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DOI: 10.1177/1363460712454068
2012 15: 763Sexualities
Mathabo Khau
to do with it?
Female sexual pleasure and autonomy: What has inner labia elongation got
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Article
Female sexual pleasure
and autonomy: What has
inner labia elongation got
to do with it?
Mathabo Khau
Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, South Africa
Abstract
Female sexuality is a highly policed domain within many societies with women and girls
being violated daily in relation to performing their gendered and sexual identities. This
article explores the politics of inner labia elongation, and the socially constructed
notions of genital beauty through the lens of gendered violence. It highlights the silences
around sexual pleasure and desire for Basotho women through discussing the import-
ance of labial elongation in the construction of sexual identities. It presents the chal-
lenges that women face as they negotiate the spaces between the social constructions
of proper womanhood and female sexualities within a hetero-patriarchal society.
Keywords
Culture, female sexuality, inner labia elongation, Lesotho, sexual pleasure
Introduction
The African continent has been described as a hotbed of sexual diversity and
sexuality controversies (Wekker, 2006). Sexual orientation and sexual pleasure
have become hotly debated issues subjected to contested legislations. Despite the
dynamic nature of culture and the increasing evidence of a liberal sexual ethic on
the African continent, many traditional practices and customs relating to sexuality
have endured thus making Africa a prime example of how traditional culture
continues to impact on different aspects of sexuality. An example of such practices
is the traditional preparation of girls for marriage and sexual intercourse through
inner labia elongation among the Basotho of Lesotho.
Corresponding author:
Mathabo Khau, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, South Campus, PO Box 77000, Port Elizabeth Office
No: 11–002, South Africa.
Email: khaumsc@gmail.com
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Sex education, counselling and preparation of young girls for womanhood and
marriage for Basotho were traditionally done by aunts and older sisters under the
supervision of grandmothers. The older women were responsible for transmission
of sexual knowledge and acceptable sexual practices to young women and girls.
The sexual preparation of the female body mainly involved teaching girls how to
elongate their inner labia as a rite of passage into womanhood. Through this
socialisation process, girls acquired knowledge and skills and their attitudes and
values towards sexual relationships were constructed (Gay, 1986).
The practice of labial elongation in Africa has been studied by various scholars
(Bagnol and Mariano, 2008; Gallo et al., 2006; Johansen, 2006; Koster and Price,
2008; Larsen, 2010). These researchers have established that labial elongation
begins very early in a girl’s life before her first menstruation. They argue that in
Buganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Mozambique, elongation is through massaging
and stretching the labia from the top to the bottom, with the tips of the thumb and
index finger of each hand. Girls use different locally available herbs which are
ground into a paste to ease the pulling. These herbs are believed to promote
stretching of the labia by softening and lubricating them such that the pulling
does not cause any skin laceration.
It is worth noting that practices aiming to beautify, enlarge or reduce the exter-
nal female genitalia are highly controversial. In 2000, the World Health
Organization classified inner labia elongation as a Type IV female genital mutila-
tion – FGM – (WHO, 2000), and the United Nations classified it under ‘harmful
traditional practices’ (United Nations, 2006: 45) while some scholars prefer ‘ethnic
genital modification’ (Gallo et al., 2006: 65). Interestingly, the United Nations’
(2006: 45) report on ending violence against women highlights that more than
130 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital modifica-
tion or mutilation/cutting mainly in Africa and the Middle East. Since then, the
World Health Organization has amended its classification to argue that Type IV
FGM comprises a large variety of practices that do not remove tissue from the
genitals (WHO, 2008). This report argues that even though limited research has
been conducted in relation to such practices, they are less harmful than Types I,
II and III (see also WHO, 2011).
Mwenda (2006), on the other hand, takes a rights approach to labial elongation
and looks into the extent to which labial elongation violates the rights of women in
Africa. He argues that ‘as long as labial elongation is undertaken freely, and with
full consent, it does not violate the rights of women’ (2006: 353–354). According to
Mwenda (2006), there should be a distinction between voluntary labia elongation
and other forms of FGM that either compromise the health of women or are non-
consensual.
