Thera Rasing


Since the 1930s, female initiation rites have been a topic of interest for both anthropologists and certain White Fathers like Fr Corbeil and Fr Hinfelaar. Although the rites have been examined from various viewpoints, e.g. structural-functionalist viewpoints in the first half of the 20th century (Richards, 1940, 1956), and later by symbolic anthropologists (Rasing, 1995, 2001, 2004, and Simonsen, 2000a and 2000b), they are now mainly explained in terms of unequal gender relations and sexuality (Kamlongera, 1987; Kalunde, 1992). During my ongoing research (1992–2016), I was inspired by the interpretation of these rites by Hugo Hinfelaar, who, although not the first White Father who studied and attended these rites, was the first one who interpreted them in a primarily religious way, emphasising aspects such as transcendence, religion, matrilinity, fecundity and history. Moreover, by examining cultural and religious artefacts and symbols, including those used in initiation rites, Hinfelaar encouraged inculturation (which became a Catholic Church policy after Vatican II), contributed to the study of African Traditional Religion from a gendered viewpoint, and promoted Bemba female initiation rites. This paper will examine the resilience and transformations of female initiation rites in the past century from a gendered and religious viewpoint. It will claim that, in line with Hinfelaar’s statement that Bemba women have lost their important socio-religious position due to bena ngandu rule, colonialism and Christianity, these female rites should be seen as a way for women to hold on to and exert their power in their families and in their communities while both initiation rites and equal gender relations are encouraged by the Catholic Church today.