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from the October 2013 issue

Breaking the Taboo of Sex through Songs: The Laabaan Ceremony

Sex education is one of the most important, and most often neglected, subjects in the preparation of children for adulthood, and, a topic that seems to preoccupy parents in cultures around the world. In many African societies, sex education is a collective activity rather than an individual, parental duty, and the medium is song. But just how does this ubiquitous genre serve to inform youths about such a private topic? Wolof society offers a variety of insights into how the community employs song to teach about sex and sexuality.

In Wolof culture, sex education occurs during weddings, where one often hears a variety of songs on the theme. One particular sub-ceremony within Wolof weddings is the laabaan, reserved exclusively for women and conducted by them. The purpose of the ceremony is to celebrate the bride’s virginity, and the term is used to describe both the ceremony and for the genre of songs sung at the event.

For a researcher, even one who comes from Wolof society, the songs of the laabaan ceremony are difficult not only to understand but also to record. I am from a family of griottes. My paternal aunts, who are performing guewel, the Wolof term for griots of both sexes, sing laabaan songs, but refused to let me enter the space where these songs are sung because it is reserved exclusively for married or divorced women. As a result, I had to enlist the help of neenyo—women of the artisanal caste which includes griots, blacksmiths, jewelers, leatherworkers, and woodworkerswho were not family members and who were much younger than my aunts. Three women—Adji Diara as well as two neenyo from Dakar, Amy Thiam and Khady Thiam—allowed me to make my first recordings. I was also able to interview my mother, who gave me other laabaan songs and sayings. Laabaan songs are traditionally performed by neenyo today, but women from other social groups can also sing them. The family griotte is the one who most often leads the laabaan ceremony. However, any other griotte can also attend and make her contribution. They receive presents and money during and at the end of the ceremony. Other women can take part by giving testimonies or contributing to the singing, or by sharing sexual tips.

Like the other sub-ceremonies of the wedding, laabaan constitutes a space for women’s expression. However, it is an ambiguous forum for the negotiation of power. The songs are sexually charged and speak mainly to the necessity for young women to remain virgins until marriage, a message that does little to contest the sexualization and commodification of the female body. However, if one examines the lyrics more closely, the messages clearly show a break from the stereotypical silencing of African women. Laabaan ceremonies provide a place for Wolof women to transgress both the Islamic and traditional codes that advise “good” women not to use “bad” language. Laabaan songs also help listeners understand society’s perception of the female body and toward sex and sexuality.

Virginity Test: Alien or Indigenous?

Virginity is a subject that is central to the laabaan ceremony. As in many patriarchal societies, virginity was once a prerequisite for marriage for Wolof women. Although the tradition continues today, it appears that fewer women are virgins when they marry.

A ceremony is organized as part of the many other events that mark the Wedding, the purpose of which is to highlight the abstinence of the bride and to celebrate her purity. It is not clear whether the Wolof conducted virginity tests before the arrival of Islam and European colonization, but some people claim, all the same, that the practice is alien to the culture. There is no mention of the practice of a virginity test among the Wolof in the numerous documents written by early travel writers and missionaries, European or African, such as the Abbé Boilat and others. However, there are stories about virgins being used for sacrifice or compensation to heroes in many legends and myths. But even these stories do not clarify the difference between a virgin and a woman who has never been married, because the Wolof used the same term, janx, for both.

It is unclear whether the Wolof adopted virginity checks from European or Arab cultures. However, most of the activities and beliefs surrounding the practice  are similar to those occurring in some contemporary Middle Eastern societies. My mother reported to me that in the past, women who were not virgins at marriage were shot by their male relatives, as in the popular Wolof tale of Khandiou and Ndaté. On her wedding day, Khandiou, who was not a virgin, faced the possibility of being shot by her father. She confided in her best friend Ndaté, who, at night, took her place in the marital bed and saved her from death and disgrace. Because she sacrificed her honor in the name of friendship, Ndaté was given a new hymen by a spirit. Another Islamic influence lies in the word laabaan, which signifies “purifying” or “cleansing.” In Islamic tradition, one is supposed to have a purifying bath after the sexual act, but it is not clear whether that view explains the practice.

It may also be that the hymen is a symbol of innocence and that the bride is washed in order to celebrate her entrance into adulthood. Certain Wolof also refer to the ceremony as “laundry.” The bride “cleans” the sheets she and her husband slept in the night before. She does not physically wash them because her mother is supposed to keep them as proof of her daughter’s chastity. The bride organizes a party with her friends during which they wash clothes. The “cleaning” marks the bride’s second step into adulthood, the first being when she menstruated for the first time, a monthly experience also referred to as “laundry.”

