Africa: Of underwear – making the private public

Date: September 5, 2012
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Windhoek, 5 September: There is a young woman I will call Hilda who comes in once a week to help with washing and ironing my clothes. In return, I give her money that she is saving to pay for her university fees. A recent incident involving Hilda and I about underwear got me thinking about something that we don’t think much about, but deal with regularly – underwear and in particular women’s underwear.

In the first week that Hilda started doing my laundry, I came home to find a mountain of clean, crisp ironed clothes piled sky high and hung up. I thanked her, paid my dues and she went on her merry way. Later that evening, after my evening bath, I realised that I could not find a single pair of panties anywhere.

See, I usually toss my dirty underwear along with the rest of my dirty clothes, so I figured they would be in the pile of clean clothes. They were not. After a good thirty minutes search, I finally found them unwashed in a bucket and hidden in the bathroom.

Of piling dirty underwear, I can imagine many women cringing at the thought of it. Worse still at the thought that I expected someone to wash them for me, albeit with a washing machine.

Your dirty underwear being seen or touched by someone else is a taboo in many African communities, it borders on some kind of cleanliness crime. Growing up, most of our mothers, both rural and urban, taught us three things: don’t ever touch yourself ‘down there’; always wash your undies while taking a bath; and don’t have sex before marriage.

All these three life-lessons are inextricably linked and are in some way responsible for the cold war of a relationship that women have with their vaginas, and consequently their underwear.

Not me though. While my mother taught me how to wash my underwear, she never instructed me to wash it every single day, hang it inside my closet to dry and to never ever let it “see the light of day.” My mother presented underwear to us like any other garment. She taught us to wash them along with all our other dirty clothes and hang them out to dry. Our washing line spotted both adult and child undies on Saturdays which happened to be laundry day.

There are so many myths about women’s underwear, which ultimately cause unfounded misery to many women. Growing up, we had a helper called Mable. She came straight from the village, with a treasure-trove of advice that she just could not wait to dispense to us wayward city children. Contrary to my mother’s teachings, Mable went on to tell me that I needed to hide my underwear.

“Your underwear comes into contact with a very special part of your body and who knows what can happen if people see or get hold of your underwear. They can use it to bewitch. You won’t be able to have babies”, warned Mable. Under her careful instruction I went on to wash my underwear everyday and hang it on my bed’s headboard, away from fresh air, sanitising sunlight and bewitching gazes.

Clearly, what my mother taught me, my family’s casual approach to underwear was the exception and not the rule. In my four years in boarding school, I can count on one hand the number of times I saw someone’s underwear, and many a times, by accident.

I didn’t enjoy keeping my underwear hidden. I remember getting thrush during one rainy season from wearing damp underwear faithfully hung indoors. Contrary to popular practice, and in line with what my mother taught me, I started hanging my underwear outside again. My schoolmates echoed Mable’s’ words of “wisdom” and constantly warned me of impending barrenness. I couldn’t care less about being barren at the time, but the thrush, I didn’t like so much.

Most girls are taught to treat their underwear the same way they treat their vagina’s – with awe, care and caution. There’s a lot going on down there, but you should not be concerned with it. It’s the most precious part of your body and everything around and about it should be kept a big secret. The African woman’s private parts have to be the most private parts, of anything private known to humankind.

The mystery that surrounds women’s interactions with their privates and their underwear follow us for life. Maybe it’s the natural vaginal discharge that makes our underwear seem so disgusting. Some think that vaginal discharge is dirty, which then makes your underwear dirty by association. Maybe this is why many women will never admit that they masturbate. Yet, the vagina, its discharge and the accompanying pleasure that comes with touching oneself is natural and nothing to be ashamed of.

Or maybe it’s just something that has been passed from generation to generation of women without being questioned. The less silence and secrecy there is around something as basic, but important as underwear, the more women will be able to discuss issues about their bodies and reproductive health.

