In the isolated areas of Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo, the gender roles have traditionally been extremely restrictive for women. They could not inherit, own land, vote, work outside of the home, choose their own spouses, smoke, drink, wear pants or watches, sing or dance, interact with men, or own businesses. They weren’t even supposed to enter homes first. That was the man’s privilege. In an area dominated by blood feuds, killing a woman only gave you half the credit that you would get if you killed a man. And once a marriage was arranged for a woman, often when she was still a child, she went from her lifelong home to being a subordinate in the home of her husband’s family. If they decided to beat her, she had no recourse.
So what was a woman to do if she was promised to a man she despised, or if all the men in her family died in war or blood feuds? What if she didn’t want to ever marry, or simply wanted the freedom to take charge of her own life?
The answer for many women was to cut off her hair, don men’s clothing, and take an oath in front of the village elders to become a sworn virgin. She then, for all intents and purposes, became a man. She had all the rights of a man, all the respect of a man, and suddenly her world expanded. She could do anything that a man could do. But to gain these privileges, she had to promise to remain chaste for life. She could never have children or take a life partner.
I came across this tradition today, and it brings up very mixed emotions in me. In reading about this, I see Americans, over and over again, trying to view this through our own cultural lens. We often assume that these women must surely have been lesbians, and this was the only way they could live the life they were meant to live, so good for them! But this apparently was quite frequently not the case. These were women who sacrificed a great part of their lives in order to keep their homes and families together, and to be able to make a living and support themselves without becoming the equivalent of a barnyard animal with no rights and no choices. They were doing what they had to do to survive.
And here’s where the American cultural lens comes in again. Learning about this, we tend to feel sorry for them. And yes, it must be a very lonely and difficult choice to make, but it does not appear that these women feel sorry for themselves. They are respected in their communities, and they have chosen to do what they needed to do to survive.
And ironically enough, once they’ve taken on this role, many of them strictly enforce the gender inequality of their culture just as any man does. They are outraged when women enter a home first. They participate in blood feuds. They look at the young girls of today with disgust as they see them running around in their short skirts, talking to men and marrying for love.
And as the modern world gets closer and closer to their doorsteps, these sworn virgins are becoming a dying breed. In 2008, there were less than 40 left, and most of them were quite advanced in age.
I am glad women in that region no longer feel the need to alter their lives so irrevocably in order to have the rights that every human deserves. But on the other hand, I do not begrudge these sworn virgins their choices. I admire people who do what they feel they have to do and make no apologies for it. Perhaps in other cultures they would have become nuns or joined the military. It’s hard to say. But the fact that some women have been willing to practically twist themselves into knots in order to have basic human rights just shows you how valuable those rights truly are.
An Albanian Sworn Virgin