Many practices associated with Islam are in fact aspects of Arabic culture that predated the religion. In fact, in one of our interviews, my mother explained that Islam is against the publicity surrounding the virginity of the bride. In the past, the sheets were exhibited for everyone to see. Even though Islam expects both men and women to be virgins at marriage, as sex is only allowed within matrimony, the virginity test is mentioned neither in the Qurān nor in the Hadīth.

Whether the laabaan ceremony is alien or not, it has been practiced for generations. Although it is vanishing today, its existence underscores the importance given to sexuality in Wolof culture.

The Laaban Ceremony and the Fight for Its Survival

The following verses are sung early in the morning, accompanied by seven drumbeats, to let people know that a bride is a virgin:

The hyena
Whoever does not know Mbaar
Has heard
Its howl
The hyena.

The drummers accompany these verses to announce the good news to the neighborhood and prepare for the laabaan. In many cases, the drummers already know that the bride was “given” to her husband the night before. Hence, they are ready the next morning. Wherever women are, they rush to finish their chores and head to the bride’s house. Most arrive with praise and congratulations for the mother.

Laabaan is a ceremony organized by women for women. It provides the bride, her friends, and any other sexually active woman who is present with a very important sexual education grounded in Wolof culture. It can take place at the bride’s parents’ home or at the bride’s new home the morning after she joins her husband, depending on where they sleep together for the first time. Most often, it happens at the bride’s home. Because they cannot accompany their married daughter to her new home, most mothers want to be present when she goes through her first sexual experience. In many cases, the family of the bride is informed that the groom wants to “take his wife.” The “taking” is often permitted only once the groom has fulfilled all the clauses of the bridewealth transaction. In cases when he has not met all the financial requirements, the bride’s family is often hesitant to allow him to be alone with her for fear the couple may elope and not go through the ritual.

The bride is prepared for her first sexual experience by her female family members. Men are almost never involved. The preparation for the night is led by the baajan, the bride’s paternal aunt. She embarks on her task several days ahead by interrogating the bride to ascertain whether or not she is a virgin.  If she is not, measures are taken by the women to fake the virginity or avoid the test.

On her nuptial night, the bride takes a ritual bath that combines Islamic and Wolof pre-Islamic practices. The young woman is bathed in herbs and waters prepared by local healers to cast away the evil eye. It is believed that virgin women are the targets of evil spirits because of their purity and innocence.

While she is being bathed, other paternal aunts make the bed. They burn incense in the room and spread a white cloth over the sheets so that the stains from the hymen can be more visible. They bless the room to make sure that their niece emerges from this experience with her head high. When all this has been done, the groom discreetly enters the room to await his wife.

After the bath, the bride is dressed in a white wrap and is taken into the bedroom by the aunt, with the griotte behind her singing her praises. The aunt asks the bride to lie at? her right hand and officially hands her to the groom by saying “here is your wife.” After that, she leaves the room. My mother noted that in many cases, the aunt and the griotte sleep on a mat outside the room, out of concern but also because they are supposed to be the first to know the results of the intercourse at dawn. Early in the morning, the groom comes out and delivers the results. If the bride was a virgin, he tells the aunt that he is “happy.” As soon as he says that, both the aunt and the griotte rush into the bedroom screaming and whistling, alerting the rest of the family and the neighborhood. They start praising the bride for meeting their expectations and honoring the family. The following words taken from one of the songs are often uttered.

You have done your share, you are innocent
The path that grandmother took,
Mother took, you have taken
May adulthood bring you luck.

Often, the groom leaves a considerable amount of money under the pillow to signify his satisfaction. That money, called ngegenaay (pillow), is distributed among the griottes and the bride’s paternal first cousins.

The sexual education of the bride begins at the very moment her aunt and the griotte enter the room. She is now considered a woman and is treated as one. The aunt asks her to sit up and spread her legs apart. The Wolof assume that after the first sexual experience, blood remains in the woman’s organ and that if she sits up for a while, it will come out. The aunt then covers her with the most expensive handwoven cloth while the griotte continues to sing her praises.

The laabaan starts at dawn and lasts almost all day. Neighbors and friends learn about the event from the sounds of the drums as well as from the screamed praises from the griottes. The bride’s friends who are still single are also invited to attend in order to learn from their friend’s achievement. But they are asked to cover their ears or leave when what are viewed as obscene things are being said or discussed. They are also the pupils whom the griottes and other women target for their lessons on sex and the importance of remaining a virgin.

While the drums are played to announce the ceremony, the bride is given a second bath. After that, she is dressed and brought into the bedroom where she will lie down all day while the laabaan is being performed. A soup made of lamb, vegetables, palm oil, and medicinal herbs is then prepared for her.