The position taken in this article is that labial elongation is a form of genital
modification because it does not compromise the health of women. My under-
standing is that women who practise labial elongation do so to augment their
sexuality. The elongated labia make their genitalia more attractive and supposedly
more effective in pleasuring their sexual partners. I am, however, troubled by the
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apparent silence on labial elongation and its effects on female sexual desire and
pleasure, in the context of Lesotho, and this has forced me to question the legit-
imacy of the practice. I am also troubled by Mwenda’s (2006) argument that if
women undertake to elongate their labia freely then the practice is not violating
their rights. If girls are expected to start elongating their inner labia before the first
menstrual period, then the legitimacy of free and consensual elongation stands to
question. How free can an eight-year-old be to decide for or against labial elong-
ation? If it is a rite of passage into womanhood, then it means those women who do
not conform are supposedly not complete women. My next question then is: can
women willingly choose the ‘shame’ of being incomplete? Despite the many debates
raised on labial elongation, little has been written about its role in the construction
of female sexual identity, and more specifically in relation to sexual pleasure, eroti-
cism and desire among women.
In this article I aim to highlight how the practice of labial elongation perpetuates
the violation of women and girls’ rights to sexual pleasure. I also aim to highlight
the silences around sexual pleasure and desire for Basotho girls and women
through discussing the importance of labial elongation in the construction of
sexual identities. I present the challenges women face as they negotiate the
spaces between the social constructions of proper womanhood and female sexua-
lities within a hetero-patriarchal society.
Methodology
This article draws on a study I conducted for my Masters degree (see
Motalingoane-Khau, 2007) which employed autobiography, memory work, one-
on-one in-depth interviews and focus group discussions to explore the memories of
adolescent sexual experiences of 12 purposively selected Basotho women science
teachers tasked with teaching sexuality, HIV and AIDS education. The purpose of
the study was to explore women teachers’ lived experiences of adolescent sexuality
in order to understand how such experiences have shaped their approach to teach-
ing about sexuality in schools. The study was conducted over a period of four
months: September to December 2006. Ethical clearance was sought from and
granted by the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The participants were informed of
the purpose of the study and were given an option of withdrawing from the study
whenever they felt uncomfortable. The participants were also free to withdraw any
content of their discussions which they felt uncomfortable to disclose to the wider
community.
Because of the sensitive and taboo nature of the research topic it was important
to get the participants to feel at ease with discussing their intimate lives with me.
Under Customary Law Basotho women are constructed as children and therefore,
by implication sexually ‘innocent’ (see Motalingoane-Khau, 2007, 2010). This
means that women are expected to be sexually pure and hence in the same
manner they should not talk about sex. Within this context it was a challenge to
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get women to talk about their personal adolescent sexual experiences. Thus the
data production involved three phases. The preparation phase, a pyjama party, was
aimed at building rapport between me and the participants and to address the
power dynamics within the group. The second phase was the actual data produc-
tion in which, as a participant-researcher, I shared my experiences with the other
participants. The last phase was a debriefing session whose purpose was to allay
any fears and discomforts that could have arisen during the data production phase
and to discuss how being involved in the study affected us as women teachers.
Locating myself within a feminist approach to research, I acknowledge my own
position as both a participant-researcher and a producer of the narratives of female
sexualities, while deconstructing traditional conceptions of truth and objectivity in
my analysis. Feminist research brings to light the practical and lived experiences of
women in everyday life through problematising the meanings associated with the
complexities of women’s daily lives (Grumet and Stone, 2000). Thus, while I pre-
sent and problematise the women’s lived experiences of labial elongation
together with mine, I have valued their voices in the meanings they make of
their experiences.
Some feminist researchers note that women researchers often choose topics that
mean something to them, and argue that drawing from and theorising on one’s
own personal experience is valuable (Cotterill and Letherby, 1993; Ribbens and
Edwards, 1998; Stanley and Wise, 1993). My topic was also chosen because I
have personal experiences relating to it and it is of importance to my development
as a woman, mother and scholar-teacher. This article draws only from the
data produced through focus-group discussions as they provide collective
views and perceptions of the participants on their experiences of labial elongation.
Focus groups are important in the advancement of social justice for women
because they can serve to expose and validate women’s everyday experiences of
subjugation and their individual and collective survival and resistance strategies
(Madriz, 2000).
