In Albania…

// 26 June 2008

Freya alerts us to this story about the dying tradition in Albania of women taking an oath of chastity, then living as men.

For centuries, in the closed-off society of rural northern Albania, swapping genders was considered a practical solution for a family with a shortage of men. Her father was killed in a blood feud, and there was no male heir. By custom, Keqi, now 78, took a vow of lifetime virginity. She lived as a man, the new patriarch, with all the swagger and trappings of male authority — including the obligation to avenge her father’s death.

And then:

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 dressed like men and spent their lives in the company of other men, even though most kept their female given names. They were not ridiculed but accepted in public life, even adulated. For some, the choice was a way for a woman to assert her autonomy or to avoid an arranged marriage.

“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,” said Linda Gusia, a professor of gender studies at the University of Pristina, in Kosovo. “It was about surviving in a world where men rule.”

Comments From You

Laurel Dearing // Posted 26 June 2008 at 1:05 pm

i know this is probably a stupid thing to say but id actually not mind giving up a sexuality to gain full *full* proper actual total rights. not that you should *have* to give sexuality or the right to be a woman up. im assuming the real men get to keep theirs.

i would like the ability to not be a sex object in any way or form if its really that effective there. not so sure id want to venge death.

is it an optional role? it seems strange they can admit that women can be as equal as men it seems very odd to not allow the rest of women the same rights. kinda proves its probably want of power and status.

Laurel Dearing // Posted 26 June 2008 at 1:10 pm

obviously want to point out that i mean for me personally, who likes to dress in male clothes and be around men as long as they arent flirting. could sound like hell to someone else

Rachael // Posted 26 June 2008 at 6:12 pm

How is giving up one’s sexuality being equal? It’s something that I find very empowering. And no – am not describing the male-dominated objectifing type of sexuality. Am describing my own. It makes me a full person as well as a woman.

Most society’s are terrified of true female sexuality, devoid of patriarchy. A society where a women is TRULY free is a society that accepts all of her facets. Picking, choosing and enforcing is never freedom for women – just yet another tired from of oppression……neeeeexxxt!!!

Shea // Posted 26 June 2008 at 6:29 pm

But why was it necessary to take a vow of chastity in order to be given full rights? Because if these women have sworn virginity that puts them beyond the sphere of accepted female/ male social interaction? I’m just curious. Why was it necessary for these women to become asexual in order to be poweful.

(Interesting this seems similar to the abbeys and convents of the medieval period. Women could become powerful and influential but took a vow of chastity to do so.) It seems like tacit acknowledgement that a woman’s sexuality is a dangerous thing.

Laurel Dearing // Posted 26 June 2008 at 6:59 pm

thats why i said me personally. i obviously think its good that they dont have to do that anymore. but the article said that those women didnt offer suffer discrimination and i feel that here if we just walk down the street we do. personally i am not that into my sexuality and would take prefer the way that the article made it sound to our sexual freedoms here. i think its terrible for someone that wants to express their sexuality to not be able to, or to be criticised in any way for doing so. but for me if i had to take a choice…

Amity // Posted 26 June 2008 at 7:17 pm

What a fascinating tradition. Not sure what I think about it but it’s interesting, nonetheless.

Laurel Dearing // Posted 26 June 2008 at 8:42 pm

thats why i said me personally. i obviously think its good that they dont have to do that anymore. but the article said that those women didnt offer suffer discrimination and i feel that here if we just walk down the street we do. personally i am not that into my sexuality and would take prefer the way that the article made it sound to our sexual freedoms here. i think its terrible for someone that wants to express their sexuality to not be able to, or to be criticised in any way for doing so. but for me if i had to take a choice…

Torygirl // Posted 26 June 2008 at 9:05 pm

“What Is She Doing Here?” is Kate Clanchy’s book about her Albanian cleaner who grew up with the Kanun of Lek.

She wrote a piece for the Guardian about it and it sounds rather interesting.

Anne Onne // Posted 26 June 2008 at 10:30 pm

Heh, the old ‘acting as a male to gain rights’ trope. Sweet. It’s not something we don’t see in western culture, either, but it still plays into misogynistic attitudes towards those that adopt ‘female’ roles, if ‘male’ roles are much more valued.

