Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Last Sworn Virgins

Generations of Albanians born as women have had the choice of becoming men - for a price. In order to live as men, with all the privileges given males in the society, Albania's 'sworn virgins' must renounce both sex and marriage. The San Francisco Chronicle reports on one of the last sworn virgins, Drene Markgjoni, who pledged to forgo sex and marriage for the remainder of his life after deciding to live as a male:

Drene Markgjoni spent 12 years in a hard-labor camp, punished for her fiance's attempt to flee Albania's regime, then one of the world's most repressive and isolationist. She swore she would never suffer like that for somebody else again.

She pledged to forgo sex and marriage for the rest of her life, and declared herself a man.

That was six decades ago. Now 85, with close-cropped white hair, dressed in a man's blue striped shirt and black trousers, she greets visitors with a manly handshake. The way she walks, her confident gestures, everything about her is masculine.

Only her voice — soft and feminine — reveals her to be one of the last sworn virgins in Albania: Women who dress, act and are treated as men.

"I am happier like this," she says. "I don't regret it at all. Not a hair on my head does."

In this strongly patriarchal society where for centuries women had virtually no standing, sworn virgins enjoyed the same rights and respect as men. They could inherit property, work for a living and sit on the village council, although without the right to vote.

The privileges came at a price. They took an oath of celibacy and could never have sexual relations. And they could never go back to being women.

As the report notes, there have traditionally been many incentives for Albanian women to become sworn virgins, regardless of their sexual orientation or sexual identification:

The reasons for becoming a sworn virgin can be practical — the head of the family dies with no male heir. Or they can be emotional — the woman does not want to marry the man chosen for her.

In Albania, particularly in the impoverished rural north, it was practically inconceivable for a woman to remain single and live alone.

But by becoming a man, Markgjoni was free. She could earn a living and eat and drink with men instead of being restricted to the kitchen. And she could adopt two habits denied to a traditional Albanian woman: smoking and wearing a watch.

She says she has worked in carpentry and farming, and in construction in her youth when, she proudly exclaims, she carried concrete slabs with the strength of two men.

The practice is dying out, and I can't help but think that this tradition's passing away is both good and bad. Although living as a sworn virgin grants Albanians born as women with many of the rights reserved for men, it also reaffirms the patriarchy - you must be male to deserve rights and freedoms, and even living as men, sworn virgins are still denied some rights granted other men. Yet, I like the idea that one can declare one's gender and have that declaration accepted by all.

Giving up sex though, that's gotta suck.


Casmall said...

Great post! I had no idea this happened.

MediaMaven said...


This practice should be incorporated into a novel.

Habladora said...

Start writing, Mediamaven...

I think I'd also like to read a collection of biographies - the true stories must be incredible.

Smirking Cat said...

How does swearing off sex add to a male persona? The strong message that only men have rights sickens me.