Monday, June 30, 2008

Sworn Virgins

In rural Albania, the ancient custom of women becoming what are known as "sworn virgins" is slowly dying out due to the progression of feminism in that country and the expansion of women's rights. In the past,women in these areas were not seen as equal human beings. They were simple commodities to be used as bargaining chips and procreation vehicles. The only way a woman could inherit property, or preserve any sense of autonomy, was to become a man.

The process is not surgical -- in these mountains there is little knowledge that sex-change surgery is even possible. Rather, sworn virgins cut their hair and wear baggy men's clothes and take up manly livelihoods as shepherds or truck drivers or even political leaders. And those around them -- despite knowing the sworn virgins are women -- treat them as men.
Currently there are 30 to 40 known sworn virgins in northern Albania along with a handful in surrounding areas. They range in age from 88 to about 28 and they enjoy all of the same freedoms as the men of their villages including the ability to hold positions of authority.

One virgin that Dones interviews in the documentary, Shkurtan Hasanpapaj, once served as the local secretary of the Communist Party, the top office in her region. She was in charge of all the men, and though they knew the reality of her anatomy, her authority was unquestioned.

Asked if she would have felt restricted in a marriage, the virgin Ivanaj responds, "Absolutely! More like squashed than restricted. . . . Even when there's love and harmony, only men have the right to decide. I want total equity or nothing."

It is terrible that for so many years women in northern Albania had to choose between their freedom and who they were. However, it is also remarkable that in a culture ruled for hundreds of years by a set of laws that includes the mandate "a woman is a sack made to endure" there existed any method for women to be allowed the same freedoms as men. In addition, the idea that gender is that fluid is progressive by even modern standards. (Though it is important to note that no such oath existed for men.)

The contribution these "virgins" have made to the expansion of women's rights cannot be overlooked. Joshua Zumbrun of the Washington Post states, "The existence of sworn virgins reveals a cultural belief, however inchoate, that a biological woman can do all the work of a man." Beyond the effect of their mere presence in the male sphere, sworn virgins also were known to intervene as much as possible whenever they perceived that a woman was being mistreated. These sorts of interventions would not have been possible without their new status as men. Without this institution, women's rights in Albania may have been even slower in coming.

"I asked the young girls of the region what they think of the sworn virgins," Dones says. "They said they respect them, but they would never follow their path. Not now."

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