In many cases the groom provides the bride with a “massage sheep.” Because the woman is supposed to be pampered for a whole week, a ram is offered by her in-laws for her meals during that period. It is assumed that the young woman has lost a great deal of blood. It is believed that by eating meat for a week, she can replace that loss. She is also watched over during that week. Her paternal aunt accompanies her everywhere she goes around the house to make sure that she doesn’t do anything that can physically harm her. For that week, she is exempt from physical chores and is forbidden to go outside the house. She also does not sleep with her husband during that time. Because the first night happened in the bride’s home, the groom often doesn’t come back until the end of the week. He is supposed to let the bride rest from a supposedly very exhausting first experience. His presence is a source of teasing for the bride. Women tell her to run or hide because he is “coming after her.” In cases where a man elopes with his wife, he creates much anger and invites verbal attacks from the bride’s family. In rural areas, women may assault him in the streets and pour water on him to express their anger. He is ridiculed because he was not man enough to face his wife’s family in order to get their authorization to “take” her.

The rarity of laabaan ceremonies today, a phenomenon that might suggest a lack of virgin brides, is a situation that is strongly condemned by the griottes whose songs I recorded. They use their songs to emphasize the fact that times have changed. Many women now come to marriage without being virgins. Parents then have to find ways to stain the sheets of the bride’s nuptial bed—often with the blood of a chicken or another animal. This is the reason why Amy Thiam emphasizes the authenticity of the bride’s hymen in this laabaan song: 

The chicken has given me a message
And I must deliver it.
She says she is not afraid and she is not worried,
She is not dead and none of her relatives is dead.

In the song, the griotte verifies the existence of the bride’s hymen by using the metaphor of the chicken who communicates its happiness because neither it nor its relatives had to die for this bride to get a hymen.

This faking of virginity and the tricks played by young couples to disguise their premarital sexual activity are the reason why most griottes have a piece of charcoal in their mouth when they perform laabaan. It is believed that one risks death by singing laabaan for a bride who is not a virgin. The piece of charcoal is viewed as a means to protect against that possibility.

The griottes are concerned about the number of girls who enter marriage as virgins, and the effect of modernity on their culture. Today, because many brides are not virgins and may have slept with their husbands while they dated, couples often elope right after the tying of the knot. They stay in hotels for several days and escape the test in that way. Many young people are also against the publicity surrounding their nuptial night and whether or not the bride is a virgin. This protest against the laabaan ceremony by younger generations of women constitutes a threat to the griottes’ careers. They do not hesitate to voice their concerns in their songs:

Dear hymen, I have not seen you for a long time
I have missed you so much.

The singer blames this shift on the intrusion of European civilization and in particular on the influence that Western education has on girls. Younger generations emulate European lifestyles and advocate women’s sexual freedom, and become alienated from traditional practices. Amy Thiam voices this concern and tries to remind young women that they can still embrace modernity without giving up the practice of remaining virgins until marriage.

Going to school does not spoil the hymen
Because the hymen is neither pen nor ink
And one does not write with it.
Going to dance parties does not spoil the hymen
Because the hymen is neither music nor stereo
And it is not a musical instrument that one plays with.

Amy Thiam denounces the changes brought about by girls’ access to school and the shift in youth culture. Though she puts the blame on European sensibilities, she encourages young girls to and emphasizes the possibility of  balancing between tradition and modernity. To her, one can enjoy both without the risk of abandoning the former.

Adji Diara also expresses such a view in song. She ridicules unmarried girls who are sexually active in the name of “modernity.” In the song, sasuman means “sassy woman” and kes is an expression used when chasing a chicken.

This is not the hymen of a sasuman
The sasuman’s hymen is in a pot
With feathers over it
When you say “kes” it flies.
This is not the hymen of a sasuman.

Adji Diara employs humor and sarcasm to depict the “modernized” woman’s loss of her virginity. Instead of simply stating that “modern” girls end up losing their virginity before marriage, she offers a lengthy description of the hymen as a chicken that was sacrificed and whose blood was used to stain the sheets. In the song lyrics, pis is a term used for getting a baby’s attention.

You see, the sasuman’s hymen,
It has legs,
It has a belly button,
It has ears,
It has a mouth,
It has hands,
And eyes.
They lay it in a crib
When you say “pis” it smiles.
This is not the hymen of a sasuman!

