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The Women Who Wore The Pants
June 25, 2008 7:23 PM   Subscribe

"Pashe Keqi recalled the day nearly 60 years ago when she decided to become a man." In today's New York Times: an account of the twilight of an ancient Albanian tradition that permitted young women to forever pledge to live as men -- swearing completely off sex and marriage in exchange for greater social, political, and economic freedom. A last few women who took this step are still alive, and still treated as men by their communities.
posted by EmpressCallipygos (49 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite

 
Being the man of the house also made her responsible for avenging her father’s death, she said. When her father’s killer, by then 80, was released from prison five years ago, Ms. Keqi said, her 15-year-old nephew shot him dead. Then the man’s family took revenge and killed her nephew. “I always dreamed of avenging my father’s death,” she said. “Of course, I have regrets; my nephew was killed. But if you kill me, I have to kill you.”

Ahh, earth.
posted by humannaire at 7:34 PM on June 25, 2008 [3 favorites]


Fascinating. Thank you for posting.
posted by prefpara at 7:36 PM on June 25, 2008


Didn't know about this, wow. Fascinating stuff indeed, thanks.
posted by stinkycheese at 7:38 PM on June 25, 2008


Previously, and some video.
posted by euphorb at 7:38 PM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Now, Albanian women have equal rights with men, and are even more powerful. I think today it would be fun to be a woman.

god, that is heartbreaking.
posted by moxiedoll at 7:39 PM on June 25, 2008


Assuming this article is accurate, it seems to be a powerful argument for those who believe that gender is a social construct. I would be extremely interested in a more detailed account of how these women/men are perceived. It sounds like they are treated as men and afforded male privileges, but are they also seen as "really" being women? Which bathroom do they use? Etc.
posted by prefpara at 7:45 PM on June 25, 2008


Hell of a thing. I'll be damned. Wow.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:54 PM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


I understood that some American Indian and/or Inuit tribes had women who assumed a male role in a similar way, but the reading material was so general that I couldn't cite it.

I have always wondered if, prior to the twentieth century, there was a large number of slightly built men who didn't talk much, never married, and never made close friendships, but just wanted to be left alone to do as they pleased. Men like One-eyed Charley Darkhurst, for example.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:58 PM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


prefpara, the article said that one of them was in the hospital in the women's ward and the other women were very uncomfortable because they consider her a man. So at least in that case the person was treated as a woman by anatomy.

Although they are sworn virgins, it's not like they lose that urge for sex. I'm wondering about what happens when one takes a lover. It has to have happened. How does this cultural construct deal with that? And is it a man or a woman? In the article they made it clear how manly they were. I have a feeling this is not something anyone would talk about, so the information is probably not very available.
posted by Belle O'Cosity at 8:05 PM on June 25, 2008


Alice Munro's short story, The Albanian Virgin.
posted by jokeefe at 8:09 PM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sadly, it's only a summary. Read before you post, I guess. Crap.
posted by jokeefe at 8:11 PM on June 25, 2008


Huh, on the other hand, a search leads (after a couple of pages of sites flogging term papers) to a book entitleld Women Who Became Men: Sworn Virgins, an academic study.
posted by jokeefe at 8:15 PM on June 25, 2008


Fascinating post, Countess Elena - thanks.
Along the lines of Charlie Parkurst: 8 historical cross dressers: women in a man's world.
posted by madamjujujive at 8:18 PM on June 25, 2008


Wait, they call themselves men, they're treated as men, they have the same access to male culture that men do, yet the article keeps using feminine pronouns? What the fuck is that?
posted by Greg Nog at 8:23 PM on June 25, 2008 [6 favorites]


Musician Billy Tipton; once you start looking, there are dozens of accounts of women who lived as men, who joined with fur traders in what was to become Canada, who took to sea, who fought in armies, and so on.
posted by jokeefe at 8:26 PM on June 25, 2008


Whoops, Billy Tipton is listed MJJJ's link. Maybe I should cut down on the caffeine after dinnertime...
posted by jokeefe at 8:27 PM on June 25, 2008


Wait, they call themselves men, they're treated as men, they have the same access to male culture that men do, yet the article keeps using feminine pronouns? What the fuck is that?

Similar reaction in a blog comment.
posted by prefpara at 8:33 PM on June 25, 2008


I heard of this when I lived in Bosnia; I was a little obsessed with the Kanun during the war on Sarajevo, as some of its tenets seemed to be suddenly awakened from the dead and put in force beyond Albanian lands, if that makes any sense. The idea of "honor" is particularly strong in the Balkans, especially in less Westernized areas like Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, etc.

And here's an idea why not read a great book by an Albanian novelist? Ismail Kadare is Albania's best known novelist, and the most translated, too. His book, "Spring Flowers, Spring Frost" is about a surrealistic Albania after the fall of communism, as a revival of the Kanun seems to be taking place. (A plot point actually vested in some reality.) It's one of his best books and helps the reader "grasp" the strangeness that is the Kanun. Part of the books deals with a woman forced to marry a snake to satisfy a blood debt, but when alone with the snake on her honeymoon night . . . those listening outside the door are disturbed by the lack of screams . . .