The data were analysed using thematic inductive analysis, whereby themes are
generated from the data and coded for meaning (Patton, 2002). Braun and Clarke
(2006) argue that although thematic analysis is widely used in analysing qualitative
data, it is poorly demarcated and acknowledged in its own right as a method. In
fact, it is debatable as to whether thematic analysis is a method on its own or not
(Boyatzis, 1998; Braun and Clarke, 2006; Roulston, 2001). Scholars who do not
recognise it as a method mainly argue that thematic analysis just provides core
skills, such as ‘thematising meanings’ (Holloway and Todres, 2003: 347), and the
process of thematic coding (Ryan and Bernard, 2000). As such, thematic analysis
can be used in many forms of qualitative data analysis. Thus it is considered as
the foundation for qualitative methods searching for patterns or themes, such
as conversation analysis, interpretative phenomenological analysis, discourse ana-
lysis, and narrative analysis (Braun and Clarke, 2006). In this study, themes have
been generated from women teachers’ memories of their adolescent sexual
experiences.
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Findings
Method of elongation
The participants remember applying some herbs to the inner labia before elongat-
ing. They state that the elongation could be done individually or sometimes girls
pulled each other’s labia:
Lineo: At the river the older girls showed us what to do. We would sit in pairs and pull
each other every time we went to do our washing.
Mpho: Yes ...we did it when we went to the forest to collect firewood. We also pulled
each other.
Bonang: I pulled them every night before sleeping.
Thato: My sister and I never helped each other ...each pulled on their own.
The practice of girls assisting each other in pulling the inner labia was, according to
the participants, a way of ensuring that girls did the pulling. During such sessions,
they even competed about who had the longest labia and this would encourage
others to do more pulling. While some participants argued that the pulling was a
painful experience, other participants talked about experiencing pleasure during
the practice:
Bonang: We went to the river almost every day with my ‘mommy’ because we enjoyed
pulling each other so much ...unfortunately we were told that we were pulling the
wrong part, naoa
1
(bean) and not litsebe tsa mutla
2
(rabbit ears).
Thato: I enjoyed it too ...Sometimes I did it during the day because it felt good.
I didn’t feel any pain because I was also pulling the wrong part ...sadly, when
I started pulling the right part ...hei ...it was terrible.
The women also pointed out that having a ‘mommy’ or ‘baby’ to help with the
pulling was important because one felt at ease with having a friend helping them.
Thus they could relax and not feel too ashamed having someone else looking at and
touching their genitalia. It is however worth noting that the element of pleasure is
only associated with pulling the clitoris and not the inner labia.
Negative experiences of labia elongation
Despite the reasons given on the importance of elongating the inner labia, some of
the participants recall going through painful experiences to get their labia elon-
gated. Because of the competition that girls got into in terms of the length of their
labia, some girls found themselves resorting to dangerous measures to get the
desirable length.
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Bonang: One girl in our group tied a piece of string to the labia and attached a stone
to the string to assist with the pulling. She tied a head-scarf around each thigh so that
the stone would not cause any friction on her inner thighs as she did her daily
chores ...unfortunately for her, the string got too deep into the skin of the labia
and severed the tip.
Lineo: One girl in our village had used the wrong herbs because she had been told that
they would make her labia grow faster ...it was funny because they really grew. They
were swollen and had a nasty rash. She smelt really terrible and had to go to the
hospital.
Mpho: I also had the same experience ...I applied a herb that looked like the one we
used with the other girls and I could not walk for two days. My labia were so painful
and sore that I swore I would never use herbs again.
The fact that most of the pulling happened unsupervised left room for girls to make
mistakes that could affect their health negatively as exemplified in these experi-
ences. It is also possible that the silence surrounding the practice of labial elong-
ation could have led to the lack of clarity on what to use as lubricant. Apart
from this, some of the women talk of negative comments and beatings they
got from elders if they were found lacking in terms of elongating their labia.
They were not allowed to sleep at night until they had elongated for a certain
period of time. For most of the women this was something they would have
gladly gone without.
Thato: My aunt would come into the room when we were bathing or when we were
about to sleep and she would inspect us to see if we were doing ‘mosebetsi oa matsoho’
(hand work). There was no time to rest or relax ...it seemed like the only thing that
the grown-ups were thinking about was the elongation. It really made us feel like
prisoners.