It’s important, for many biological reasons that your underwear literally “sees the light of day.” Fresh air and sunlight will kill any germs or microbes that might otherwise fester in your underpants and cause the internal flora of your vagina to act up.

It’s worth mentioning that my mother, for the 28 years that I have known her, has hung her underwear out to dry on the washing line under the hot African sun. She gave life to three wonderful children, despite threats of barrenness. To all women, go on and put your panties OUTSIDE to dry, your vagina will thank you for that!

Sheena Magenya is a freelance journalist based in Namibia. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.


11 thoughts on “Africa: Of underwear – making the private public”

kodwa tyiso says:

what always amaze me is that as women we hardly know our vaginas; and the men who have sex with women know these vaginas. its time we spend time with parts of our bodies that give us pleasure before an outsider knows our vaginas in and out.

Jackson Mwalundange says:

Very innovative ideas, Sheena. You gave me a great homework: to reflect, consider, and think again.

Kaone says:

very interesting story but we must know that a vagina is a very sensitive part its like an eye, you cannot touch your eyes or your vagina with hands that have a touch of spices or salt, that’s why our parents taught us not touch it, we are not like men unfortunately .

Nyasha says:

An interesting story indeed, very enlightening one that makes one sit back and revisit women’s position in African context and socialisation processes.the story raises also a lot of controversy enstrined in differences between traditional beliefs, values and practices and modern or independent perceptions.

Sheena Magenya says:

I agree Kaone, that the vagina is sensitive-but still women let penises whose whereabouts they might not know into them. THAT is more dangerous than any dirty finger could be. You cannot infect yourself with an STI by touching yourself. But for all it’s sensitivity it is also incredibly versatile. The friendlier that women get with their vaginas-from the kind of underwear we wear, the chemicals and razors we use to shave them, the products we use to make them not smell like vagians should-the healthier it is for women. Because you are aware of the discharge colour and consistency as well as of warts or any other anomalies that might show up. We need to become friends with our vaginas-god knows we all came from one :)Glad that this is some food for thought Nyasha, Kaone, Kodwa and Jackson.

Patricia Phillips says:

Here in Jamaica, The Caribbean, we have he same taboos about our “pum pum”; we even as other cultures have “pet names” for we never have to say Vagina! “punaani”, “cho-cho”…etc. My newly married husband proudly announced one evening holding out the treasure in his hand…look what I took up off the line! so proud of himself…he had never taken women’s panties off a clothes line! Its a major gender conversation in Jamaica , in our workshops .. I work as a consultant gender technical advisor in HIV. Women always bemoan the experience of men shunning women’s clean panties on clotheslines while never hesitating to peel off the dirty ones from our bodies. I only just in past few years (now age 53!!!)started to wash panties in washign machine. It struck me I wore panty shields so the hard to come out vaginal discharge stains were no longer an issue. Yippee!! Ahhh I enjoyed this article. Thanks

Sheena Magenya says:

It’s so interesting to learn that this practise is carried out that far afield Patricia-big thanks for sharing!There are so many things, products, ideas out there that seek to further alienate our vaginas from our selves. The more girl’s vagina’s are presented as ordinary, healthy body parts that need as much attention as our legs, arms and faces, the easier it will be, for instance for girl children to report abuse. We really need to love our vaginas more. Thanks Patricia!

Davidson says:

This article is so interesting and expresses thoughts outside most people’s thinking capacity

Koliwe says:

Thank you for saying what hasn’t been said over years.I am one of those panty piling – panty wash day- girls (but i confess its because i m too busy to be washing panties every other bath and have been chastised enough times) I find that the only unfortunate part about liberating ourselves from the vagina-panty myth is that we do not really raise raise our girls alone, the family remains only just a primary socialising space,we need to open up the spaces in which we speak about it more..for hygeine sake. And not only that…the vagina, especially with the mention of menstruation, has remained an organ, albeit its undisputed importance in our fulfilment and well being, still feels like some curse.

Lilly says:

Is it okay i wash my fathers boxers?

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