It's not often little Albania and its culture rear their head on Metafilter, so the Kadare book is abn excellent opportunity to learn a little about it, and - if you like the story about the "sworn man," as we called them, you will surely enjoy the book.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:37 PM on June 25, 2008 [7 favorites]


Wait, they call themselves men, they're treated as men, they have the same access to male culture that men do, yet the article keeps using feminine pronouns? What the fuck is that?

Maybe because they're (most of them, not all) different sort of people from the transgendered and intersexed men running around? Many of them would not have chosen this life if they had grown up in a typical, modern developed country, and had not needed to defend themselves and their kin.

Mind you, using a feminine pronoun disrespects and annuls what they've done and who they are, so it is a bit offensive.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:47 PM on June 25, 2008


Assuming this article is accurate, it seems to be a powerful argument for those who believe that gender is a social construct.

Is this even a debate anymore?
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:48 PM on June 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


Now, Albanian women have equal rights with men, and are even more powerful. I think today it would be fun to be a woman.

moxiedoll: "god, that is heartbreaking."

er, did you read further?

Some sworn virgins bemoan the changes. Diana Rakipi, 54, a security guard in the seaside city of Durres, in west Albania, who became a sworn virgin to take care of her nine sisters, said she looked back with nostalgia on the Hoxha era. During Communist times, she was a senior army officer, training women as combat soldiers. Now, she lamented, women do not know their place.

“Today women go out half naked to the disco,” said Ms. Rakipi, who wears a military beret. “I was always treated my whole life as a man, always with respect. I can’t clean, I can’t iron, I can’t cook. That is a woman’s work.”

posted by UbuRoivas at 8:49 PM on June 25, 2008


Fascinating stuff.
posted by brundlefly at 8:50 PM on June 25, 2008


(oh, ignore my previous comment. too tired to think straight today)
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:56 PM on June 25, 2008


Wow. Charley Parkhurst is a distant relative on my dad's side. Nice to see a family shout-out on the blue.

Following Belle's train of thought, surely at some point one of these sworn virgins get pregnant. What happens to them, the baby, the family, the legal issues of property ownership?
posted by Lou Stuells at 9:03 PM on June 25, 2008


Yeah the use of female pronouns by the author of the article bugged the hell out of me too. Borderline LOLFORIEGNERS.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:15 PM on June 25, 2008


Wait, they call themselves men, they're treated as men, they have the same access to male culture that men do, yet the article keeps using feminine pronouns? What the fuck is that?

I think it makes the article a lot less confusing actually. People can have complex gender identities, but we don't need to upend our reportage of simpler biological facts because of that. Why would it even be insulting? I think it was dealt with it very well, using pronouns accurately, while pointing out that this person and others in their culture treat them according to local customs for gender role.
posted by phrontist at 9:20 PM on June 25, 2008


This is my response to the blog question about using female terms for these folks:

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.”

---

The idea that it's "offensive" to refer to them as "she," "her" or "Ms" would be offensive to these people. It's kind and generous that people are sensitive to the possibility of the other way being so - but it's just not the case.

Following Belle's train of thought, surely at some point one of these sworn virgins get pregnant. What happens to them, the baby, the family, the legal issues of property ownership?

Clearly you don't know any Kanun-following villagers from northern Albania! Try as I might, I never could uncover a hint of any sworn man changing his (or her!) mind about the decision, let alone anything like sexual involvement or a pregnancy. (Knowing Albanians - my family would spend summers there when I was young - I wouldn't have even thought to consider cases of sworn men in sexual relationships.) Of course, it's not outside the realm of human possibility, but these are stubborn, stubborn, stubborn people - with a sense of honor that most American couldn't hope to really fathom. And more to the point, though becoming a sworn man had nothing to do with sexuality per se, being a man who *slept* with a sworn man would certainly be akin to an act of seriously reckless homosexuality - and given that the partner would be *heavily* scrutinized if found pregnant, well . . . neither would be around for long.

To be honest, the sense of honor amongst individuals among these people would seem to me to go about 99.99% of the way against "messing" with this - and two of them deciding to do it together, gee . . . the odds are really, really slight.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:36 PM on June 25, 2008 [14 favorites]


Regarding the discussion of pronouns, there is an interesting forest here and so we get bitching about some inconsequential trees.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 10:21 PM on June 25, 2008


Assuming this article is accurate, it seems to be a powerful argument for those who believe that gender is a social construct.

Is this even a debate anymore?


Try googling "sex differences in brains" to catch up on all the wonderful recent research which, justifiably or not, seems to be constantly, and breathlessly, relayed by the media as proving that there are fundamental biological differences in the way men and women are "hard-wired", whatever that means.
posted by jokeefe at 10:27 PM on June 25, 2008 [1 favorite]


Is this even a debate anymore?