This emphasis on the nature of the hymen underscores griotte’s and society’s desire to teach abstinence to unmarried women. While a child’s birth is a blessing, being pregnant while one is not married is a source of disgrace and shame for the woman and her family, especially her mother. Ousmane Sembène portrayed this in his feminist film Faat Kine. When Kine was made pregnant by her philosophy teacher, her father tried to burn her and blamed his wife for their daughter’s mischief. He later kicked both out of their home. This system of blame puts a great deal of pressure on mothers—hence the reason they go to great lengths to make sure that their daughters remain virgins or try to find ways to fake it when they are not. During the laabaan mothers are the ones whom the griottes and other women congratulate for a job well done.

Virginity is a wrestling game
Mothers are the cheerleaders
Daughters play it.

Virginity: Honor or Disgrace?

Because laabaan is a celebration of virginity, most of the songs deal with rewards received for abstaining from sex before marriage. Virgin brides are offered many presents from their husbands and in-laws.

Pleased with the fact that they are the bride’s first sexual partner, many men show their satisfaction by fulfilling any fantasy a bride of her generation might have. Depending on their financial resources, some men give a stereo, a television, gold jewelry, a car, or even a house. Staying a virgin becomes a means for a woman to obtain material wealth from her husband.

Vagina, vagina, vagina
Its name is not “vagina”
Its name is “honor”
Whoever spoils it does not know its value.
A beautiful house,
From the vagina!
A nice car,
From the vagina!
A box of jewels,
From the vagina!
A television,
From the vagina!
Honoring your mother,
From the vagina!
Honoring your paternal aunt,
From the vagina!
Honoring your friends,
From the vagina!
Honoring yourself,
From the vagina!

For a girl in Wolof society, being a virgin offers evidence of her good upbringing and virtue. It is assumed that if a woman is able to remain a virgin until marriage, she will definitely be a good and faithful wife. She has proven to be very strong in the face of men’s temptations. One has to wonder, though, whether abstaining from sex is empowering or detrimental to women in Wolof society. It is clearly understood that depending on the decisions women make about their genital organs, they can either obtain a wealth of material goods from their husband, or they can be subject to shame and blame from their community. The use of “prestige goods” to reward virgin brides confirms the materialism that has evolved within the culture.  This further affirms the implication their personal and intellectual qualities do not matter much in the eyes of men.. In the example below, the price of the vagina in CFA francs is approximately U.S. $100.

There is a vagina among vaginas
One buys it with fifty thousand francs
A watch and a stereo
When you are not satisfied you’re given more.

Daring to Speak about Sex

If sex is repressed, condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence, then the mere fact of speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression. A person who holds forth in such language places himself or herself outside the reach of power. It is evident from their lyrics that laabaan songs are inscribed in this dynamic of subversion. Beyond its celebratory function, laabaan becomes a place where women dare to talk about sex regardless of society’s strict prohibition against such topics. The songs become a medium of transgression of cultural and religious laws and allow women to discuss the taboo of sex without fear of censure.

Outside the laabaan space, the Wolof are not atypical in their approach to debates about sex. It is never discussed in public. People often use nicknames for sexual organs or anything related to them. Those who make sexual references or talk about their sex lives in public are labeled as perverts.

Laabaan then becomes a space for the transgression of social order. Many men think that it should be proscribed, that it encourages the promiscuity of women. During my research, there were many instances when the head of the household (usually the father of the bride) decided that a laabaan ceremony would not be held in his house although he condoned the ceremonial taking of the bride. On those occasions, women moved the ceremony to a neighbor’s house. In cases where the male authority does not forbid the celebration, most male family members leave the house early in the morning. Not only is their presence a violation of the women’s space, but they also dread women’s language during laabaan. When a man dares to be present, women often use him as a guinea pig in their sexually explicit demonstrations. Laabaan singers openly name sexual organs and the sexual act. They go into very graphic details and have a lot of fun doing so.

I say look,
I say girls get ready
A lot of things are in fashion with men.
So children get ready.
I say the kind of lovemaking men do,
The kind of kiss men do,
The kind of caressing men give,
If you are not a virgin
What are you going to tell your mother?

Laabaan provides a space for female bonding and debating on a subject that can only be explored in song. Its language becomes a language of transgression and boldness. This is carried over into modern songs, where singers such as Adji Diara are sought after because of their profane, straightforward style. A good laabaan singer is the one who can say the most shocking things. The songs prompt women to drift into their sexual fantasies and explore areas that they could not venture into in a polite social setting. 

© 2013 Marame Gueye. This material appears in different form in Marame Gueye, “Wolof Women Break the Taboo of Sex in Songs,” in Thomas A. Hale and Aissata G. Sidikou, eds., Women’s Songs from West Africa, forthcoming 2013 from Indiana University Press. By arrangement with the author and the publisher. All rights reserved.

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