Crossing Boundaries: Albania's Sworn Virgins
Dress and Gender
In some parts of Albania, particularly in the north, families follow a code of ethics called the Kanun. The Kanun is not a religious document (Kanun followers may be Christian, Muslim, etc.), but is sacred nonetheless. According to the Kanun, families must be patrilineal (meaning wealth is inherited through a family's men) and patrilocal (upon marriage, a woman moves into the household of her husband's family). Marriages are arranged—often at birth, if not before, or in early childhood. Once a woman is deemed eligible to marry, she moves out of her parents' home and into that of her husband. There she becomes part of (the property of) her husband's family.
For Albania's Kanun followers, dress is an important gender marker. Like many societies throughout the world, here there are two genders—masculine and feminine, which are signified by dress. Men wear trousers, wristwatches and close-fitting caps; women wear skirts, aprons, headscarves, and in some more traditional households, veils. Thus, if a woman dresses like a man, she is a man. Her dress changes her gender. And in Albania, "women who become men" are called virgjinesha, or 'sworn virgins."
Why Women Become Men
A sworn virgin is called such because she swears—takes a vow under the law of the Kanun—to become a man. From the day she takes this vow (which is sometimes at a very early age), she becomes a man: she dresses like one, acts like one, walks like one, works like one, talks like one, and her family and community treat her as one. She is referred to as he. He will never marry and will remain celibate all of his life. According to the Kanun, a woman is ethically permitted to become a man under certain conditions. If a woman chooses not to marry her pre-arranged husband, she may not marry anyone else. In order to remain unmarried, however, she must become a sworn virgin and dress and act as a man. The other condition under which a woman may become a sworn virgin is if her parents deem it so due to a lack of sons. In Albania, because only men may be heads of household, and because only men may inherit family wealth, if there are no sons, the wealth of the family (its home and land) risks being usurped by the family of a daughter's husband, or some other non-blood relative. Thus, to prevent this from happening, a family will sometimes designate a daughter to become a sworn virgin.
The Responsibilities of a Sworn Virgin
Once the sworn virgin is of age to become the head of the household, he will assume the important responsibilities of that position, which include:
1.monitoring and supervising the wealth and labor of the family
2.defending the family in bloodfeuds (conflicts between rivaling families over questions of honor) 3.receiving guests (hospitality is extremely important to Kanun followers)
As a man, the sworn virgin becomes the family's representative in the community. Although some descriptions of sworn virgins refer to them as women who have had to sacrifice their gender, on the contrary, it is not a sacrifice at all, but rather an avenue of opportunity. It's an important position, and one treated with tremendous respect. As such, through dress and demeanor a woman achieves social mobility—mobility that would otherwise be completely denied her. In Albania, a woman living as a man is a socially acceptable, if not socially expedient, way of life.
One Woman's Decision
Although the choice to become a sworn virgin is often made by other family members for the reasons described above, sometimes a woman will become a sworn virgin because she feels more comfortable as a man. Antonia Young describes her encounter with a sworn virgin, named Lule:
Lule was the tenth child in a family of eleven. After seven daughters, her mother gave birth to twin boys, one of whom died shortly after. From all account Pjetar, the surviving twin, was thoroughly spoiled by the whole family, even smothered by his parents and seven older sisters. [. . .] Lule remembers only ever having behaved as a boy and spent her time as an equal with the boys in primary school. Her older sister Drane says 'we tried to dress Lule in skirts but she always refused. And we made such a fuss of Pjetar when he was little: he became incapable of doing anything for himself.'
At the age of nineteen, Lule decided to become a sworn virgin, even though she still had a brother who legally could inherit the family's wealth. Today, Lule runs a household of ten, including all of her brother's children. In an area where all women wear skirts and headscarves, Lule wears trousers and a wristwatch (typically male vestments). Her hair is short (women keep theirs long, under scarves). She runs a welding business and tends the family's land by performing all the cutting and planting necessary to feed their animals. (Women's work, by contrast, is within the home: cooking, cleaning, serving guests (but not sitting with them), sewing, washing, etc.) Lule's family refers to her as "he."
Opportunity is not without its responsibility, however, and one of the responsibilities of a man is to defend the family in the case of a bloodfeud. Women do not fight in bloodfeuds, nor are they potential targets. Thus, where no men exist in a given household, this duty falls to the sworn virgin. Were Lule's family to be engaged in a bloodfeud with another family, she would become a target for attack.
But for Lule, this is no doubt a small price to pay. Many of the basic rights women take for granted in other societies (the right to choose a husband and to speak freely, for example) are not available to Kanun women. So for Lule and for many other women and men uncomfortable in the roles of their biological sex, crossing gender boundaries offers something that many people don't realize: freedom.
-Denny, Dallas. "Transgender in the United States: A brief discussion." SIECUS Report, 8, no.1 (1999): 8-13.
-Vesilind, Priit J. "Albanians: A People Undone." National Geographic, February 2000, 52-71.
-Young, Antonia. Women Who Become Men: Albanian Sworn Virgins. New York: Berg, 2000.