Look at many of the difficulties many intersexed people have had adapting to an assigned gender role that differs from their gonads or chromosomes.
posted by Snyder at 12:01 AM on June 26, 2008


Look at many of the difficulties many people have had adapting to an assigned gender role.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 2:31 AM on June 26, 2008


One take on the native american version.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:03 AM on June 26, 2008


Thank you for the clarification, Dee! That's very informative!
posted by Greg Nog at 5:27 AM on June 26, 2008


Clearly you don't know any Kanun-following villagers from northern Albania!

Dee, you are spot on. As an Albanian I am delighted and surprised at how much you know about the Gheg (northern) Albanians.
posted by preparat at 5:40 AM on June 26, 2008


Maybe because they're (most of them, not all) different sort of people from the transgendered and intersexed men running around?

Yeah, it's depressing how eager people are to equate this completely foreign situation with the categories they feel comfortable with. This comment from the Feministe thread sums it up perfectly:

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


Who cares about Albania when we can have yet another discussion of lgbt issues?

Great comments, Dee Xtrovert!

Sadly, it's only a summary.

It really pisses me off that the New Yorker has started doing that. Showing the first paragraph or so and telling you you have to subscribe to get the rest, the way they used to do, made sense; a summary of the entire plot of the story shows disrespect to the art of fiction, and I'm surprised the authors put up with it.

posted by languagehat at 5:41 AM on June 26, 2008 [2 favorites]


One other scenario which could lead a woman to become a sworn virgin had to do with arranged marriages. If the bride-to-be disapproved of the marriage there was one way in which she could refuse to get married. When the groom's party came over to her father's house to formally request her in marriage, she could change into a man's clothes and go and sit with the men and drink raki and smoke with them. Then at some point the father would say something like "I don't have a girl for you to take."

This would be perfectly aceptable by the suitor's family, general public opinion, and according to the Kanun.
posted by preparat at 6:01 AM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


You know, I remember reading about gender role changes in the Viking era where a daughter could become a "son" to carry on the line and then married allowing her husband to carry on the line. Drat, can't find the source.
posted by jadepearl at 6:35 AM on June 26, 2008


Snyder, I don't see how your comment is in any way a counter to mine.
posted by Saxon Kane at 6:41 AM on June 26, 2008


Wow, fascinating stuff Dee Xtrovert and preparat.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 6:50 AM on June 26, 2008


It's pretty clear that looking at this as a "intersex" or "transsexual" phenomenon is somewhat inappropriate, since it appears that (based on situations such as that preparat describes) becoming a sworn man is really more complex than that.
posted by perianwyr at 7:08 AM on June 26, 2008


Thank you so much. This was wonderful. Our world is an interesting place for sure.
posted by likesuchasand at 7:38 AM on June 26, 2008


Who cares about Albania when we can have yet another discussion of lgbt issues?

Yes, projecting our own cultural categories onto the Albanian group is inappropriate. But there is something to be said for informing our own interpretation of gender with examples such as this. There is an awful lot of knee-jerk "women must be like this and men like this" stuff still going on in American culture. Seeing how things are done in other cultures sometimes helps people have a more reflective and thoughtful approach to their own. So while I wouldn't say sworn men fit into any of our GLBT concepts, the story could be very helpful for GLBT discussions. But yeah mostly the blog comments are coming at this from the angle you and I both agree is pretty near-sighted.
posted by Tehanu at 7:41 AM on June 26, 2008


Snyder, I don't see how your comment is in any way a counter to mine.

Then perhaps I misunderstood your comment. I thought that you were arguing that gender was purely a social construct, and that this was a foregone conclusion. My statement was simply a statement of the fact that there is much evidence that gender identity has a strong biological component, and is not something that one can simply be 'raised on.' If I misunderstood you I apologize.
posted by Snyder at 10:26 AM on June 26, 2008


The platinum rule with regards to pronouns (and any other self-label) is to use the pronoun that the other person would have used for themselves. Pretty simple. Dee Xtrovert explained the matter well.
posted by Skwirl at 12:12 PM on June 26, 2008


But if you kill me, I have to kill you.

Tricky.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:04 PM on June 26, 2008


The platinum rule with regards to pronouns (and any other self-label) is to use the pronoun that the other person would have used for themselves.

I agree. In fact, I only ever refer to myself as "Le Grand Roi", and henceforth insist that others do the same.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:23 PM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


My statement was simply a statement of the fact that there is much evidence that gender identity has a strong biological component, and is not something that one can simply be 'raised on.'

Biology is also a cultural discourse, not some purely objective means of accessing absolute truth.
posted by Saxon Kane at 5:29 PM on June 26, 2008


Biology is also a cultural discourse, not some purely objective means of accessing absolute truth.

Oh boy. If you want to look at the evidence (for example, David Reimer or other literature concerning this, and theories of gender, especially in relation to intersex and transgended people, and talk about this, then do so, but don't give me this 'Science is no more valid than any ideological position, or discourse,' stuff, especially when too much ideological correctness in this field as lead to suffering, cf. John Money.
posted by Snyder at 9:23 PM on June 26, 2008


'Science is no more valid than any ideological position, or discourse,'

Oh boy. That's not what I said. Freak out on someone else, thanks.
posted by Saxon Kane at 10:36 PM on June 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


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