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Monday, 17 December, 2001, 19:39 GMT
Swazi princess dons chastity tassel
King Mswati's fiancee wearing chastity tassel
Girls are expected to take a five-year celibacy vow
By Bhekie Matsebula in Swaziland

Princess Sikhanyiso, the eldest daughter of King Mswati III of Swaziland, has returned home from her studies in England wearing a set of umcwasho tassels, worn by young girls as a mark of chastity.

Under ancient Swazi tradition girls under 18 were expected to wear a set of blue and yellow tassels, while older girls wore red and black tassels as a sign that they were still virgins.


I am very proud of the tradition and what it stood for, so I would like to encourage young maidens to take up the woollen tassels

Princess Sikhanyiso
In September King Mswati, Africa's last absolute monarch, announced the tradition was being reintroduced in an effort to combat Aids, which has killed more than 50,000 people in the tiny mountain kingdom.

But the move has met with huge opposition - not least of all because the king's own daughter has not been forced to comply with the rule.

Princess Sikhanyiso, who is studying at St Edmunds College in England, took everybody by surprise when she arrived at Matsapha Airport on Saturday with a pair of yellow and blue tassels around her neck.

Criticism

The 14-year-old princess, who was accompanied by her grandfather, Reverend Percy Mngomezulu, Swaziland's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, has returned home for the Christmas break.

The princess has come under fire from young Swazi girls because she is being educated in Britain and therefore is not bound by the strict rules of her own country.

King Mswati III
The king is Africa's last absolute monarch

King Mswati's draconian rule demands that all virgins must wear the tassels and remain chaste for a period of five years. They are discouraged from any physical contact with men - even shaking hands.

Many young women and their parents believe the five-year period is too long.

Their anger has been fuelled further by the fact that Princess Sikhanyiso has not been required to wear the tassels whilst at school in England.

Defiance

However, the princess now says that she is in full support of the rite and that she respects it even when in living London.

"The school would not allow me to wear it (the tassels) on its premises because they feared it would draw unnecessary attention and so I only wear it on weekends when I am at home," she said.

Young Swazis
Teenagers said the king had broken his own rules

"Even I was told to wear umcwasho on the day that everyone was told. I am very proud of the tradition and what it stood for, so I would like to encourage young maidens to take up the woollen tassels," she added.

But up to now most girls still refuse to wear the tassels despite stern warnings of fines to be imposed on their parents by the traditional authorities in the kingdom.

Those who do wear them only do so when they are at school, but when they leave school premises they simply remove them.

Double standard

Adding to the controversy is the fact that King Mswati was the first to break his own rule when he picked a 17-year-old schoolgirl, Nontsetselelo Magongo, to become his eighth wife.

In protest at the double standard last month young women from the Mahlanya area where Nontsetselelo comes from went to throw their tassels at one of King Mswati's palaces.

Anyone who breaks the decree must pay a fine of one cow or 1,300 emalangeni ($108) and the king was forced to pay the fee of one ox himself following the angry protests.

See also:

12 Nov 01 | Africa
Sex-ban Swazi king pays fine
26 Oct 01 | Africa
Swaziland dissent over no-sex ban
17 Sep 01 | Africa
Swazi King sex ban
28 Sep 01 | Africa
Swazi king takes eighth wife
31 Aug 00 | Africa
No new bride for Swazi king
10 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Swaziland
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