Sworn Virgins and Albanian Feminism

The Washington Post had a fascinating article over the weekend entitled The Sacrifices of Albania’s ‘Sworn Virgins’. It turns out that in the rural and mountainous regions of Albania, there developed a custom several hundred years ago by which women could assume all the rights of men, but in return had to sear to never marry, never have children, and dress and act like men for the rest of their lives.

Dones, who lives in Rockville, had just met an adherent of an ancient northern Albanian tradition in which women take an oath of lifelong virginity in exchange for the right to live as men. 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.

The idea that a woman would need to forsake love and live as a man to control her own fate seems primitive to modern eyes. But perhaps, in the context of a once-upon-a-time culture, a culture before feminism, it can be seen as progressive. The existence of sworn virgins reveals a cultural belief, however inchoate, that a biological woman can do all the work of a man.

What was most interesting were the various reasons women would take this vow. Sometimes it was because the family lost a patriarch, and a female member of the family had to take one for the team. In other instances, it was clear, that some women were too individualistic to live in a society that referred to women as “a sack made to endure.”

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.”

I look forward to seeing the documentary when it eventually comes out, as it seems to be a fascinating topic. Otherwise I don’t know quite what to think of it. Is it proto-feminism, or just a bizarre cultural anomaly developed in a patriarchal culture to allow for misfits and misfortune? It’s clearly a great stride that they could make men with such a provincial view of women’s role accept women as equals in work, labor, intellect etc. Now if they could just do it without making them sacrifice love, family and femininity etc.