Female Initiation

By Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Mbum artist, Chad, girls' initiation. Photo by Allen F. Roberts.

Some African societies practice girls' initiation, although not as commonly as for boys. Female puberty is far easier to recognize than male because of the onset of menstruation. This important moment is accompanied by guidance offered by a girl's mother or other closely related women. In some African groups, activities are more organized, but differ significantly from boys' initiation. Girls are usually secluded in their own communities, rather than in an isolated camp in the wilds, and rather than inculcating secret knowledge, language, and performance forms, girls usually learn about sexuality, the practicalities of managing a family, and how to preserve and assert women's prerogatives in male-dominated culture. These Mbum girls in southwesternmost Chad seen in the late 1960s offered public dances during their initiation. Their unashamed nubility is the explicit purpose of their performance, and they sometimes danced in cultural heritage festivals during secular events such as national elections.