Celebrating a young woman’s transition to adulthood has surprising benefits for everyone involved in the ritual. CATHERINE EDEN spoke to mothers, daughters and mentors who have made an ancient custom part of their Western tradition
Rites of passage are as old as the hills; vital to maintaining the fabric of traditional societies and an essential form of ceremony in cultures around the world. But the West, neglectful of the old ways, has promoted an order in which communities no longer initiate their children into adulthood. It’s a loss that a remarkable group of South Africans set about redressing as long ago as 1988, when the subject came up for discussion at their regular women’s meeting.
‘We live on a continent that is rich in rites of passage practice’, says Judy Bekker who specialises in communications and corporate facilitation. ‘But as white people, we are missing out. We assume that the nuclear family can provide for the child, and that schools will fill in the gaps. We’ve forgotten that the extended family can offer a more enriching education around womanhood.’ In indigenous communities, the function of women’s circles was generally to entrench practices that would uphold the status quo. Today, women gather for different reasons, often to challenge the accepted ways of doing things or to find solutions to their problems. Circles provide a supportive environment for the exploration of new ideas, and it was in this kind of creative atmosphere that a ritual for young women took shape.
The group members recognised that women everywhere, regardless of their circumstances, have seven life stages in common: birth and early childhood, menstruation, adolescence and sexuality, marriage or committed partnership, mothering, menopause, aging and death. Guidance eases the passage from one stage to the next, but for many in the group these critical transitions had been largely unsupported.
The women, ranging in age from twenties to sixties, laughed and cried as they recounted their bittersweet memories. In talking to each other they discovered a great reservoir of experience – a resource that could be drawn on. They saw what a difference it might have made in their lives if these stages had been properly acknowledged, and set about devising a programme that would be appropriate for their 14 to 16-year-old daughters.
Maturing with mentors
The process is entirely voluntary and consists of seven sessions that take place over a period of two to six months. The teenager invites a number of women she respects to be her mentors. They may be older girls, relatives, teachers or family friends – people who are likely to provide ongoing support. They meet to discuss how the programme should be handled and each woman picks the session where she feels she can make the best contribution. In this way, each topic is allocated to a small group of three or four who pool their skills and tailor information and activities to suit the individual. There may be extra input on divorce, for example, or same-gender relationships if these are part of the girl’s reality.
The sessions may take place in any location, but each one is meticulously planned to provide the richest possible experience. The settings are beautifully prepared, and the content designed to delight and enlighten. The girl knows when to be available but not where or how the process will unfold, and all who have been through the programme agree that mystery adds to the sense that something special and important is about to happen.
At the first session, dealing with conception, birth and early childhood, only the mother and daughter are present. 14-year-old Kelly recorded in her journal how her initial embarrassment gave way to deep respect and admiration for her mother as she told the story of Kelly’s birth. Now in her twenties, Kelly recalls the dawning awareness that this was to be no ordinary process, but an opportunity to discover more about herself.
‘Rites of passage lived up to my expectations,’ says Kara, now in her late twenties. ‘I found it especially illuminating to see the older women as whole people – people who had once been just like me. It made me feel part of a club, a member of a supportive circle, whose interest in me has endured. The best part was the one-on-one with my mother; the fun part was the mystery. Overall, the value is having this time of your life marked. It’s very special to be honoured by women you admire and to be treated as one of them. I would definitely do it for my daughter.’
‘At 15 I didn’t want to do anything my parents suggested’, says Cher, who is now a mother herself. ‘But I went along with it because I was secretly intrigued. I felt safe with the women in my circle and found that discussion with them made me more objective and less fearful about the phases of my life. The process cemented bonds with women of all ages and helped me to see myself as part of a big cycle. Most 15-year-olds just hang out together and don’t have this opportunity to broaden their horizons.’