Mpho: What I hated most was showing every adult woman my genitals. I felt like I did
not own my body any more ...that it was for somebody else and I was just preparing
it for that person. Sometimes I refused to show the women and I would be severely
reprimanded and even beaten. I really hated that.
Lineo: I remember one mother who supposedly threatened her daughter with a hot
iron if she did not elongate her labia. She did not want the in-laws to accuse her of not
raising her daughter well.
Limpho: Yes ...it is very shameful when the in-laws are informed that a newly-wed
is not a complete woman ...my in-laws were not very happy with me
because I had not elongated enough. They even wanted my husband to marry another
woman.
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These discussions show the value placed on the elongated labia in a woman’s
life. They show the lengths to which young women went to in order to conform to
the norms of womanhood prescribed in their communities as well as the stigma and
discrimination targeted at those who do not perform the desirable scripts.
Rationale for elongation
The participants recall being warned that they would not get married without the
elongated labia because they would be ‘cold’. They argue that a woman without
elongated inner labia was, and is still called a ‘cold woman’. The women also argue
that upon finding a woman without elongated inner labia, a Mosotho man would
say ‘kobo li nyane kea hatsela’ meaning ‘I am feeling cold because the blankets are
too small’. Such a man would be justified to find himself another woman who had
the elongated inner labia or ‘blankets’ and by implication not ‘cold’ (see Khau,
2012; Motalingoane-Khau, 2010). As the women put it, being told that one is not
hot enough to sexually pleasure one’s husband is a shame they did not want to
experience and hence they did the pulling. Thus the elongation improved women’s
chances of marriage. They were also given stern warnings that if they did not pull,
they would either be unable to give birth or they would experience complications
during delivery. They argue that:
Mpho: I was very scared of all the bad things that would happen to me if I did not
elongate my labia ...I just had to do it despite the pain.
Lineo: I wish I had known that naoa was my clitoris ...I would have stopped pulling
the inner labia and pull it instead because I enjoyed pulling it more than the labia.
I only pulled the labia because I was afraid of not getting married.
Bonang: I have always wanted children and if pulling was going to help me get them
I would do it ...so I pulled my things.
Thato: It was painful to pull those things but I did it because I did not want to be ‘cold’.
The women, however, argue that they are unable to say whether having elon-
gated their labia eased the delivery process for them because they experienced the
same birth pains as other women. They also point out that they cannot vouch for
the effectiveness of elongation on keeping their husbands happy because, as they
say, their husbands are having sexual affairs with women who have not elongated
their labia.
Pain, shame and silence
The practice of labial elongation is said to be painful especially in trying to reach
the desired length of labia. The participants remember competitions among girls to
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see whose labia were the longest. They also remember the shame that accompanied
those whose labia were the smallest.
Limpho: I hated those times when we went to the woods for firewood and then they
would start showing off their lengthy inner labia ...we would sit in circles and see how
many twists one could make with their labia.
Lineo: Yes we did that too. The most desirable was three or more twists. We also
checked how far they could go backwards if you pull them towards your but-
tocks ...you know ...like a pad.
Thato: I was always teased and insulted by the other girls because I could not get
my labia long enough. It was painful to pull them and that is why I ended up
pulling the clitoris instead. I was ashamed to walk in the village because I thought
everyone knew the small size of my inner labia. I never even thought I would get
married.
Limpho: Me too ...and the worst part was I could not tell my mother about all the
discrimination and teasing from the other girls. She would have beaten me as well.
I had to keep quiet about it.
The stigma attached to small inner labia allowed for young girls’ humiliation and
discrimination. Because inner labia elongation was regarded as a rite of passage, it
was difficult to report any instances of teasing and discrimination and thus girls
endured their shame in silence. It is also worth noting that the shame did not stop
with young girls keeping quiet about their short inner labia. The participants talk
of situations in which women who had not elongated were tortured so that they
would not steal husbands.
Lineo: My own aunt told me that they took one woman who was having an affair with
their friend’s husband into the forest and burnt her clitoris with a hot iron rod. They
were teaching her a lesson against stealing other people’s men.
Bonang: What if the woman having an affair was one with elongated inner labia?
Would they still burn her?
Limpho: No ...The competing women would just sort it out between them-
selves or even agree to share the husband. My mother once told me of
two ladies in our village who ended up being best friends because they agreed to
share a man.
Mpho: One then wonders what the threat is from women who
have not elongated their labia ...is it because they are said to enjoy sex more than
others?
