Rites of Passage

People throughout the world have heightened emotions during times of major life changes.  These stressful changes may be physiological or social in nature.  They are usually connected with personal transitions between important stages that occur during our lives.  These transitions are generally emotionally charged--they are life crises.  Most cultures consider the important transitions to be birth, the onset of puberty, marriage, life threatening illness or injury, and finally death.  Graduation from school, divorce, and retirement at the end of a work life are also major transitions in modern large-scale societies.

During the early 20th century, the Belgian anthropologist, Arnold Van Gennep, observed that all cultures have prescribed ways for an individual and society to deal with these emotion charged situations.  They have ritual ceremonies intended to mark the transition from one phase of life to another.  Van Gennep called these ceremonies rites of passage click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  In North America today, typical rites of passage are baptisms, bar mitzvahs and confirmations, school graduation ceremonies, weddings, retirement parties, and funerals.  These intentionally ritualized ceremonies help the individuals making the transition, as well their relatives and friends, pass through an emotionally charged, tense time.  Most rites of passage are religious ceremonies.  They not only mark the transition between an individual's life stages but they reinforce the dominant religious views and values of a culture.  In other words, they reinforce the world-view.

photo of a military wedding with the newly married couple walkiing under an arch of swords

  Marriage is an important
rite of passage in all cultures.

Note the military symbolism
and ritual acts of this formal
religious wedding in Canada.

Rites of passage in many cultures are used to mark the socially recognized transition to sexual maturity.  Among some of the indigenous societies of Africa and Australia, intentionally painful genital surgery has been an integral part of such rites of passage.  For boys, this usually involves circumcision click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced and/or subincision click this icon to hear the preceding term pronouncedCircumcision is removing all or part of the foreskin of the penis, usually with a knife.  Subincision is cutting into the side of the penis or making a hole entirely through it.  For girls, genital surgery connected with rites of passage usually involves clitoridectomy click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced (or "female circumcision") and/or infibulation click this icon to hear the preceding term pronouncedClitoridectomy is cutting off all or part of the clitoris and sometimes all or part of the labia.  Infibulation is partially closing off the opening to the vagina by sewing, pinning, or clamping part of the vulva.

Many Native American societies publicly celebrated a girl's first menses.  For instance, the parents of girls among the Luiseño click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced Indians of Southern California proudly announced to the community that their daughters were beginning to menstruate and becoming women.  The girls were partly buried in heated sand at this time.  They were not permitted to scratch themselves or eat salt, and they were given instructions by older women about the physiological changes that were occurring and how to behave as a woman and wife.  For most North American girls today, public announcements that they had begun menstruating would be considered humiliating.  However, it was a matter of personal and family pride in many Native American cultures.

While boys do not experience such clear physiological markers of transition to adulthood as menstruation, their rites of passage to this new status in some cultures are more severe than for girls.  Among the cattle herding Barabaig click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced culture of East Africa, the boys' heads are shaved and their foreheads are cut with three deep horizontal incisions that go down to the bone and extend from ear to ear.  This scarification leaves permanent scars that identify a male as having received "gar."  Sometimes, the incisions are deep enough to show up on the skulls.  Among the Luiseño Indians, boys had to undergo severe ordeals such as laying on red ant mounds and not crying out from pain as they were repeatedly bitten over long periods of time.  They were also given toloache click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, a powerful hallucinogenic drug that made them ill and apparently sometimes caused their death.  Among some Australian Aborigine societies, a boy being initiated was expected to repeatedly hit his penis with a heavy rock until it was bruised and bloody.  He also had several of his incisor teeth knocked out with a sharp rock by the adult men who were instructing him in the duties and obligations of manhood and the secrets of their religion.  All of these rite of passage rituals were intended to be painful in order to increase the importance of the transition to adulthood.

NOTE:  Over the last several decades, major women's rights organizations in the Western World have focused attention on eliminating clitoridectomy and infibulation in Africa, the Near East, and among immigrants from those areas.  In order to demonize these cultural practices, they refer to them as "genital mutilation" and usually insist that it is violence against women done as part of the male repression and control of women.  The latter assertion fits Moslem dominated countries more than the non-Moslem sub-Saharan African societies that follow these practices.  The reality in many non-Moslem African societies is that the surgery is performed by older women and is an integral part of the initiation of girls into the world of women.  Men usually are not allowed to be involved in anyway.  Continued political pressure from the Feminist Majority Foundation, the National Organization for Women (NOW), and other groups has resulted in many Western governments and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopting as an important goal the global repression of clitoridectomy and infibulation.  Some indigenous African women's organizations have responded angrily.  Most notably, a Masai click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced Tribal women's group from Kenya has accused European and North American women of practicing cultural imperialism.  In a sense, they are saying that Westerners need to get beyond their ethnocentrism to see the importance of clitoridectomy and infibulation for women in the societies that do it.  They say that these practices are crucial parts of their cultures and that they do not want to give them up.  Some other women's groups in Kenya are opposed to the continuation of clitoredectomy but often resent the "interference" of European and North American based organizations in their culture.  There are now also the beginnings of organized movements in North America and Europe aiming to stop the routine surgical circumcision of male babies and episiotomy click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced of women during childbirth.  For more information and views on all of these issues, go to the Related Internet Sites section of this tutorial.


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This page was last updated on Monday, January 08, 2007.
Copyright © 2002-2007 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
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