‘Cher was one of the first on the programme’, says her mother, Bev Bertram. ‘We were all such keen beans about it that it was probably a bit overwhelming. I think the session on sexuality knocked her socks off! But looking at her today, I see a friendship base beyond her peer group, and an edge that other young women don’t have. I felt very emotional about giving her over to other women to be close to, but the advantage of the process is that although it doesn’t make teenage troubles disappear, it does provide a group that can be an anchor later in life.’
Beyond the first session, the mother is not involved. ‘It’s not the mother’s job to initiate the daughter,’ explains Maryse Barak, who has facilitated a number of one-day rites of passage ceremonies in Johannesburg. ‘In African culture, it is traditionally the aunt and the grandmother’s role. Every young woman reaches an age when she needs to disengage a little from her family, so it’s a time for the parents to expand the network and hand their daughter over to a broader community authority.’
The purpose of the one-day ritual, designed for girls of about 12 years of age, is to allow them to receive the recognition and blessing of their circle of women. Each brings a gift and explains its significance. In the process, the girl’s qualities are acknowledged and she receives the wisdom of women further along the path.
‘The girls are young, but they seem to rise to the occasion,’ says Maryse. ‘We do different things with them, depending on their nature. Sometimes we’ll dance, or lift the girl above our heads to symbolise that a community of women will always support her. A special book may be prepared for her about her life and the landscape that lies ahead. Thresholds are crossed alone, but it’s important that others witness your progress. And what it does for the women who are part of the ceremony is truly miraculous. No matter how old you are, that part of you that wasn’t recognised as a young woman gets healed.’
There is a huge sense of honour at being singled out by a young person as having something unique to contribute to her growth. ‘Absolutely always, the women who are asked to be mentors are touched to the core,’ says Marian Goodman, one of the architects of the extended programme. ‘Some go into a state of mini-mourning for what they never experienced; others find the demands of digging for their own truth a little nerve-wracking, but they are all thrilled. They get over their nerves by working in clusters that spread the responsibility.’
The exchange across age groups is particularly meaningful to everyone. ‘To be part of a girl’s process feels like you are connecting the generations deeply,’ says Bev. ‘It doesn’t matter that the circle of women might hold different opinions on many subjects. The girl benefits by being exposed to a wider context.’
A circle of women
Although the women in the original group had a common spiritual focus and were already attuned to this kind of process, rites of passage is not about passing on a particular belief system and it works just as well for those who have never encountered the practice. Judy and Maryse are occasionally asked to facilitate a programme for people they do not know, and there have been many heart-warming responses from women who found the experience informative and uplifting.
In a final ceremony, the young woman presents herself to the assembled group so that she can be officially welcomed into the larger circle of women. She is asked to bring three boxes with her, containing things she is ready to give away, items that have current meaning in her life and some treasures that have lasting significance. Sixteen seems to be the best age for the process, as the girls generally have the maturity to examine where they are in their lives, are comfortable about asking frank questions and are able to relate to their mentors’ experience.
‘I appreciated their stories, honesty and openness,’ says Rayelle. ‘I felt more supported than enlightened, but it was definitely a worthwhile process.’ Rayelle was one of the young women who chose to include men among her mentors, to give her another perspective on the business of growing into womanhood. Her sessions with women were interspersed with two sessions with men, and it was this interaction that her mother Marian found to be almost the most moving. In our society – or any society for that matter – it is rare for a young woman to be received by a group of men in a supportive and loving way; men who simply reflect back the beauty and character they see, without requiring anything in return. Today, men are increasingly open to exploring the more emotional side of their being, and the designers of the girls’ programme are hoping that there will soon be a similar one for boys.
Rites of passage rituals are not confined to adolescence but have a place at transitional points in life. Change is often difficult, but there’s no need to be lonely when you know you are on a well-trodden path, illuminated by those who have gone before. ‘Ritual is so important in modern life’, says Maryse. ‘As a group of friends, we have learned, in the moment, to be unafraid to respond to each other whenever a ritual is needed.’
Published in Longevity magazine