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Thato: That is a good question. I always wonder what men enjoy more, women with
or women without elongated inner labia? I think if I was a man I would want to be
with a woman who enjoys sex too so that I could have more fun with her.
This discussion brings to light some of the unanswered questions in relation to
the practice of labial elongation. It shows the lengths women went and still go to in
order to secure their territory of proper womanhood. The practice of burning a
woman’s clitoris with a hot iron in the foregoing discussion seems like an acknow-
ledgement of the importance of the clitoris in sexual pleasure. Women with elon-
gated inner labia knew that those who had not elongated had the full function of
their clitoris and hence sexual enjoyment. They also knew that their men would
rather have women who enjoyed sex, and thus they had to protect their marriage
territory through the torturing of defiant women. The question that remains is why
the practice of labial elongation is continuing if it is not serving the interests of
women.
Discussion
There are many beliefs regarding the importance of elongated inner labia as exem-
plified in the findings. It was believed that elongated inner labia kept a woman hot
as they blocked the vaginal entrance and kept the heat inside (Gay, 1986). Young
girls were told they would lose favour with their husbands if they did not elongate
their labia as they would be sexually unpleasant (cf. Arnfred, 2007; Parikh, 2005;
Tamale, 2005). In other African contexts the practice of labial elongation seems to
be premised on the sexual satisfaction of both partners despite the fact that empha-
sis is still on male sexual pleasure, thus showing the role of culture in the construc-
tion, manipulation and conditioning of desire and sexual pleasure (Bagnol and
Mariano, 2008; Gallo et al., 2006; Johansen, 2006; Koster and Price, 2008;
Larsen, 2010).
In contrast, Basotho people believed elongated inner labia made girls less sexu-
ally excitable because elongating forced the clitoris to retract into the labial folds
(Gay, 1986). This practice was used to keep girls and women ‘good’. Thus the main
reason behind inner labia elongation has been the need to control female sexuality.
However, young girls were not given this information. As a Mosotho woman
having gone through this practice, I do not think I would have elongated my
inner labia given this reason. I believe the negative messages that were given
were the only way to get Basotho girls to elongate because of fear of the conse-
quences. The blame placed on women who do not have elongated inner labia and
the shame they are forced to endure within societies perpetuates women’s silence
regarding the violations they endure within marriages and other social structures.
The public humiliation of deviant women, mostly by other women, serves to rein-
force this violation of women’s right to sexual autonomy and pleasure.
Basotho women used labial elongation as contraception because it prevented
girls from desiring and enjoying sex. This argument was valid during the days when
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other forms of contraception were not available. One wonders, however, whether
on getting married the young woman with elongated labia was expected to enjoy
sex with her husband or just to please him. If the practice was mainly to promote
heterosexuality and male sexual pleasure, then it does not hold sway in today’s
generation of Basotho women because not all of them get married to men. One
then wonders why Basotho women are still passing this tradition on to their daugh-
ters if they know that it reduces women’s sexual excitability. With today’s variety of
contraceptive devices and sexual identity choices, should labial elongation
continue?
Reference to labial elongation being used to reduce girls’ sexual excitability, as
far as my research has gone, appears only within the context of Lesotho. Some of
the participants argue they only learnt about this reason for elongation after get-
ting married. However, they attest that girls who do not pull their inner labia are
promiscuous and fall pregnant in big numbers because ‘ha ba ea fokotsa bohale
that is ‘they have not reduced their sexual excitability’ and hence pursue sexual
pleasure more than those with elongated labia. In Basotho communities, a proper
girl waits for sexual advances from a man and never goes in pursuit of sex, let alone
her own sexual pleasure. By implication Basotho people see girls without elongated
labia as deviant and pursuit of sexual pleasure by girls and women as wrong.
These arguments show that female sexual pleasure is an absent presence in the
practices of preparing girls for womanhood and marriage in Lesotho. If preparing
Basotho girls for womanhood centres around labial elongation whose specific aim
is enhancing male sexual pleasure and reducing female sexual pleasure, it means
female sexuality is constructed as not needing pleasure. Girls and women are forced
to construct their sexual identities around sexual restraint and passivity because
pursuing sexual pleasure transforms good Basotho girls into bad girls (cf. Kimmel,
2004). By not conforming to the norms of proper womanhood, women without
elongated inner labia are said to be able to pursue their own sexual pleasure. Thus
in this context, non-conformity is good as it gives girls and women the space to
enjoy sexual autonomy and pleasure.
