Christianity, ‘tradition’, identity and gender
There is no doubt that the cultural discourse and practice of gender and sexuality in Owambo were shifting through the impact of Christianity. Earlier, the initiation was central to the definition of female identity. It legitimatised women’s adulthood, sexuality and fertility. A long process of preparation for womanhood which had begun during early girlhood, culminated in the transition during the initiation.  The missions set out to redefine femininity and masculinity, gender and sexuality. Notions about ‘sin’ and ‘morality’ occupied the centre-stage, especially in refashioning femininity. The introduction of European-style dress was a point in question. So were the puritan notions about ‘virginity’ that attached ‘shame and sin’ to any premarital sexual ventures whereas previously certain forms of premarital sexual relations had been an accepted part of young people’s lives unless they resulted in pregnancy (Becker 1995:102—104). Christianity entailed a new set of ideas about ‘legitimate’ sexuality. It tied sexuality and motherhood down within the framework of a Christian, monogamous marriage whereas in earlier times initiation had provided the transition to full female adulthood, and had legitimised fertility and full heterosexual relations for young women and their male sexual partners.
It appears doubtful, however, that the Christian colonial modernity fully overruled older local forms. Patterns of continuity and discontinuity persisted, rather, which also found expression in the language adopted to describe ‘new’ institutions, such as when oshiKwanyama-speakers used the term efundula as the synonym for ‘marriage’, including a Christian wedding. An attempt to approach the complexities of colonial Christian modernities and gender and sexual identities is admittedly bold where information on people’s strategies to adjust to and adapt the changing discourses on sexuality and gender is sparse. Some young women and men continued to observe or participate in the ceremonies and thus defied church rulings. On the other hand, the refusal of young Owambo women to take part in initiation indicates resistance against earlier forms of social control, and attempts by young women to make use of opportunities that came with the new discourse. The promulgation of the ‘Christian housewife’ model and the puritan discourse certainly served to control women’s labour and sexuality. Yet the missions also provided new opportunities for women. The discourse of ‘Christian’ marriage allowed women to opt out of unwanted polygynous marriages. It was through the missions, particularly the Finns, that Owambo women first got the
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