Clothing and Difference: Embodied Identities in Colonial and Post-Colonial Africa

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This volume examines the dynamic relationship between the body, clothing, and identity in sub-Saharan Africa and raises questions that have previously been directed almost exclusively to a Western and urban context. Unusual in its treatment of the body surface as a critical frontier in the production and authentification of identity, Clothing and Difference shows how the body and its adornment have been used to construct and contest social and individual identities in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Kenya, and other African societies during both colonial and post-colonial times.
Grounded in the insights of anthropology and history and influenced by developments in cultural studies, these essays investigate the relations between the personal and the public, and between ideas about the self and those about the family, gender, and national groups. They explore the bodily and material creation of the changing identities of women, spirits, youths, ancestors, and entrepreneurs through a consideration of topics such as fashion, spirit possession, commodity exchange, hygiene, and mourning.
By taking African societies as its focus, Clothing and Difference demonstrates that factors considered integral to Western social development—heterogeneity, migration, urbanization, transnational exchange, and media representation—have existed elsewhere in different configurations and with different outcomes. With significance for a wide range of fields, including gender studies, cultural studies, art history, performance studies, political science, semiotics, economics, folklore, and fashion and textile analysis/design, this work provides alternative views of the structures underpinning Western systems of commodification, postmodernism, and cultural differentiation.

Contributors. Misty Bastian, Timothy Burke, Hildi Hendrickson, Deborah James, Adeline Masquelier, Elisha Renne, Johanna Schoss, Brad Weiss

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Editorial Reviews

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“An excellent book. Clothing and Difference will contribute to knowledge about Africa as well as to the general topic of the communication process involved in dressing the body.”—Joanne B. Eicher, University of Minnesota

“Innovative, rich, and engaging. This collection’s concern with how the body surface mediates constructions of identity in colonial and post-colonial Africa makes an important contribution to ongoing scholarship on the body, clothing, and consumption in anthropology, history, and cultural studies.”—Karen Tranberg Hansen, Northwestern University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822317913
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 6/28/1996
  • Series: Body, Commodity, Text
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.02 (w) x 9.26 (h) x 0.84 (d)

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Clothing and Difference

Embodied Identities in Colonial and Post-Colonial Africa

By Hildi Hendrickson

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9637-6



Elisha P. Renne

The body is the innermost part of the material self in each of us; and certain parts of the body seem more intimately ours than the rest. The clothes come next.–W. James, Principles of Psychology


Until relatively recently, it was taken for granted in American society that a concrete physiological marker–a thin, membranous tissue known as the hymen–constituted a woman's virginity, the state of never having had sexual intercourse with a man. Further evidence of virginity was the rupture of the hymen upon first intercourse, which resulted in a sign of blood. The unequivocal presence of this bodily marker (the hymen) in all virgins has since been questioned (Kahn and Holt 1990, 152), and its absence is no longer considered legally sufficient evidence of a nonvirgin state (Townsend 1974, 3). This reassessment of what signifies virginity underscores the political nature of such readings of the body, which, grounded in a particular social and historical context, "must be regarded as a narrative of culture in anatomical disguise" (Laqueur 1990, 236). Expanding on this insight in the Nigerian context, I analyze here the particularities of one such narrative, based on interviews with 95 Ekiti Yoruba women, whose experience of the importance of a hymen-like tissue, the ibale–" a sort of biological undergarment protecting the female genitals" (Sissa 1990, 1)–has changed dramatically in the last seventy-five years. What is striking about their remarks is that they illustrate how the meaning attributed to a so-called anatomical given may shift in time. For these Ekiti Yoruba women, the shift in the perception of the ibale-hymen–from something whose presence was preserved and celebrated at marriage to something old-fashioned and traditional that should be quickly dispensed with–relates to changing ideas about what constitutes "enlightened" behavior and knowledge, which are in turn part of a shift in relations of power in Ekiti society in colonial and post-colonial Nigeria.

