Women Who Become Men: Albanian Sworn Virgins (Dress, Body, Culture)
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Most people conceive of gender as a culturally informed response to a biological imperative. But such rigid notions are overturned by certain women in remote regions of Albania who elect to 'become' men simply for the advantages that accrue to them as a result. They crop their hair, wear men's clothes, roll their own cigarettes, drink brandy and carry guns. In short, their lives are much freer and less regimented than other members of their sex - but at a cost. These women must foreswear sexual relationships, marriage and children. They have been dubbed 'Sworn Virgins'.
What is interesting is that in this region of the Balkans, simply to dress as a man and to behave as a man will earn these women the same respect accorded a man. This is no mean advantage in an area known for sexual inequality and where so many men have suffered violent, premature deaths, thereby heightening the need for more household heads. Traditionally as heads of household, men are revered and the women who attend them utterly subservient. But unlike 'normal' women, Sworn Virgins can inherit and manage property, and, in fact, may even be raised to assume the male role by parents who have no male heirs.
Based on extensive interviews, this book tells the frank and engrossing stories of these women, but also sets their lives within the wider context of a country undergoing radical upheaval and social transformation.
Such phrases are used as ‘The Albanians sell their women’, ‘The Albanians may shoot their women if they please’, and ‘Among the Albanians a woman is worth less than a donkey’.39 These stereotypes may be based on real situations, including the 21 Women Who Become Men use of bride-price, but need to be contextualized. However, within the Kanun an act of domestic violence, where deemed ‘appropriate’, is seen as a form of social justice. Betrothal: Arranged Marriage David Gilmore comments that
describing her journeys all over Yugoslavia during the years 1937 and 1938. Although West’s view is considerably influenced by her Serb travel companions, she provides a wealth of insight into the Yugoslavia of the time. Literary critic Larry Woolf stresses the importance of this work as a prophecy of times ahead: xvii Preface Almost fifty years after its initial publication Black Lamb and Grey Falcon astonishes us by the weight and depth of what Rebecca West knew about Yugoslavia, but above
considered herself a man. As household head, she selected a wife, Hasije, for her brother and, suitably attired, took the role of groom’s father at his wedding. Hasije who has borne four sons and refers to Selman as her brother-in-law, is now responsible for all the housework for the six men. Sokol We met the petite Sokol by chance, in passing. She was riding a pony alongside a road outside Bajram Curri, accompanied by her nephew Gjovalin on foot. Sokol had changed her name from Zhirë when a
vol. 10, no. 1, p. 310. Elezi lists eight foreign Albaniologists who published work on bloodfeuds between 1899 and 1932. 2. Elsie, R. (1991), Review of Demaçi, A. (1990), Gjarpijt e Gjakut (The Snakes of Blood), Ljubljana, Yugoslavia: Lumi, World Literature Today, vol. 65, no. 1, p. 165. 3. Whitaker confirms this, using Ernesto Cozzi’s work ‘La Vendetta del sangue nelle montagne dell’ Alta Albania’ (The Bloodfeud in the Mountains of High Albania) Anthropos, no. 5, pp. 654–87, 1910: quoted in
leisured Western societies on a culture such as this. The phenomenon of ‘sworn virgins’ sparks little interest within Albania itself. Most Albanians are eager to see ‘progress’ towards Western lifestyles which they seek to emulate. When I first began my research, few outside northern Albania had ever heard of the ‘sworn virgin’ tradition; those who had heard of it believed it no longer existed, many vehemently denied the possibility. I found in Tirana, amongst those who considered themselves to