Young urban Shona women and men negotiating gender and sexuality and social identifications through “cultural practices” in contemporary Zimbabwe: the case of labia elongation.

Venganai, Helen (2017-03)

Thesis (PhD)--Stellenbosch University, 2017.


ENGLISH ABSTRACT: Influenced by versions of feminist theory, post-colonial theory, and critical anthropology, this research seeks to contribute to a growing body of literature which explores processes of identity construction and meaning making among young people growing up in countries in post-colonial Africa. Drawing on these theoretical resources, this study focuses on labia elongation and the significance this holds for young urban Shona, middle-class women and men in their 20s and 30s, in contemporary Zimbabwe. My study examines how labia elongation features in conversations with my participants about “cultural” practices and gender and sexuality, both as a material practice and as a symbolic marker through which they negotiate identifications as gendered and sexual actors in the post-colonial context. These conversations took place in focus group discussions and loosely structured interviews, which I conducted with my participants. In these, I posed broad questions relating to their experiences of growing up and their current interests and identifications as young women and men, as well as questions about the practice of labia elongation and their views and experiences relating to this. I encouraged my participants to set the agenda and steer the conversation by raising and elaborating on issues which they connected with these questions. In analysing my data I take the interviews and focus groups not simply as ‘instruments’ for eliciting information, but as particular social contexts and ethnographic encounters which provide powerful insights on processes of identity construction and negotiation going on in these (mediated by factors such as gender, age, marital status, and sexual experience), and how these connect with the ways issues relating to gender, sexuality and labia elongation were introduced and articulated. My research raises important questions about how labia elongation comes to be constructed as a “cultural” practice, associated with values understood as “traditional”, and why such a practice holds so much interest and relevance for young adults who identify or are identified as “modern”. Working from a perspective that these categories are productive and relational rather than simply descriptive, the thesis demonstrates that urban, middle-class Shona women (and men) are not heterogeneous and do not operate with a fixed idea of what constitutes sexuality, custom, tradition, or modernity. Rather, they provide their own explanatory (and highly contested) frameworks through which they define their personhood and construct their identities in relation to labia specifically and sexuality, tradition, custom, and ethnicity more broadly.

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