysis”, Feminist Africa, 5, 9-36. DOI: 10.1111/j.1759-5436.2006.tb00308.x

Tamale, Sylvia (2008): “The rights to culture and the culture of rights: a critical perspective on women’s sexual rights in Africa”, Feminist Legal Studies, 16:1, 47-69. DOI: 10.1007/s10691-007-9078-6

Weedon, Chris (1987): Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist theory, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

West, Michael Oliver (2002): The rise of an African Middle Class: Colonial Zimbabwe, 1898-1965, Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Wickström, Anette (2010): “Virginity testing as a local public health initiative: a ‘preventive ritual’more than a diagnostic measure”, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 16:3, 532-550. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9655.2010.01638.x

Williams, John (1969): “Labial elongation in the Shona”, The Central African Journal of medicine 15:7, 165-166.