It has been common for Basotho girls to have ‘mummies’ and ‘babies’, with
older girls being the mummies. However, this practice has been forbidden in many
church schools because it is believed to promote lesbianism. Some participants
talked of kissing their mummies or babies and engaging in mutual masturbation
in the form of fondling and pulling each other’s inner labia. Despite this, homo-
sexuality ‘does not exist’ in Basotho culture. The practice of assisting each other in
stretching the inner labia served to reinforce the importance of elongated labia.
Despite the homo-erotic implications of this practice, the apparent and crucial
objective of the elongation rite was to enhance heterosexuality. However, young
women ended up exploring many aspects of their sexuality during the pulling ses-
sions, which proved to be against societal expectations of proper womanhood.
Additionally, Kendal (1999) reports that women she interviewed in Lesotho,
who engaged in what was seen with western eyes as same-sex practices, did
not see this behaviour as sexual at all. To them sex had to do with penetration.
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Their argument was ‘you cannot have sex unless somebody has a koae (penis)’
(Kendall, 1999: 167). This means women’s ways of conveying passion, love, and
lust, or joy in each other were neither immoral nor suspect. This, however, does not
mean mutual sexual pleasuring among girls (or boys) was socially accepted.
Masturbation was also not an openly discussed issue because it was regarded as
sinful and against nature. Thus, labial elongation provided a context in which
Basotho women explored their bodies and inherent sexual identities while also
engaging in forbidden sexual practices within the safety of established friendship
groups as evidenced by the testimonies of the participants who enjoyed being
assisted to pull their labia. Despite the intended suppression of female sexual
desire and pleasure, the practice of labial elongation created a space for the explor-
ation of pleasurable female sexuality and hence in some situations became an arena
for challenging traditional sexual norms. The enjoyment derived by women from
mutual sexual pleasuring shows that the practice of assisted inner labia elongation
challenged the hegemony enjoyed by male sexual pleasure and heterosexuality.
The practice of labial elongation, in many African communities, shows that even
though female sexuality is highly policed, it is never completely silenced. The chal-
lenge, however, is girls and women are socialised to believe that ‘the pursuit of sex
transforms good girls into bad girls’ (Kimmel, 2004: 240). Ericsson (2005:131) also
argues that ‘a delinquent boy is criminally active; a delinquent girl is sexually
active’. Growing up with these perceptions makes it difficult for girls to fully
embrace their sexuality and its pleasures because good girls should not pursue
sex or be sexually knowledgeable. Female sexuality in this context is only legitimate
if it is in relation to heterosexuality and male sexual pleasure. This positions auto
and homo-erotic experiences for women as deviant, and thus denies exploration of
such alternative avenues of sexual pleasure. The conceptualisation of women’s
homo-erotic experiences under the rubric of lesbianism reflects the embedded het-
eronomativity in Basotho society.
The deviance attached to homosexuality and women’s pursuit of sexual pleasure
is also testament to the perceived abnormality and immorality of homosexual
practices, and is a reflection of Christian moralistic teachings. In European trad-
itions, women were seen as assets in state building as mothers of the nation
(Amadiume, 2007). They therefore had to adhere to the strictest and highest
Christian standards of purity in order to produce citizens of high moral standing.
In this context the purity of motherhood inhabited a different world to the desiring
body. According to Ifi Amadiume,
In Victorian English culture, women were not expected to experience sexual arousal,
and these cultures were enforced on Africans by Christian missionaries and through
modern Eurocentric education. These were not originally African practices. (2007: 5)
Thus through appropriating colonial sexual practices as their culture, Basotho
eventually promoted the passive Victorian female (Wekker, 2004) as a virtuous
norm for female sexuality. According to Wekker (2006: 5) black women’s sexuality
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is represented in Euro-American history as ‘excessive, insatiable, the epitome of
animal lust, and always already pathological’. Thus through Christianity, this sup-
posedly deviant and pagan sexuality was abolished in many colonies including
Lesotho. As recorded by Kendall (1999) Basotho women enjoyed woman–
woman relationships which were neither immoral nor suspect within communities.
