Albanian Sworn Virgins: The Women Who Became Men

Albanian Sworn Virgins: The Women Who Became Men
PEC, KOSOVO, ALBANIA: Rabe Lajqi, aged 77, has lived her life as a man from the age of 12 when she started to work as a shepheard. Eventually she became a logger, which has been the traditional work of the men of Rrugova for centuries. She says, "I wanted to be, and indeed was, completely like a man, always! There was no love in my life but I never regretted it. I had a gun and the men where afraid of me. Once, I was working alone cutting trees in the forest and a guy came up to me, demanding that I stop. He said that I was a woman and shouldn't be in the woods by myself, never mind doing a man's work. I just pointed my rifle at him and told him, should he ever come within 100 yards of me again, he would be a dead man. Ha, how he ran! Nobody ever bothered me again." In the patriarchal rural Albanian society the age-old tradition of the Virgjineshe ('sworn virgins') gives women the choice of taking on a male identity in order to enjoy male privileges. Becoming a 'sworn virgin' means to vow lifelong celibacy and to turn into a surrogate son to her father. The reasons for taking the vow are a lack of sufficient men in a family to carry out the men's work, or the lack of a headstrong man to become the head of the family. A woman might also escape an unwanted arranged marriage, without damaging family honour or she might want to be independent to travel and work as she pleases. Often the decision is made by the family head e.g. her father, grandfather or uncle. The girl or woman then acquires a male name, male clothes and a male haircut. With the new status she obtains all the male privileges, such as inheriting property, making decisions within the family and the community, being able to carry weapons, taking part in blood feuds and socializing freely with men. They are completely accepted and addressed as men by other members of their community and often behave more manly than the men. (Photo by Ben Speck/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***
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How far would you go to have the right to drive, smoke or earn money? To wear trousers or own a property, in a society that doesn’t allow you to?

In the fiercely patriarchal Northern Albania, where women had no standing for centuries, some have made an irrevocable vow: to remain chaste for life. By ignoring their female identity the “sworn virgins” have also renounced married life and parenthood. For their sacrifice they get the right to live as men. They’ve changed their names, cut their hair, and they dress and behave like the male population. In return they are granted the same rights, respect, and status in society as men.

For the sworn virgins the decision to lead the life of a man is not a statement of sexuality. It’s the result of the ultraconservative definition of gender roles by a medieval code of law known as “Kanun”.

The Kanun code of conduct has strictly governed social behavior in northern Albania for centuries, providing a moral and legal framework for everyday life. Although it’s not legal today, it is still respected and practiced in the rural parts of northern Albania.

sworn virgin albania edith durham
Sworn Virgin in Rapsha, Albania. Photo: Edith Durham before 1909

Under the Kanun the role of a woman is severely circumscribed: she can’t choose her own husband and can’t inherit anything from their parents or husband. Her role is to take care of children and maintain the home. A woman’s life is valued as half that of a man.

A virgin’s however is worth the same, and the Kanun allows a woman to become a man if she takes the lifelong oath of virginity.

The tradition of the sworn virgin was initially born of a social necessity. Blood feuds, notorious in Northern Albania, could decimate all the men in a family, leaving the family without a male heir. A sworn virgin would then become the patriarch, taking on all the duties and responsibilities of a man.

For some women the choice was also a way to escape an arranged marriage or to avoid a life of subservience. In this 2014 short film directed by U.S. photographer Jill Peters, 42-year-old sworn virgin Lume explains she wanted freedom and independence.

Nowadays the Kanun’s influence on gender roles is disappearing, and with it the tradition of the sworn virgin.

Albania has made some progress when it comes to women’s rights: Albania’s new Constitution, which came into effect in 1998, guarantees equality before the law. It states that “all are equal before the law” as well as “No one may be unjustly discriminated against for reasons such as gender, race, religion, ethnicity, language, political, religious or philosophical beliefs, economic condition, education, social status, or ancestry.”

35% of Albanian ministers are women – which is seen as a steppingstone in the country’s efforts to empower women in the political sphere. And the gender gap in the public sector is almost insignificant.

But if it’s no longer considered necessary for women to become a sworn virgin to enjoy freedom, “gender equality” is still a relatively new notion in Albania.

In 2014 men employees have a gross average monthly wage 10% higher than women employees. In 2015, half of all crimes in Albania are due to domestic violence. And in remote areas, villages still haven’t transitioned into modernity.

For the last sworn virgins, however, gender equality or not, it doesn’t change anything. They have no regrets and wouldn’t go back at living like women.

“A woman could become the president of Albania and they would still remain living as men,” Jill Peters said.

Alia Chebbab

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One thought on “Albanian Sworn Virgins: The Women Who Became Men

  1. This is really painful to know!! Its really very sad, that still women have to give sacrifices, I mean still in many areas of this World women are struggling for freedom and independence…

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