Ekiti views of virginity also illustrate the ways in which bodily states may be conflated with material objects–in this case, cloth and clothing–underscoring Durkheim's insights about the dialectical relation between ideas held by people which are embodied in things. Like the "leprosy of a mildewed garment" of the Old Testament, which was ritually cleansed as if it were a leper (Leviticus 14:1?9, 47?59), the white cloths used to test the presence of hymeneal blood were synonymous with the virgin herself. However, before discussing the related careers of the ibale-hymen and virginity cloths in Ekiti Yoruba social life, I would like to consider what these women meant by the term virginity, whose meaning–couched in terms of local knowledge of the body as well as influenced by social and political concerns–cannot be assumed.

Virginity in Ekiti

In the Ekiti Yoruba context, virginity is referred to generally by the term ibale, which also refers more specifically to a part of the body. One traditional healer (babalawo) described its bodily manifestation as looking like a red "plastic-film wrapping" covering the vagina (obo or oju ara), something like an "internal security system." This vaginal covering was also described by an older woman as being

something like blood, very thick and as soon as the man is able to penetrate, the thing will just break, and that shows the girl has lost her virginity. It is called ibale and at the same time ayere. It is the thing that stained the white cloth and shows that one has lost her virginity.

Another younger woman compared it to the breaking of a palm kernel:

It is usually difficult to be able to penetrate the first time. For about three hours the man will still be trying, because it will be very hard. And it is painful that day. It will just be as if someone were trying to crack a palm kernel. If the woman is still a virgin, as soon as the man is able to penetrate, blood will just stain the white cloth that has been spread on the bed. That shows that she has not known a man before.

Several other women mentioned this hardness of the ibale: "The place was hard and thick and when the man was able to penetrate, the place will soften, then blood will come out."

These descriptions are, to the best of my understanding, what physiologically constitutes the "hymen" for Yoruba Women. The Western perception of virginity as a particular bodily state defined by the presence of a particular bit of anatomy, the membranous hymen which when pierced results in bleeding, while similar in some ways to the Yoruba perception of virginity, is not the same. For example, no woman mentioned the use of manual examinations to ascertain whether the ibale-membrane was intact. Rather, for them, the membrane–the reddish, plastic-like covering that is hard and then softens after penetration–and the resulting blood were conflated. If the ibale-membrane is present, there must be blood, as explained by one older woman:

Do you know of any example when a girl insisted that she was a virgin but she didn't bleed?

There was nothing like that because it was compulsory in the past that when you lost your virginity you must see blood. If blood was not seen, it meant that one had lost one's virginity before.

As if to emphasize this point, there is no linguistic distinction made in Yoruba between the hymen, hymeneal blood, and virginity. The word ibale refers to all three–to the membranous thing (ibale) that is pierced or penetrated (ja); to the blood-like thing (ibale or ayere), thick and dark, that stains the white cloth, which confirms a woman's virginity; to the state of virginity (ibale) itself.

This triple conflation of membrane, blood, and physiological state is materially represented by a white cloth, known as aso ibale or aso ayere (virginity cloth), which is marked by the ibale-blood. Indeed, the inevitable mention of this cloth by older women suggests a quadruple conflation. If the ibale is present, there must be blood (ibale), which must be evidenced on a piece of white cloth (aso ibale), which serves as a surrogate for the virgin state–no stained white cloth, no virginity (ibale).

Other than that it should be white, there were no prescriptions for the type or size of cloth used as aso ibale. Some women described it as small, "like a handkerchief," while others described a cloth big enough to be used as a cover cloth for sleeping. It could be a commercially woven white cloth (one type, teru, was mentioned) or a handwoven one. A synecdoche for virginity, the journey of this cloth after its inscription with ibale-blood reveals another aspect of the Yoruba perception of virginity, which helps to explain its particular importance for older women.

