Men of the House: Sworn virgins in Albania

There’s a really interesting story in the New York Times about sworn virgins in Albania, a custom that’s said to have declined because of an increase in gender equality:

The sworn virgin was born of social necessity in an agrarian region plagued by war and death. If the family patriarch died with no male heirs, unmarried women in the family could find themselves alone and powerless. By taking an oath of virginity, women could take on the role of men as head of the family, carry a weapon, own property and move freely.
They dressed like men and spent their lives in the company of other men, even though most kept their female given names. They were not ridiculed, but accepted in public life, even adulated. For some the choice was a way for a woman to assert her autonomy or to avoid an arranged marriage.
“Stripping off their sexuality by pledging to remain virgins was a way for these women in a male-dominated, segregated society to engage in public life,” said Linda Gusia, a professor of gender studies at the University of Pristina, in Kosovo. “It was about surviving in a world where men rule.”

Jill takes the words out of my mouth:

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.


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  • Nora

    I think that this article is very interesting, particularly given Albania’s recent history as a nation with a strong influence from the communist party. The “sworn virgins” remind me a little bit of the women who figure prominently in the early novels of the Soviet Union. In many ways, they are total superwomen who can do absolutely everything that men can do, including running factories, fighting in the military, and performing hard physical labor. To do this, however, they strip themselves of typical bastions of femininity. Early Soviet radicals thought that women and men should cut their hair short, wear utilitarian uniforms, engage in unmarried free sex, and have any resulting children raised in central orphanages. It’s very interesting that these nations thought that they could make women equal by removing sex, marriage, and motherhood from the equation, especially given the fact that sex, marriage, and motherhood continue to be some of the major issues of debate as they relate to women’s rights today. It’s very thought-provoking.

  • FrumiousB

    I said it at Feministe and I’ll say it again here: them gender roles ain’t fluid.

  • cruithne

    Interesting…it reminds me of a system mentioned in several of the “People of the ___” books (native american historical fiction), where women could become warriors, but if they did so, they could not have husbands. They could only have wives. In other words, another woman. OR they could find one of those men who had decided they were really “women in their hearts” (writers liked to call them berdache’s), then they could have a male wife. A way of formalizing a gender-role swap.
    No idea if it was a fictional fabrication or based off of things they have found in archeological digs, but I rather liked the idea. In some cultures/climates/conditions it really does help to have a partnership between the domestic “wife and the protector/provider “husband”…the skillsets are complementary. But these terms need not be bound to gender, only to role.
    Thing is nowadays…most cultures existing today don’t need those roles to be so rigid. Yay for technology! ^_^

  • cubanfeminista

    I think it’s great that they’re allowing women to take control of their houses in this way, but why do they have to do it under the umbrella of masculinity? It’s still, in essence, saying that feminine women are incapable of taking care of themselves or their houses, and the only way they can do this is if they take on masculine gender roles, act masculine and vow never to have sex. It a step above having a man take care of you because you’re too weak to do it for yourself, but is it really?

  • Cecilieaux

    This is, of course, more or less what orders of nuns were all about in the Middle Ages. But I would question whether in the Albanian instance they “fully embrace traditional gender roles,” unless abstinence (not virginity) is deemed a “traditional” part of the male role.
    To my mind, they’re accepting a kind of psychological castration. They’re just like men so long as they pretend they are sexless.

  • leoluv822

    I was wondering if anyone else caught this article. Pretty interesting stuff, huh? I especially was taken by the fact that a woman has to give up her sexuality and vow to be a virgin in order for her to be an accepted man.

  • Freya

    Oh I have written about this too. I don’t really see the point of being a virgin and swapping your gender. You should see the photograhs of those ladies turned men. They actually look like men.

  • lotus

    This feels a LOT like my (techy) work environment! In order to gain professional validity, just about every woman I knew had to strip themselves of their more gender-specific clothing and dress like the guys.

  • Janelle

    Is it a baby thing? Is that why they promise to stay virgins? A man will never show up to the job knocked up. You can’t really consider a women a man if she shows up late to work because of morning sickness. She obviously can’t run a house hold with a baby strapped to her back, even though my mom did it with three kids and no social support.
    I feel very conflicted about this one. Strip a women of her femininity and give her a chastity belt, and no one wants to sleep with her, then she can have the rights of a man. I love that women are being given a chance to take on “male roles”, but the virgin thing is killing me.

  • LogicGuru

    Being a sworn virgin seems like a pretty good deal to me. The price is high–no sex, no kids. But not as high as the price American women have to pay to play the male role across the board–transsexual surgery.
    I’d do it if the option were available. I’m sick of rhetoric about authenticity and “being oneself.” There are some of us whose assigned gender role just doesn’t suit–not because our bodies don’t suit us or because heterosexuality doesn’t suit us, but simply because the female gender role even liberally and broadly construed just doesn’t suit us.
    As long as there are gender roles there will be some people who don’t fit–and in Albania a woman doesn’t have to get her body chopped up and take hormones for the rest of her life or hide the fact of being biologically female (most sworn virgins keep their given female names) to get to do guy stuff and be fully accepted as a guy. We should be that enlightened.

  • irishgirl1983

    This is not about fluid gender roles. Also the people profiled are men, and not women.
    These people were born women, but made a choice to become men. If you look beyond the baffling use of female pronouns by the writer from the times, you’ll see these people Identify themselves as men, and their communities identify them as men. The only time anyone is allowed to address them in the article they are called Uncle, which the insensitive writer puts in quotes.
    It’s clear some of these folks are ambivalent about the whole thing, but they do see themselves as men so that should be respected. Unless everyone agrees with the writers pre-supposition that “vagina = woman all other factors be damned”.

  • Cass

    …Sure, gender roles can be confining, but I’m sure a good deal of these sworn virgins actually do WANT to live as men, and some may even identify as men, gender roles or not.

  • xtinA

    Reminds me of the Buddhist nuns I met in Nepal. For them giving up sex was a better choice than early (often arranged) marriage with no birth control and few doctors in a country where women have little power. As nuns they were much less restricted and had their own communities.