Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Sworn to virginity and living as men in Albania. A fascinating article about a dying trend in Albania, if all the men who would, of course, head the family died or were killed, then any of the women who were virginal and who swore to stay that way would take on the roll of the head male of the family, going out and doing 'male' jobs to bring in the money and run the family. And, it would seem, they were treated exactly as men by the society around them.

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...

Known in her household as the "Pasha," [Pashe] 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."

But Albania is not so insular now and, with the slow march to equality for females, women don't need to be sanctioned as men to run things any more, so when these sworn virgins die out, there will be no-one to replace them.

(More pictures at the IHT's Europe page)

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