Iria Festival: An Ancient Sacred Festival Celebrating Chastity

The Iria festival dates back to the 16th century; an annual ceremony of womanhood that is held at a market square in Okrika, an ancient town in Rivers State, Nigeria. Breasts-baring maidens are seen being initiated by the people into womanhood. Virgins are presented and kept at fattening room, where they are taken care of for the festival.

The indigenes of Okrika believe in the festival and cannot be defiled by a maiden who ended up pregnant before marriage. The old women called ‘Gbenerime’ easily spot out those who are pregnant among the maidens and get them disqualified.  The girls come out of the fattening room looking pretty like mermaids with bodies painted in different colours.

In the past, it is believed that if the indigenes of the village didn’t go through this process, it would be difficult for the lady to get pregnant.  Maidens that are disqualified are shamed and their families can become an embarrassment to the village.

“These women are vast and versatile. If any of the young women is found to be pregnant, she will be disqualified, which means that she is not fit to be part of the Iria festival. One of the surprising things about these maidens is that they are very agile during the event and the reason for this strength is still a mystery.

However, many families have stayed away from this ancient practice due to education and religion. The age for the practice is between 16 and 17 years. After the event, they can get married.  The breasts is one of the criteria for the judging of this event.

Every morning during the fattening period, the maidens go to the village stream to bathe early in the morning. Maidens who pass through the ceremony successfully are congratulated and there is celebration among the family members.