Albanian Sworn Virgins

There’s an interesting article about in the Times about the decline of Albanian sworn virgins. Sworn virgins are people who were born as women but take an oath of virginity and live as men. The article theorizes that they’re declining because of increased gender equality; it’s no longer shameful to have a woman-headed household, and the lines between “man” and “woman” are not as rigid as they used to be — meaning that women can do things that were traditionally in the male sphere while still living as women. It’s an interesting look at the fluidity of gender butting up against the rigidness of gender roles — while it’s possible for people born as women to “cross over” and live as men (and be totally socially accepted and understood as men), the only way they can do that is to fully embrace traditional gender roles. Further, only women can cross over — there aren’t men who can acceptably choose to live as women.

It’s an interesting piece. Thoughts?

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15 comments for “Albanian Sworn Virgins

  1. June 25, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    Well, cha, who would WANT to live as a woman? Especially if you have a penis to swing around to get your way. [/sarcasm]

    It’s an interesting piece… and I’m not sure how I feel about it… on the one hand, it’s good that women are being allowed to live as women and have a lot of the societal advantages that were traditionally men-only… but on the other hand if you identify as a gender that you are not genetically, why do you have to swear an oath of virginity? It doesn’t make any sense to me.

  2. June 25, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    Did it bug anyone else that the Times referred to Qamile as “Ms. Stema”? So we use “Mr.” for western FTM transgendered people, but because it’s a quaint Albanian custom it’s okay to ignore how Mr. Sema identifies and is treated by everyone around him?

    Oh, and I presume the oath of virginity is to avoid problems with Islam. All three of the Abrahamic religions are pretty strict about homosexuality, and since this is an Albanian, as opposed to Muslim, custom, introducing sex into the matter could make things very confusing for the local cleric.

  3. June 25, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    It seems likely that a rise in living standards is also a factor. I’ve read about sworn virgins before, and my understanding is that it usually happens when a family is short of male providers; movement towards longer, healthier and less violent lives surely relieves that problem, as much as allowing women to be providers does.

    (Why were all the people talked about in the article referred to as ‘she’? Was this their preference, or an editorial decision? I was put off by the use of “uncle” in inverted commas, personally…)

  4. June 25, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    [I opened this window a while ago and crossposted with Jeffrey. Oops.]

  5. Tom
    June 25, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    Not that they shouldn’t have referred to him as “Mr.,” but is transgendered the correct terminolgy here? The article states that this is done primarily in cases where there are not enough males to run the family; it doesn’t seem to have as much to do with personal identification.

    This strikes me as weird on so many levels. It makes me look at gender roles as nothing more than pure superstition.

  6. Mnemosyne
    June 25, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    It’s odd to me that it’s only an option for women, not for men. Most other places that I’ve heard of that do this (like parts of Mexico) have provisions for either gender to change themselves socially.

  7. June 25, 2008 at 6:32 pm

    I didn’t read the whole article. But what do folks think of the trans undercurrent to this piece?

  8. Frumious B
    June 25, 2008 at 7:22 pm

    It’s not gender fluidity when they must give up everything about their birth gender and must adopt everything about their adopted gender.

    Men don’t have the option to live as women in Albania, but there are other cultures where they do. As with the Albanian sworn virgins, the birth-men must give up their male gender role and must adopt the female gender role. It’s still two genders.

    I’m not so sure that Mr. and he are appropriate to that role and that culture. Those who are might consider whether they are projecting their own thoughts on gender into a situation where they don’t apply.

  9. June 25, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    Of course it’s not gender fluidity, but it seems that the strict binary division that sworn virginity buys into (and the fact that Mr. Keqi and Mr. Stema do identify with the male gender) dictates that they should be referred to in the masculine gender, especially when talking about them in a social or psychological sense as opposed to a medical sense.

  10. Dee
    June 26, 2008 at 12:20 am

    I’m from that part of the world, and have known and read about the “sworn men” for twenty years or so. Met a few, too. The issue of sworn men has little to do with sexual identification. All the Albanians (including the sworn men themselves) understand that these people are, biologically and sexually (at least in as much as can be determined in a general sense) “women,” not people who “identify” as men in a psychological or sexual way. In short, any attempt to perceive them as essentially transgendered or possibly homosexual in the American sense is just wrong.

    As I’ve answered elsewhere, the sworn men themselves keep their “female” names and refer to themselves and other sworn men as “she” or “her.”

    So Jeffrey’s statement . . .

    So we use “Mr.” for western FTM transgendered people, but because it’s a quaint Albanian custom it’s okay to ignore how Mr. Sema identifies and is treated by everyone around him?

    . . . while a generous sentiment, ignores the fact that the sworn men see themselves as men only in terms of general social contact, rights and responsibilities and so on – THEY would never use the equivalents of “mister” or “he” or “him” for themselves.

    To answer some other questions:

    but on the other hand if you identify as a gender that you are not genetically, why do you have to swear an oath of virginity?

    Well, they don’t really “identify” as that gender for themselves. They’re still women. But more to the point, sexual contact with a man – and motherhood – would be considered too irretrievably in the realm of “femaleness” to allow this honorary men thing. So virginity is a necessity in that sense. It may seem odd, but the sense of honor in this subset of Albanian culture that no one would really try to have it both ways.

    Oh, and I presume the oath of virginity is to avoid problems with Islam.

