The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Young Women in Contemporary Zulu Society

by Sandra Klopper
University of Cape Town

Young Zulu women wearing the leather shirts, shawls, and headdresses that conform to hlonipa practices, South Africa. Photo by Sandra Klopper. 

In contrast to many neighboring communities, the Zulu-speaking groups living in present day KwaZulu-Natal abandoned the practice of initiating and circumcising their young men in favor of organizing boys into age-grade regiments in the late 18th century. These circumcision practices were not revived after the destruction of the Zulu kingdom by British forces in 1879, nor has there been any attempt to reintroduce any rites of passage for young Zulu-speaking men in the course of the 20th century. In contrast to this, the lives of young Zulu-speaking women are marked by a number of rituals starting at puberty and ending only when they get married, at which point in their lives they begin to observe hlonipa practices—avoidances and tattoos aimed at securing the acceptance of their husbands' ancestors. Among these hlonipa practices is the tendency among traditionalists to wear a leather skirt, a shawl to cover their shoulders, and a large headdress.