After sexual intercourse between husband and wife had taken place, the bloodied cloth was publicly displayed to establish witnesses for the bride's virginal state. What happened to the cloth after that was described by one sixty-year-old woman:

My husband put the cloth inside a white calabash to show to my parents.... [After that], my husband kept it in the house ... for future reference.

Another woman in her sixties explained that keeping it in the house was a reminder of her virtuous behavior:

It was kept in the rafters of the woman's house after the cloth might have been shown to the mother and the father of the woman. This explains why there is nowhere that her husband will go that he will not have the love of his wife in his heart.

However, a few women mentioned another use for this cloth that hints at something quite different:

I used the cloth to carry my first child because we believe strongly that the cloth will serve to guard the child against any evil forces. And again, to show that the child is a good child and that the mother had passed [iyege].


We kept it in the house until I delivered my first child, then I took it and washed it and it was used as a spreading cloth for the child.

The association of a woman's first child with the blood-stained virginity cloth relates to the idea that an intact ibale confirmed that a woman had not "spoiled herself," that is, her fertility (see also Boddy 1989, 55; Hayes 1975). Several women mentioned the belief that if the ibale was present, they would immediately, on sexually meeting their husbands, become pregnant:

According to tradition, it was believed that any woman who was a virgin would get pregnant the first month. The belief was that she had not spoiled herself before moving to her husband's house.

The presence of the ibale (virginity), then, was not simply a bodily state that indicated the fact of no prior intercourse and served as a point of pride for brides (Barber 1991, 114), husbands, and kin (Olusanya 1967, 15; Fadipe 1970, 66). Its loss was associated with immediate pregnancy, underscored by the use of the virginity cloth for carrying or covering the firstborn child.

The importance of the virginity, evidenced by the stained white virginity cloth, was related to ideas about the control of young women's bodies and about fertility. By restricting the movements of young women within and outside of houses, parents protected the integrity of the ibale, much as the ibale itself, that "internal security system," protected their daughters' future fertility from being "spoiled" or "broken." The power of fathers to exert such control, and the consequences when this power was undermined during the period of British colonial rule, is evidenced in related shifts in imagery of the house and the female body. For, as Turner (1984, 2) has observed, there are "parallels between the idea of government of the body and the regime of a given society."

Hidden and Revealed Bodies and Knowledge

In Ekiti society, a father's authority over members of his house-compound–his wives and their children–was reinforced by an ideology of patrilineal descent and was represented in an everyday way by the power of the baale (literally "father of the house") over the passage of people through a central front door (oju ile), both controlling and protecting inhabitants on "the inside" from "the outside." Thus, a prospective suitor soliciting an arranged marriage would be "screened" by a young woman's father; the girl herself would be hidden in the house:

In the past if a girl was given to a man and the man came to greet her in the house, the girl would be hidden. If the girl was seeing him off, she would turn her back to him.

Once arrangements had been made between this man and the prospective bride's father, annual payments of yams (isu obutan) and labor (owe or ebese) were given to the father. This process culminated in the payment of bridewealth (idano), which was timed to take place after the appearance of menarche. The veiled bride would then be taken through the doorway of her father's house, outside, to her husband's house, where her entry was marked in various ritual ways. Later in the evening, she was uncovered both literally and figuratively by her husband, after which the bloodied aso ibale cloth was publicly displayed. The cloth would then be taken to the bride's parents, marking the successful conclusion of their control. She was thereafter "covered" by members of her husband's household who awaited her first child, which was expected to arrive shortly.

The idea of the protected threshold-doorway of a house–referred to as the oju ile, literally "eye of the house"– is linguistically related to the vaginal threshold, the oju ara, "eye of the body," with its covering, the ibale, protecting the passageway between the inside (inu, womb) and the outside (aiye, world). A house's front doorway represents the opening between inner domestic and outer public space, just as the vaginal opening distinguishes between inner and outer domains. The Yoruba phrase for womb, ile omo (house or room of the child), further reinforces this comparison of the house and the female body, both of which may be perceived as structures that protect those within from outside dangers.

