Ex-women in Albania.
January 30, 2004 9:47 AM   Subscribe

Sworn virgins. "A sworn virgin is called such because she swears—takes a vow under the law of the Kanun—to become a man. From the day she takes this vow (which is sometimes at a very early age), she becomes a man: she dresses like one, acts like one, walks like one, works like one, talks like one, and her family and community treat her as one. She is referred to as he. He will never marry and will remain celibate all of his life." If you find this stuff intriguing, by all means read Alice Munro's great short story "The Albanian Virgin" (from Open Secrets, 1994); you might also want to check out A Dictionary of Albanian Religion, Mythology, and Folk Culture, where there's much more cultural weirdness, and Edith Durham's classic High Albania (online here), from which I first learned of these mannish gals. Oh, and there's a movie!
posted by languagehat (15 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The show Taboo on The National Geographic channel did a segment on these gals. It looks like the show will be rerun on Feb 16th.
posted by euphorb at 10:12 AM on January 30, 2004

No wonder Albania is so high on the list as among the most sophisticated, liberated, economically forward-looking and developed among the world's nations.
posted by Postroad at 10:21 AM on January 30, 2004

Interesting...given the strict and narrow gender roles there, I bet many women choose it as the only(?) option to be safely exempt from having to get married--whether because they don't want to, or are lesbian, or gender dysmorphic. It's terrible to think that a woman would be forced into that role (but i bet they're not all celibate).
posted by amberglow at 10:28 AM on January 30, 2004

Even if you're not interested in Albania or Albanian virgins, read Alice Munro. She's one of the greatest short-story writers the English language has ever had. Most of her stories are set in Canada.
posted by Holden at 10:45 AM on January 30, 2004

Um, little snarky today, Postroad?

This is fascinating, and it sounds like a multi-purpose release valve for several aspects of their society. Families with only daughters won't lose their property (ok, so Pride & Prejudice couldn't happen in Albania) and women who don't want to accept their traditional gender role have an option. Sounds like it allows a man to save face if his arranged wife rejects him, too. Oops. Sorry, she was actually a man.

Great link, languagehat. I'll keep an eye out for that movie.

Now, someone tell me where I can move where I can wear a skirt, stay home and cook, and won't be elligible for the draft ;)
posted by scarabic at 10:47 AM on January 30, 2004

posted by dgaicun at 12:21 PM on January 30, 2004

The Responsibilities of a Sworn Virgin

Once the sworn virgin is of age to become the head of the household, he will assume the important responsibilities of that position, which include:

monitoring and supervising the wealth and labor of the family
defending the family in bloodfeuds (conflicts between rivaling families over questions of honor)
receiving guests (hospitality is extremely important to Kanun followers)
As a man, the sworn virgin becomes the family's representative in the community. Although some descriptions of sworn virgins refer to them as women who have had to sacrifice their gender, on the contrary, it is not a sacrifice at all, but rather an avenue of opportunity. It's an important position, and one treated with tremendous respect. As such, through dress and demeanor a woman achieves social mobility—mobility that would otherwise be completely denied her. In Albania, a woman living as a man is a socially acceptable, if not socially expedient, way of life.

"The power of Fashion is also on our side. I pointed out that in some less civilized States no female is suffered to stand in any public place without swaying her back from right to left. This practice has been universal among ladies of any pretensions to breeding in all well-governed States, as far back as the memory of Figures can reach. It is considered a disgrace to any state that legislation should have to enforce what ought to be, and is in every respectable female, a natural instinct. The rhythmical and, if I may so say, well-modulated undulation of the back in our ladies of Circular rank is envied and imitated by the wife of a common Equilateral, who can achieve nothing beyond a mere monotonous swing, like the ticking of a pendulum; and the regular tick of the Equilateral is no less admired and copied by the wife of the progressive and aspiring Isosceles, in the females of whose family no "back-motion" of any kind has become as yet a necessity of life. Hence, in every family of position and consideration, "back motion" is as prevalent as time itself; and the husbands and sons in these households enjoy immunity at least from invisible attacks."

-E.A. Abbott. From, Flatland
posted by clavdivs at 1:03 PM on January 30, 2004


posted by squirrel at 2:06 PM on January 30, 2004

Once the sworn virgin is of age to become the head of the household, he will assume the important responsibilities of that position, which include:

No fathering children?
posted by kindall at 3:24 PM on January 30, 2004

creepy ob.ref to Green Acres's characters alf & ralph munro
posted by Fupped Duck at 4:54 PM on January 30, 2004

(fupped, ralph's been on my mind since the green acres thread---proto-butch, proto-feminist, proto-kanun?)
posted by amberglow at 5:27 PM on January 30, 2004

someone tell me where I can move where I can wear a skirt, stay home and cook, and won't be elligible for the draft

Some polynesian countries might fit this bill. The traditional lava-lava is rather comfortable. You might have to work some light farming (taro, perhaps) and do a little hunter-gatherer action. Food and cooking is pretty central. Not sure what compulsory military responsibilities may or may not be.
posted by weston at 7:10 PM on January 30, 2004

Actually, scarabic, the term that came to mind when I saw languagehat's post--a most excellent one, I might add--here was berdache.

Alternative gender roles were among the most widely shared features of North American societies. Male berdaches have been documented in over 155 tribes. In about a third of these groups, a formal status also existed for females who undertook a man’s lifestyle, becoming hunters, warriors, and chiefs. They were sometimes referred to with the same term for male berdaches and sometimes with a distinct term—making them, therefore, a fourth gender.

The Berdache of Early American Conquest is informative, if rhetorically challenging.
posted by y2karl at 9:25 AM on February 1, 2004

I guess that men in their society do not have the same freedom to "opt out" of the responsibilities that their culture defines for them.
posted by dg at 2:20 PM on February 1, 2004

wonderful post !
posted by ruelle at 12:47 PM on February 2, 2004

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