Many first-year university students in Portugal are being put through the mill by their peers, taking part in initiation activities that are supposed to be fun – as well as embarrassing. But how far will they go to earn their stripes?
In a shady corner of Porto a rather gothic scene is unfolding. Several shadowy figures wearing black capes, shiny shoes and ties are assembled in a leafy plaza. There is a moment of silence before they, under the direction of some kind of elder, start singing a traditional Portuguese dirge. They aren’t bad. In fact, the noise of their voices fills the square and it causes passers-by to stop and listen, enraptured. While the clothes of these individuals might suggest some kind of religious cult (or escapees from a nearby Harry Potter convention) they are in fact, Portugal’s finest young minds – students from the nearby University of Porto. The public singing is part of a group activity organised by one of the fraternities.
The strange get-up they are wearing is known as traje and it signifies a person’s ascent into the stratums of higher education. Thought to be introduced in Portugal’s first university town Coimbra in the 15th century, it is a means of equalising students from different walks of life and symbolises the respect that one ought to have for one’s academic peers. It also shows that you’re clever enough to get into university.
But there is a catch. To earn the right to saunter through town wearing traje you must first pass a set of often-humiliating initiations under the direction of older students. Across any of Portugal’s university cities – particularly in October during the start of the academic year – troupes of timorous new entrants can be found taking part in hazing rituals. The harmonious singing we are currently witnessing is a far cry from the initiation ceremonies that students voluntarily undergo. A 2017 government survey described praxe as ranging from practical jokes and drinking games to head shavings and verbal harassment. The same report showed that while 73 per cent of Portuguese students had participated in praxe, 59 per cent admitted that the rituals had “psychological consequences”.
In some extreme instances the damage has been physical. In 2001, Diogo Macedo, a 22-year-old architecture student from the Universidade Lusíada of Vila Nova de Famalicão, died from spinal trauma after a praxe-inspired hazing ritual. It is suspected that he was forced to do push-ups while being beaten by older students. And in 2013, six students in their twenties – four women and two men – drowned at Meco Beach near Lisbon, allegedly while taking part in praxe.
While the rise of praxe and the wearing of traje might be lazily attributed to students’ desire to be accepted by their peers, there is a more substantive reason that these activities are returning to the fore. Since the fall of Portugal’s dictatorship in 1974, a slew of new universities opened up and higher education became more accessible. This continued into the 1990s and participation is now high – government statistics show that 373,000 students were enrolled in higher education in 2016/17 and that 34 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds now have a tertiary qualification. The wearing of traje appears to be a way for old universities to affirm their status as the old academic guard. It also adds an air of legitimacy to the newer institutions.
Back in the square, the singing has stopped. The leader gestures for his underlings to continue up the street and they dutifully fall into line. It seems a little hot to be wearing all those layers but they look glad to be wearing them all the same.
HAZING embraces behaviour from the innocuous (sending junior staff out to buy some tartan paint) to the grotesque. At its most benign it’s affectionate teasing that often signals acceptance in an environment that values unit cohesion, such as a sport team or military unit. At worst it’s bullying: in US colleges, injuries and deaths are a frequent enough scandal that 44 states have passed anti-hazing laws. But even the most harmless rites are always a little bit weird.
- Skull & Bones
This Yale University club is the best known of the many secret societies that operate on US college campuses. It’s also a favourite bête noir of conspiracy theorists, who perceive significance in the number of powerful political personages among its known or suspected alumni – including US presidents William Taft, George HW Bush and George W Bush. Prospective Bonesmen/Boneswomen are rumoured or reported to be put through a variety of weird humiliations, including lying naked in coffins, being hurled (also naked) into piles of mud and drinking what may or may not be real blood from what may or may not be a real human skull.
- The Bullingdon Club
All-male dining and drinking society for ultra-posh undergraduates at Oxford University. It’s best known for a photograph of one mid-1980s Bullingdon vintage featuring both future British prime minister David Cameron and future foreign secretary Boris Johnson, dressed like a US film director’s idea of young English toffs. In 2017 the Oxford University newspaper Cherwell published what it claimed was an invitation letter from the club: it involved reporting to a pub and dressing entirely in yellow, carrying a toy squirrel, a diamond and a “smutty or left-wing publication”. The applicant was then required to drink two double whiskies, two boilermakers (a beer-and-whiskey mix) and a pint of champagne.
- The Taiwanese Marines
For the elite Amphibious and Patrol Unit of Taiwan’s Marine Corps, the officially sanctioned rite with which recruits conclude their training is rough. The “Road To Heaven” is 50 metres of jagged coral over which they have to crawl clad only in a pair of shorts. Instructors motivate the soldiers by splashing salty water over their cuts and scrapes; family and friends are encouraged to attend.
- The National Basketball Association
Sport teams are, predictably, hives of hazing. Much of it is witless prankery but one ritual is carried off with a measure of style. The NBA rookie dance-off sees new players obliged to throw shapes on the court at the start of the season, generally while being genially goaded by senior players. It’s an unusually generous hazing rite in that it allows the victim a chance to avoid embarrassment – and even accrue acclaim – if they’re able to make some decent moves. Handicapping by costume can be part of it: at the start of the most recent season, Phoenix Suns fans saw number-one draft pick Deandre Ayton cavorting to Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” while dressed as a chicken.
- The Freemasons
Hazing is officially frowned upon by the Freemasons (although instances within the group have been reported). Nevertheless, every one of today’s six million members has undertaken an initiation ceremony. The details are supposed to be secret but, once six million people have done something, keeping a lid on it would be impossible – even for an organisation possessed of the diabolical powers credited to the Freemasons by excitable paranoiacs. However, an initiation has never been filmed. One grand secretary of the United Grand Lodge of England acknowledged that “out of context, it would seem silly”.