IHT article: Sworn to virginity and living as men in Albania

Sworn to virginity and living as men in Albania
By Dan Bilefsky International Herald Tribune
Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Pashe Keqi recalls the day nearly sixty years ago when she decided to
become a man. She chopped off her long black curls, traded in her dress
for her father’s baggy trousers, armed herself with a hunting rifle and
vowed to forsake marriage, children and sex.

Had she been born in Albania today, says the 78-year-old sworn virgin,
who made an oath of celibacy in return for the right to live and rule
her family as a man,  she would choose womanhood.

“Back then, it was better to be a man because, before, a woman and an
animal were considered the same thing,” says Keqi, who has a bellowing
baritone voice, sits with her legs open wide like a man and relishes
downing shots of Raki and smoking cigarettes. “Now, Albanian women have
equal rights with men and are even more powerful, and I think today it
would be fun to be a woman.”

Sworn virgins became the patriarchs of their families, with all the
trappings of male authority, by swearing to remain virgins for the rest
of their lives.

The ritual was a form of self-empowerment for rural women living in a
desperately poor and macho country that was cut off from mainstream
Europe for decades under a Stalinist dictatorship. But in  Albania
today, with  Internet dating and MTV, the custom is all but
disappearing. Girls no longer want to become boys.

The tradition of the sworn virgin can be traced to the Kanun of Leke
Dukagjini, a code of conduct that has been passed on orally among the
clans of northern Albania for more than five centuries. Under the Kanun,
the role of women is severely circumscribed: Take care of children and
maintain the home. While a woman’s life is worth half that of a man, a
virgin’s value is the same  –  12 oxen.

The sworn virgin was born of social necessity in an agrarian region
plagued by war and death. If the patriarch of the family died with no
male heirs, unmarried women in the family could find themselves alone
and powerless. By taking an oath of virginity, women could take on the
role of men as head of the family, carry a weapon, own property and move
freely.

They dress like men, adopt a male swagger and spend their lives in the
company of other men.

Some also took the vow as a means to avoid an arranged marriage. Still
others became sworn virgins to express their autonomy. Some who
regretted the sacrifice transformed themselves back into women and
married later in life.

“Stripping off their sexuality by pledging to remain virgins was a way
for these women in a male-dominated, segregated society to engage in
public life,” says Linda Gusia, a professor of gender studies at the
University of Pristina in Kosovo. “It was about surviving in a world
where men rule.”

Taking an oath to become a sworn virgin should not, sociologists say, be
equated with homosexuality,  which has long been taboo in rural Albania.
Nor do the women have sex changes. In the northern Albanian countryside,
about 40 sworn virgins remain, according to researchers studying the
custom.

Known in her household as the “Pasha,” Keqi says she decided to become
the man of the house at age 20 when her father was murdered in a blood
feud. Her remaining four brothers opposed the communist regime of Enver
Hoxha, who ruled Albania for 40 years until his death in 1985, and they
were either imprisoned or killed. Becoming a man, she said, was the only
way to support her mother, her four sisters-in-law and their five
children.

Lording it over her large family in her modest house in Tirana, where
her nieces served her brandy while she barked out orders, Keqi said
living as a man had allowed her freedom denied other women. She could
work construction jobs and pray at the mosque alongside other men. Even
today, her nephews and nieces said, they would not dare marry without
their “uncle’s” permission.

“I was totally free as a man because no one knew I was a woman,” Keqi
said. “I could go wherever I wanted to and no one would dare swear at me
because I could beat them up. I was only with men. I don’t know how to
do women’s talk. I am never scared.” When she was recently hospitalized
for an operation, she recalled, the other woman in her room was
horrified to find herself sharing close quarters with a man and
requested a move.

Keqi said that being a woman made her a more compassionate man. “If the
other men were disrespecting a woman, I would tell them to stop.” She
said being deprived of a life of sexual intimacy was a necessary
sacrifice. She did not miss having children, she added, because she was
surrounded by her nieces and nephews. “Once I made up my mind 100
percent, I had the strength to never turn back.”

Being the man of the house also made her responsible for  avenging her
father’s death, she said, including the Kanun’s edict that spilled blood
must be met with spilled blood. When her father’s killer was released
from prison five years ago, by then a man of 80, Keqi said she ordered
her 15 year-old nephew to shoot him. Then the family of the man took
revenge and killed her nephew.

“I always dreamed of avenging my father’s death. My brothers tried to,
but did not succeed. Of course, I have regrets my nephew was killed. But
if you kill me, I have to kill you.” In Albania, a majority Muslim
country, the Kanun is adhered to by both Muslims and Christians, though
the Ottoman Turks and successive governments have all tried to limit its
influence.

Albanian cultural historians said the cleaving to medieval customs long
discarded elsewhere was a byproduct of the country’s previous isolation.
But they stressed that today, the traditional role of the Albanian woman
was changing.

“The Albanian woman today is a sort of minister of economics, a minister
of affection and a minister of interior who controls who does what,”
said Ilir Yzeiri, a critic who writes about Albanian folklore. “Today
women in Albania are behind everything.”

Some sworn virgins bemoan this female liberation. 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 to the Hoxha era. During communist times, she served
as a senior army officer, training women soldiers in combat. Now, she
lamented, women did not know their place.

“Today women go out half naked to the disco and do not know their
limits,” said Rakipi, who has cropped hair and 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.”

But even in the remote mountains of Kruje, about 50 kilometers, or 30
miles, north of Tirana, where long dirt roads snake through olive
groves, locals say the Kanun’s influence on gender roles is
disappearing. They said erosion of the traditional family, in which
everyone once lived under the same roof, had altered women’s position in
society.

“Women and men are now almost the same,” says Caca Fiqiri, whose aunt
Qamile Stema, age 88, is the last sworn virgin remaining in her village.
“We respect sworn virgins very much and consider them as men because of
their great sacrifice. But there is no longer a stigma not to have a man
of the house.”

Yet there is no doubt who wears the trousers in the family’s one-room
stone house in Barganesh, their ancestral village. There, on a recent
day, “uncle” Qamile was surrounded by her clan, dressed in a qeleshe,
the traditional white cap of an Albanian man. Her only concession to
femininity were pink flip-flops.

Pointing to an old black and white photo hanging in the entrance  –
showing a handsome young man in his prime  –  Stema said she took an
oath of virginity at age 20, after her father died, and she was left the
eldest of nine sisters.

After becoming a man, Stema said she could leave the house and chop wood
with the other men. She carried a gun. At wedding parties, she sat with
the men. When she talked to women, she recalled, they recoiled in
shyness.

Stema said becoming a sworn virgin was a necessity, and a sacrifice.
“The truth is I feel lonely sometimes. All my sisters have died, and I
live alone. But I never wanted to marry. Some in my family tried to get
me to change my clothes and wear dresses, but when they saw I had become
a man, they left me alone.”

Stema said she would die a virgin. Had she married, she joked, it would
have been to a traditional Albanian woman. “I guess you could say I was
partly a woman and partly a man, but of course I never did everything a
man does,” she said. “I liked my life as a man. I have no regrets.”

Go to iht.com/europe to listen to commentary from Dan Bilefsky and view
additional photographs of the sworn virgins who live in Albania.

http://www.iht.com/articles/2008/06/23/europe/virgins.php

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