Modesty of the Women of the African Tribes

The sense of modesty of the women of the African tribes

Describing the loin-cloth worn by Nicobarese men, Man says:

“From the clumsy mode in which this garment is worn by the Shom Pen—necessitating frequent readjustment of the folds—one is led to infer that its use is not de rigueur, but reserved for special occasions, as when receiving or visiting strangers.” (E. H. Man, Journal of the Anthropological Institute, 1886, p. 442).

The semi-nude natives of the island of Nias in the Indian Ocean are “modest by nature,” paying no attention to their own nudity or that of others, and much scandalized by any attempt to go beyond the limits ordained by custom. When they pass near places where women are bathing they raise their voices in order to warn them of their presence, and even although any bold youth addressed the women, and the latter replied, no attempt would be made to approach them; any such attempt would be severely punished by the head man of the village. (Modigliani, Un Viaggio a Nias, p. 460).

Man says that the Andamanese in modesty and self-respect compare favorably with many classes among civilized peoples.

Women are so modest that they will not renew their leaf-aprons in the presence of one another, but retire to a secluded spot for this purpose; even when parting with one of their bod appendages [tails of leaves suspended from back of girdle] to a female friend, the delicacy they manifest for the feelings of the bystanders in their mode of removing it amounts to prudishness; yet they wear no clothing in the ordinary sense.” (Journal of the Anthropological Institute, 1883, pp. 94 and 331).

Of the Garo women of Bengal Dalton says:

“Their sole garment is a piece of cloth less than a foot in width that just meets around the loins, and in order that it may not restrain the limbs it is only fastened where it meets under the hip at the upper corners. The girls are thus greatly restricted in the positions they may modestly assume, but decorum is, in their opinion, sufficiently preserved if they only keep their legs well together when they sit or kneel.” (E. T. Dalton, Ethnology of Bengal, 1872, p. 66).

Of the Naga women of Assam it is said:

“Of clothing there was not much to see; but in spite of this I doubt whether we could excel them in true decency and modesty”. Ibn Muhammed Wali had already remarked in his history of the conquest of Assam (1662-63), that the Naga women only cover their breasts. They declare that it is absurd to cover those parts of the body which everyone has been able to see from their births, but that it is different with the breasts, which appeared later, and are, therefore, to be covered. Dalton (Journal of the Asiatic Society, Bengal, 41, 1, 84) adds that in the presence of strangers Naga women simply cross their arms over their breasts, without caring much what other charms they may reveal to the observer. As regards some clans of the naked Nagas, to whom the Banpara belong, this may still hold good.” (K. Klemm, “Peal’s Ausflug nach Banpara,” Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, 1898, Heft 5, p. 334).

“In Ceylon, a woman always bathes in public streams, but she never removes all her clothes. She washes under the cloth, bit by bit, and then slips on the dry, new cloth, and pulls out the wet one from underneath (much in the same sliding way as servant girls and young women in England). This is the common custom in India and the Malay States. The breasts are always bare in their own houses, but in the public roads are covered whenever a European passes. The vulva is never exposed. They say that a devil, imagined as a white and hairy being, might have intercourse with them.” (Private communication).

In Borneo, “the sirat, called chawal by the Malays, is a strip of cloth a yard wide, worn round the loins and in between the thighs, so as to cover the pudenda and perinæum; it is generally six yards or so in length, but the younger men of the present generation use as much as twelve or fourteen yards (sometimes even more), which they twist and coil with great precision round and round their body, until the waist and stomach are fully enveloped in its folds.” (H. Ling Roth, “Low’s Natives of Borneo,” Journal of the Anthropological Institute, 1892, p. 36).

“In their own houses in the depths of the forest the Dwarfs are said to neglect coverings for decency in the men as in the women, but certainly when they emerge from the forest into the villages of the agricultural Negroes, they are always observed to be wearing some small piece of bark-cloth or skin, or a bunch of leaves over the pudenda. Elsewhere in all the regions of Africa visited by the writer, or described by other observers, a neglect of decency in the male has only been recorded among the Efik people of Old Calabar. The nudity of women is another question. In parts of West Africa, between the Niger and the Gaboon (especially on the Cameroon River, at Old Calabar, and in the Niger Delta), it is, or was, customary for young women to go about completely nude before they were married. In Swaziland, until quite recently, unmarried women and very often matrons went stark naked. Even amongst the prudish Baganda, who made it a punishable offense for a man to expose any part of his leg above the knee, the wives of the King would attend at his Court perfectly naked. Among the Kavirondo, all unmarried girls are completely nude, and although women who have become mothers are supposed to wear a tiny covering before and behind, they very often completely neglect to do so when in their own villages. Yet, as a general rule, among the Nile Negroes, and still more markedly among the Hamites and people of Masai stock, the women are particular about concealing the pudenda, whereas the men are ostentatiously naked. The Baganda hold nudity in the male to be such an abhorrent thing that for centuries they have referred with scorn and disgust to the Nile Negroes as the ‘naked people.’ Male nudity extends northwest to within some 200 miles of Khartum, or, in fact, wherever the Nile Negroes of the Dinka-Acholi stock inhabit the country.” (Sir H. H. Johnston, Uganda Protectorate, vol. ii, pp. 669-672).

Among the Nilotic Ja-luo, Johnston states that “unmarried men go naked. Married men who have children wear a small piece of goat skin, which, though quite inadequate for purposes of decency, is, nevertheless, a very important thing in etiquette, for a married man with a child must on no account call on his mother-in-law without wearing this piece of goat’s skin. To call on her in a state of absolute nudity would be regarded as a serious insult, only to be atoned for by the payment of goats. Even if under the new dispensation he wears European trousers, he must have a piece of goat’s skin underneath. Married women wear a tail of strings behind.” It is very bad manners for a woman to serve food to her husband without putting on this tail. (Sir H. H. Johnston, Uganda Protectorate, vol. ii, p. 781).

