Sunday, February 18, 2007

Albania's Sworn Virgins

Though it is a bit long I think you'll find this article from Jolique fascinating! I have read before that they still exist and would be very interested in hearing from Albanians who know more about this cultural phenomenon.

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.

Bibliography:

-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.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is the most ridiculous thing i have heard in some time. Everyone knows of the kanun but it's mostly old "laws" of the land and if there are people who still follow that rubish they will be probably in the north and even there i can't image there being more then a dozen or so cases of this "women becoming men" tripe.

ITS said...

I wonder if Lule ever masturbates...

Jessica said...

Well, i found this to be a very interesting article. Certainly there are still cultures or individuals who follow ancient ways - think about female genital mutilation in africa. these things persist, even if on a small scale. thanks for putting this up :)
ps i changed my website and i have a new address, so update your sidebar!
www.insearchofdessert.com

angelika said...

Kim, what an interesting post. And what I feel about it is that the described system is not bad in itself. At least there is a choice for women. Thank you for sharing !

PS: I often ask myself why people who comment in an unfriendly way don't dare de-lurking themselves, can we ever communicate with "anonymous" ?

ann_ona_moose said...

hi kim,
thanks for stopping by my blog. Were you referring to the meet-up in Darmstadt? I hadn't heard anything back from Jen, but I know she's been having major computer troubles and has asked that we resend our emails.
-ann

Jul said...

Wow, very interesting article!

MsDemmie said...

That is fascinating - thank you for sharing.

oreneta said...

Kim, thank you for that article, do you have any feel for how many families still live in this way in Albania? There is research and information about women who have lived as men in any number of western situations, although this was not institutionally approved. There are several other cultures that have had these sorts of options, some with men becoming women as well.

Anonymous said...

First, some of the other comments make me feel that I must apologize for some of the them. As an open minded Albanian, I must say that I lived Albania for 19 years and I witness only one women to chose that path. Although not as common as some would like to believe it was a presented as a choice to get out of marriage not any different from the preaching of the Catholic Church about divorce. Did you know that the family of the bride gave the bride a bullet to carry with her in case her husband mistreats her(So she can shoot him)?Kanun means Law Giving in Turkish and its pretty much detiorating from Albanian life. A good book to read about this is Broken April(Prilli Thyer) by Ismail Kadare.I have an English copy if you want to borrow. Always great to read your blog.(A.B)

traveller one said...

Dear Anonymous... thank you for your intelligent comment. I would really love to borrow your book! How can we arrange that? I've only read Spring Flowers, Spring Frost and I'm very interested in reading more of Kadare.
I understand that these sworn virgins are uncommon, but they are a truly fascinating part of the cultural anthropology. There is one book about them at the bookshop but it is quite expensive for a very small book. I am tempted every time I see it but so far I have resisted!

Anonymous said...

Hi Traveller one This book does not exactly concentrates on the virgins but it takes the life of two families in a blood fued and explains about kanun and different roles of men and women. It is observations of a couple from Tirana that visits North Alabania that the author expresses himself. My email is mirdita77@hotmail.com email me your adress and I will mail you the book. Kanun is part of our culture, it is mostly outdated but nothing to be embarrassed about.(A.B)

christina said...

Fascinating topic, Kim! The things we learn about through your blog.

Ann said...

Kim, thank you for the kind comments on my blog. I read your post with great interest, and have forwarded it to an English friend who is undertaking a research paper on pantomime - she is interested in issues of sexual identity, transvestism, and gender roles. It's not directly up her alley, but I've sent her your address, so she can see for herself.

varske said...

I stood and read most of what must have been Antonia Young's book in the Dukagjini bookshop in Pristina. It had some wonderful photos of the ladies (or at least one) looking rather butch and weatherbeaten, (as well you might doing a man's job in the countryside in Albania). But they definitely looked happy.

varske said...

I've been meaning to write a review of Broken April for a bit. It's a strange book and made a big impression on me, not least because of the broken marriage. I managed to find a copy of the Kanun in Pristina and wanted to compare it with the book. Unfortunately I don't have either with me at the moment, so can't do the review.

CanadianSwiss said...

Huh???... Where did my comment go? Oh well. Blogger probably gobbled it up again. Anyhow, fascinating subject.

Also loved you two earlier posts.

Yakima_Gulag said...

Blogger gobbled a comment I made on this post too! I hate that!
On the Kanun, the Kanun brought orderand was actually not bad as laws go, like many good things gets misused nowadays when it's used at all.
The Kanun Lek is available in full in English online, just google it.
There was a novel by Alice Munroe called 'The Albanian Virgin' that has the sworn virgin as a theme, it's also available online and not bad reading.

Runaway Rubber Duckie said...

I found the whole thing very interesting. An interesting topic for my first visit here!!
Stacey

Anonymous said...

The Kanun was written by Leke Dukagjini of Kosovo, Scanderbeg's right arm. He was a monk or a priest, I don't remember well from history class. At the time it was a very modern piece of laws. Even the Us constitution adopted some points. One of them is the famous one about being free to shoot at intruders in your property in self-defense.
One other point that I like is the one about "cheating". Both trasgressors are suposed to be shot in their back! I don't like divorce(exept for extreme cases, for eg when the husband is violent). It destroys the society. In belgium, 2 in 3 marriages result in divorce.

Anonymous said...

The middle ages, and till the 20th century societies became very dogmatic.

"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."
In this paragraph present tense is used, which is a bit misleading, because people who don't know Albania might think that it is still done this way in Albania.
Of course not.
I was reading "The Illyrians: to the Albanians" by Neritan Ceka MP. Unlike the ancient Greeks of the time, Illyrians left their property and wealth to their daughters too.

Anonymous said...

It's so ironic. Lule means "flower". Such a feminine name!

Owen said...

Yes, Kim's isn't the only blog where comments suddenly vanish. Has Blogger come up with an explanation?