    In some cultures, yes. But in this culture, your presumption is way too far-reaching. For one, Islam does not address the issue of “sworn men.” (I am a Bosnian Muslim.) And the societal impulse against homosexuality in Albanian (and indeed, most Balkan) society / societies isn’t really the result of Islam, but in pre-Islamic (and in other places, pre-Christian) moral and cultural values. But again, you’re trying to conflate this sworn men thing with some aspect of homosexuality, and it’s simply not there.
    Homosexuality is not a comfortable topic in most of the Balkans. But in the more conservative areas (Albania, for the most part, or villages everywhere), it is dealt with in the way Queen Victoria dealt with lesbianism – to deny it even exists. Therefore, societal prohibitions against it do not exist, much in the same way that Albanian village have no prohibitions against Martians. So it’s no addressed overtly OR implicitly. Also, notice that there’s some drinking (also prohibited in Islam) in the story, just like is popular in my former country. The Islam in these places is pretty symbolic. There are a few religious Muslims, but trust me, in northern Albania, pre-Muslim customs and the Kanun are far bigger arbiters of behavior.

    It’s odd to me that it’s only an option for women, not for men.

    Why? Men can and could get along fine without women. Men may have and had more “rights” in this traditional society, but there were heavy burdens for men. Many women felt compelled to become sworn men to uphold the Kanun, or because there was a need to do “men” things to survive. (Like simply being able to hold title to property.) There was and is not a corollary situation for women, so no need for the opposite thing. In other words, no one would *want* to be a woman, unless they identified that way internally, which no one would ever admit publicly.

    Incidentally, I do not know the term in Albania, but in Bosnia, they were referred to (and I do here) as “sworn men.” The article obviously flirted with gender roles in a way that made the whole thing a little more quasi-sexual than it is in reality.

  11. Elliot
    June 26, 2008 at 8:51 pm

    Dee, thanks so much for your helpful clarifications. I had a lot of the concerns that other people mentioned about the female pronouns and titles, so it was really helpful to have your greater experience about how these sworn men would refer to themselves.

    This makes me think about how difficult it is to talk about things as complex as gender identity and gender roles across cultures, without accidentally imposing our cultural definitions onto other people. It’s a tricky, very fine line.

  12. Albanian
    June 26, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    Ok, guys. Virginity has NOTHING to do with Islam or the Catholic church, it’s old Albanian (and other conservative societies) tradition. “Good” girls, from “good” families are virgins even today, even at 30 if they have not yet been married. As you go into the cities it’s different now but in villages, you shame your family and no one will marry if they see you going out with a man for a walk etc etc etc.

    It is not just you, your extended family is shamed and your other sisters and cousins will have problems finding husbands. On the other hand, if you aren’t a “good” family (liars, unreliable, criminals etc etc), no one will give you a wife for your sons either. People do not just move to another area; what you’ve done stays with you, so there is extreme pressure to do what people think it’s right.

    When you think of Albania, forget about Islam, most people are non-religious, they local customs determine their behaviour in very aspect. The 70% Muslim was a pre-WWII statistic and homosexuality “doesn’t exist” in Albania. It’s taboo, especially in the rural areas. if you make that claim the men will be ready to “prove their manhood” by trying ti kill you–just as in most conservative places. Also, women are told ZERO about sex, her husband will tell her what she needs.

    The sworn virgins didn’t do this for fun or to challenge the system, they did it out of necessity. Only a man can do certain things, and without a man a house is doomed. In a sense she is sacrificing her life (kinda ironic reading her statements now but..) for the good of her family. If her father had told her to become a nun, she would have done it.

    If your wife dies, you can always get another one, she might not be a 18-year old virgin, but she is still a woman, so there is no need for men to act as women. Once again, it is necessity that drives this, not experimentation. All women had to be strong and even go and fight, as their men frequently died and the area was always dangerous. So you are feminine in day to day actions and do what your husband tells you, but when needed you step up.

    One more ways she can become a sworn virgin: back in the days, if she didn’t like her husband her family had picked she could say no without shaming her family, provided she stayed a virgin for life. This is 15th century code that regulated many areas, and was probably used for centuries before that, just so you keep things in perspective. Also, not everyone uses it, or not as strictly.

  13. Albanian
    June 26, 2008 at 9:35 pm

    but on the other hand if you identify as a gender that you are not genetically, why do you have to swear an oath of virginity? It doesn’t make any sense to me.

    Kinda weird, but if you are someone’s wife, you cannot be a man, so you pick one. No one has any illusions, they knew ‘he’ is a ‘she’ but someone, a while back said this is OK and people follow it.

  14. LogicGuru
    June 30, 2008 at 12:10 am

    I’d do it if I could. The virginity oath would be a significant price, but for me it would be worth it to get to play the male gender role and be accepted.

    My problem is gender not sex–I’m a heterosexual woman, happily married, three kids, loved being pregnant, and don’t feel that my body isn’t me somehow. I can understand that that’s an issue for others–I’m not suggesting that transsexual surgery is illegitimate. It’s just that for me it’s strictly the social role and the job options–not the biology: being expected to take more care of my appearance than I can stand doing and to be more sympathetic, more of a people-person than I am, to be a different kind of person from the person I am.

    Most of all, it’s the job options. Unless you really achieve academically, most of the jobs that are de facto open to women have characteristics that drive me mad–confined space, repetition, contact with people or all of the above. Things have improved and gender roles are less restrictive so being female is ok–particularly since I got that fancy degree and a good job. But I’d still much rather be a man–not because it’s better, but because given my interests and tastes I’d just rather play that social role.

  15. October 9, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    I m albanian and I know well this problem, this is reality and also our culture.

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