Mrs. French-Sheldon remarks that the Masai and other East African tribes, with regard to menstruation, “observe the greatest delicacy, and are more than modest.” (Journal of the Anthropological Institute, 1894, p. 383).

At the same time the Masai, among whom the penis is of enormous size, consider it disreputable to conceal that member, and in the highest degree reputable to display it, even ostentatiously. (Sir H. H. Johnston, Kilima-njaro Expedition, p. 413).

Among the African Dinka, who are scrupulously clean and delicate (smearing themselves with burnt cows’ dung, and washing themselves daily with cows’ urine), and are exquisite cooks, reaching in many respects a higher stage of civilization, in Schweinfurth‘s opinion, than is elsewhere attained in Africa, only the women wear aprons. The neighboring tribes of the red soil—Bongo, Mittoo, Niam-Niam, etc.—are called “women” by the Dinka, because among these tribes the men wear an apron, while the women obstinately refuse to wear any clothes whatsoever of skin or stuff, going into the woods every day, however, to get a supple bough for a girdle, with, perhaps, a bundle of fine grass. (Schweinfurth, Heart of Africa, vol. i, pp. 152, etc.).

Lombroso and Carrara, examining some Dinka negroes brought from the White Nile, remark:

“As to their psychology, what struck us first was the exaggeration of their modesty; not in a single case would the men allow us to examine their genital organs or the women their breasts; we examined the tattoo-marks on the chest of one of the women, and she remained sad and irritable for two days afterward.” They add that in sexual and all other respects these people are highly moral. (Lombroso and Carrara, Archivio di Psichiatria, 1896, vol. xvii, fasc. 4).

The negro is very rarely knowingly indecent or addicted to lubricity,” says Sir H. H. Johnston.

“In this land of nudity, which I have known for seven years, I do not remember once having seen an indecent gesture on the part of either man or woman, and only very rarely (and that not among unspoiled savages) in the case of that most shameless member of the community—the little boy.”

He adds that the native dances are only an apparent exception, being serious in character, though indecent to our eyes, almost constituting a religious ceremony. The only really indecent dance indigenous to Central Africa “is one which originally represented the act of coition, but it is so altered to a stereotyped formula that its exact purport is not obvious until explained somewhat shyly by the natives…. It may safely be asserted that the negro race in Central Africa is much more truly modest, is much more free from real vice, than are most European nations. Neither boys nor girls wear clothing (unless they are the children of chiefs) until nearing the age of puberty. Among the Wankonda, practically no covering is worn by the men except a ring of brass wire around the stomach. The Wankonda women are likewise almost entirely naked, but generally cover the pudenda with a tiny bead-work apron, often a piece of very beautiful workmanship, and exactly resembling the same article worn by Kaffir women. A like degree of nudity prevails among many of the Awemba, among the A-lungu, the Batumbuka, and the Angoni. Most of the Angoni men, however, adopt the Zulu fashion of covering the glans penis with a small wooden case or the outer shell of a fruit. The Wa-Yao have a strong sense of decency in matters of this kind, which is the more curious since they are more given to obscenity in their rites, ceremonies, and dances than any other tribe. Not only is it extremely rare to see any Yao uncovered, but both men and women have the strongest dislike to exposing their persons even to the inspection of a doctor. The Atonga and many of the A-nyanga people, and all the tribes west of Nyassa (with the exception possibly of the A-lunda) have not the Yao regard for decency, and, although they can seldom or ever be accused of a deliberate intention to expose themselves, the men are relatively indifferent as to whether their nakedness is or is not concealed, though the women are modest and careful in this respect.” (H. H. Johnston, British Central Africa, 1897, pp. 408-419).

In Azimba land, Central Africa, H. Crawford Angus, who has spent many years in this part of Africa, writes:

“It has been my experience that the more naked the people, and the more to us obscene and shameless their manners and customs, the more moral and strict they are in the matter of sexual intercourse.”

He proceeds to give a description of the chensamwali, or initiation ceremony of girls at puberty, a season of rejoicing when the girl is initiated into all the secrets of marriage, amid songs and dances referring to the act of coition.

“The whole matter is looked upon as a matter of course, and not as a thing to be ashamed of or to hide, and, being thus openly treated of and no secrecy made about it, you find in this tribe that the women are very virtuous. They know from the first all that is to be known, and cannot see any reason for secrecy concerning natural laws or the powers and senses that have been given them from birth.” (Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, 1898, Heft 6, p. 479).

Of the Monbuttu of Central Africa, another observer says: “It is surprising how a Monbuttu woman of birth can, without the aid of dress, impress others with her dignity and modesty.” (British Medical Journal. June 14, 1890).

 

The women at Upoto wear no clothes whatever, and came up to us in the most unreserved manner. An interesting gradation in the arrangement of the female costume has been observed by us: as we ascended the Congo, the higher up the river we found ourselves, the higher the dress reached, till it has now, at last, culminated in absolute nudity.” (T. H. Parke, My Personal Experiences in Equatorial Africa, 1891, p. 61).

“There exists throughout the Congo population a marked appreciation of the sentiment of decency and shame as applied to private actions,” says Mr. Herbert Ward. In explanation of the nudity of the women at Upoto, a chief remarked to Ward that “concealment is food for the inquisitive.” (Journal of the Anthropological Institute, 1895, p. 293)….

 

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