Thus it could be argued that the homo-erotic experience of assisted inner labia
pulling is not deviant but reclamation of what has naturally been part of Basotho
female sexuality.
Bourdieu (1993) argues that agents in any field conform to norms or prescribed
rituals depending on their interests. He argues that people, as actors in the field, are
not rule followers or norm conformers but strategic improvisers who respond to
the opportunities and constraints offered by various situations in accordance with
their dispositions. Basotho women as players in the field of ‘becoming a woman’
(Butler, 1990: 33) seem to have a vested interest in labial elongation despite its
drawbacks on female sexual pleasure. Women’s performance of this normalised
womanhood corresponds to their formative socialisation and thus legitimates the
sexual inequality between men and women. Basotho women are strategically com-
plicit in the symbolic violence or ‘othering’ directed at those without the elongated
labia because they stand to gain from this practice. Those women with elongated
labia, as existing holders of power, use labial elongation as an entry fee into the
field of womanhood for young girls as new players, or a way of blocking or
excluding ‘unfit’ players in the game of being a woman.
Labial elongation forms part of becoming a Mosotho woman and thus an inte-
gral part of sexual identity formation. However, the hegemony enjoyed by this
practice excludes resistant ways of sexual identity formation, which could be avail-
able for Basotho girls and women. The question of who benefits from labial elong-
ation requires further research within the context of Lesotho. From the discussions
in this article, it can be argued that while it was good to use labial elongation as a
contraceptive measure, it denied young women the full extent of sexual pleasuring
that their bodies could attain. Should women continue to form their sexual iden-
tities around labial elongation?
Conclusion
This article has discussed the practice of labial elongation among the Basotho and
how it is implicated in the constructions of female sexual identity. The policing and
control of female sexuality within hetero-patriarchal contexts remains one of the
major drivers of violence against women. Significantly, most societies privilege
heterosexual male desire, either by enacting prohibitive laws on other groups or
by promoting social mores and cultural observances that tend to circumscribe the
sexual desire of the others. Because of the small sample size, this article provides
only a glimpse into the violation of women and girls’ rights to sexual autonomy
and pleasure and the mechanisms of blame and shame that perpetuate women’s
silence in the face of violence. However, it gives important insights into women’s
774 Sexualities 15(7)
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lived experiences of labial elongation which could be a starting point for further
research and sexual health policy evaluation.
Thanks to the taboo nature of sex talk, inner labia elongation is hardly talked
about within the public sphere except in cases of blaming and shaming deviant
women and girls. With the majority of Basotho women still being economically
dependent on men, there is little likelihood for them to stand up for their sexual
rights. There are therefore few individuals within Lesotho, mostly women science
teachers, who are standing up against the practice of inner labia elongation as there
are hardly any organizations or movements against this practice within commu-
nities. However, these women teachers are only able to teach a few girls about their
bodies in relation to sexual pleasure without any support from the wider commu-
nity. As Petchesky (2000: 12) rightly points out, ‘sexual rights for women will
remain unachievable if they are not connected to a strong campaign for economic
justice and an end to poverty’. Thus campaigns for women’s sexual rights in
Lesotho would have to tie in with strategies for economic independence to enhance
women’s decision-making powers.
However, without the support of men who currently are still the decision makers
in relationships and families, there would be minimal progress. Thus it is important
for re-education programmes to target men to stand against this practice. With the
understanding that a woman who enjoys sex makes it more pleasurable for her
partner, it would be easier to persuade Basotho that it is for the good of all if
women and girls stopped labial elongation. With buy-in from the men, women
would be released from the fear of not being marriageable and pleasurable and
thus the shame and blaming placed on women and girls would stop thereby creat-
ing spaces for a society that values and enjoys pleasurable and healthy sexuality.
Acknowledgments
The first draft of this paper was written as a Work-In-Progress piece at the Gexcel Centre of
Gender Excellence at Linkoping University, Sweden in 2010. Subsequent drafts were read
and edited also in 2010 as part of the IASSCS Mentoring program under the mentorship of
Prof. Rosalind P. Petchesky.
Notes
1. Naoa is a special name for the clitoris, which is used by girls and known only to girls and
women
2. Litsebe tsa mutla is a special name for the inner labia, which is used by girls and known
only to girls and women
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