This representation of protection and vulnerability associated with covered thresholds and with the inside and outside of houses and bodies corresponded with the power of fathers to regulate the passage between these two spaces. Their power to control these movements was reinforced not only by their status as heads of households, but also because they ritually controlled the passage of bodies between spiritual domains–at funerals and at childbirth. However, with the incorporation of the Ekiti region within the boundaries of the Lagos Protectorate of colonial Nigeria, agreed upon in 1893, the power of the father-baale was undermined.

These changes in the basis of power were not felt immediately or uniformly throughout Ekiti. It was only after the formation of the Northeastern District (consisting of the Ijesha and Ekiti regions) in 1899, that the consequences of the British presence became tangible. For example, a sense of the presence of colonial officials (described from the British point of view) is evidenced in the comments of the "Travelling Commissioner" for the District, Major Reeve Tucker, who toured Ekiti in 1899:

I have called in all the tributary villages to the capitals of the several Ekiti Kingdoms and have placed the Bales [sic; local quarter heads were also known as baale] securely under their Kings. The Bales who were endeavouring to make themselves independent, a lingering remnant of their old wars and disputes, I have effectively placed under their proper kings. At each capital I held a palaver and explained the Government policy to them, (de la Mothe 1921, 7)

The reality of British control was made more evident with the establishment of a separate Ekiti Division in 1913 (de la Mothe 1921) and the building of an administrative center in Ado-Ekiti in 1914 (Oguntuyi 1979). Despite the fact that British colonial officials instituted a form of governance known as "indirect rule," whereby traditional chiefs administered everyday local affairs, there was no doubt where the political buck stopped. British officers retained control of more important political decisions, underscoring the fact that a fundamental shift in the basis of power had occurred in colonial Nigeria (see Beidelman [1971] 1983; Chanock 1985).

The power of traditional chiefs was undermined economically and socially as well as politically. For example, by encouraging the growing of cash crops such as cocoa for sale to expatriate firms, the British created a demand for literate clerks who could negotiate with farmers and European buyers. By promoting the establishment of mission schools throughout Ekiti in the 1920s and 1930s to fill this need (Oguntuyi 1979), they encouraged a different basis for knowledge, and hence power, grounded on literacy and books. These developments favored the careers of a group of young literate men, consisting largely of clerks and schoolteachers, who associated the acquisition of power, wealth, and prestige in colonial Nigeria with Western-style Education. Subscribing to the concept of what was referred to as olaju, "enlightenment" or "civilization" (Peel 1978), this group of newly educated young men challenged the authority of older, often nonliterate, chiefs, whose powers were based on what these younger men perceived to be outmoded traditional practices. What is more, in their promotion of olaju (enlightenment), they included a range of practices and tastes associated with Europeans–such as dress, Hygiene, and bodily comportment (Mauss 1973)–to be part of their "civilizing" agenda. Ideas about marriage, love, and virginity fell under this rubric as well.


Excerpted from Clothing and Difference by Hildi Hendrickson. Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 Virginity Cloths and Vaginal Coverings in Ekiti, Nigeria 19
2 "I Dress in This Fashion": Transformations in Sotho Dress and Women's Lives in a Sekhukhuneland Village, South Africa 34
3 Mediating Threads: Clothing and the Texture of Spirit/Medium Relations in Bori (Southern Niger) 66
4 Female "Alhajis" and Entrepreneurial Fashions: Flexible Identities in Southeastern Nigerian Clothing Practice 97
5 Dressing at Death: Clothing, Time, and Memory in Buhaya, Tanzania 133
6 Dressed to "Shine": Work, Leisure, and Style in Malindi, Kenya 157
7 "Sunlight Soap Has Changed My Life": Hygiene, Commodification, and the Body in Colonial Zimbabwe 189
8 Bodies and Flags: The Representation of Herero Identity in Colonial Namibia 213
References 245
Notes on Contributors 260
Index 263
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