And I’d guess they’d partly have to give up their sexuality because of the assumption that they are heterosexual and would be attracted to men, and of course ‘real men’ just can’t do that…Somehow I suspect that they’re never quite equal, since attitudes to men and women don’t change, even when exceptional women are given power. After all, Victoria being Queen didn’t make the people at the time less misogynistic, it’s perfectly easy to say one type of woman is ‘one of the boys’ or a ‘lady’ and therefore different, whilst the rest are just not good enough.

In an ideal world, women wouldn’t have to jump through hoops to be given rights. They shouldn’t have to ‘give up’ anything. Naturally, you all know this, but it’s always worth mentioning.

On the other hand, I think it important to bear in mind the delicacy required whenever discussing another culture. Not because no culture can be sexist (0r racist, etc), but because we bear our own culture and race privileges that we are very likely to carry into every analysis we make of other cultures. I’m sick of the patronising attitude I see as a foreigner towards my traditions, which aren’t those in the article, but still (which, whilst misogynistic, aren’t worse than the many misogynistic facets of Western culture), so I’d be careful before judging another culture, being the more careful the less we know about something.

Bearing in mind that this is a remote rural community, that neither represents the lives of most women in that country, nor even most women in that community (and by saying that they gain full rights, it reminds us just how few rights other women have), so it’s important to remember that whilst this is an interesting facet of culture, it’s just a small part of the misogyny of many communities within a country, and one of many countries in the world.

katarina // Posted 27 June 2008 at 5:35 am

“The old ‘acting as a male to gain rights’ trope” has its logic. If you don’t have sex you won’t get pregnant, so you can be relied upon to be available for activities unrelated to childbearing and child raising.

In the Kanun of Lek that includes killing other men, while here it means means making money. But here we don’t have the option of being a sworn virgin so there is no way to convince potential employers that you won’t be wanting maternity leave any time soon.

Anne Onne // Posted 27 June 2008 at 11:50 am

But that implies that sexually active, or indeed women who choose to get pregnant can’t be relied upon, which is still misogynist. It implies that being female (ie activities related to being a woman, in this case childbearing and female sexuality) would compromise your contribution to unrelated things. It therefore does not recognise the contribution many women make. It insists that to respect women as people capable of things any random bloke can do, they have to jump through a million hoops.

Shouldn’t women deserve matenity leave if they need it? After all, in the long run, the economy and society benefits greatly from the birth of more people. It positively requires a high birth rate. Yet at the same time women who have children are treated like a burden. And only women usually bear the costst of raising children. After all, many wome work through their pregnancy, and there’s no reason that the father (if they are together) can’t take paternity leave and look after the child. The problem is, children are foisted onto women as being their responsibility only, and then women are punished for that.

Obviously, this is more than the fault of the employers, and needs to be addressed on a much larger scale than forcing employers to offer maternity leave. We need a comprehensive system where neither employers nor women (nor men) are penalised for having children, which should go further towards achieving equality.

Are women who have a couple of kids, and take a few years out of a long career really that ‘unreliable’? Or is it that society, being misogynistic, does not value the contribution pregnant women and mothers make to society?

Feminist Avatar // Posted 27 June 2008 at 2:19 pm

The virginity clause will have nothing to do with sexuality per se. It’s (usually) to do with property. As sex is only sanctioned within marriage, a woman would have to get married to have sex. By getting married, she would (if Albanian law is similar to most of Europe before the advent of feminism) lose her rights to all property on marriage. Any property she owned previous to marriage (such as her father’s inheritance) would then belong to another family and could be disposed of, squandered, or just amalgamated with his property, without her permission. She herself would likely be the property of her husband and lose all legal rights. This sort of situation is usually allowed because it is socially undesirable for land to all belong to one person, so inheritance practices exist to keep it in separate hands.

You might even find that as long as she kept any sexual activity under the radar (so no getting pregnant) and outside of marriage, she would have still been acceptable as a ‘male’.

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