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...a sweatshop of moxie

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sworn Virgins

There's nothing like a quirky little story to enliven one's breakfast, don't you find?

I was reading the New York Times on the Kindle at my local bistro just now (choc-a-bloc as it is in the mornings with rushing execs of both sexes, eager to get a steamy croissant from South Florida's tastiest French bakery), when I chance upon this amazing tale.

Albania, the homeland to such disparate luminaries as Mother Teresa and Enver Hoxha, has an age-old custom in the more rural Northern areas:

Women swear off their womanhood and become men, a custom known as being "Sworn Virgins".

Now, I know what you're thinking. I thought the same thing too.

But this is apparently much more complicated than anything found on the steps of San Francisco City Hall.

Pashe Keqi recalled the day nearly 60 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.

Pashe Keqi, 78, took an oath of virginity when she was 20 to become the family patriarch after her father’s death in a blood feud.

For centuries, in the closed-off and conservative society of rural northern Albania, swapping genders was considered a practical solution for a family with a shortage of men.

Women posing as men is obviously nothing new in this world.

When Hatshepsut proclaimed herself pharaoh, confounding her contemporaries by insisting "on being portrayed as male, with bulging muscles and the traditional pharaonic false beard" (something which made her very very hated), she was echoing this arch Albanian custom.

When Wilhelmina of the Netherlands was proclaimed sovereign, she was officially hailed as "King of Holland" not Queen, and her doughty subjects didn't bat an eyelash.

Same goes for these strapping ladies below.

These Hohenzollern princesses were Viktoria-Luise, the Kaiser's only daughter, and her sister-in-law, Crown Princess Cecilie, both of whom were Colonels-in-Chief of their respective regiments (as were almost all royal ladies at the time, continued today).

These mutative gender assumptions may strike some as contradictory, even bizarre, but they're all too common in history. These arise from need to replace the traditional protective characteristic of the male in society, and have occured in almost all cultures.

This is what the post-structuralist writer Judith Butler calls "performative" binary gender roles in her seminal book on the topic, Gender Trouble.

But even Butler didn't think that gender could be assumed willy-nilly; yet the Albanian custom of sworn virgins is just that.

Like Vestal Virgins of old, a woman enters a pact not just with her immediate family, but with society itself: in the Roman case it was to preserve their purity on pain of death, in exchange for maintaning the holy fires of Vesta.

In the Albanian case, it is by borne by need to protect kinswomen who would otherwise be at the mercy of men, with their base desires and all sorts of naughtiness of that ilk, in exchange for being given all the rights and respect of men by real men in their villages.

The sworn virgin was born of social necessity in an agrarian region plagued by war and death. If the family patriarch 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.

Of course, in a society where women still look like this...

...this usurping of gender roles might not seem that much of a stretch on the imagination.

But irrespective of their looks, in the case of the Vestal Virgin and the Sworn Virgin of Albania, there is a price these women pay for their earthly honours.

Not surprisingly in both cases it is their overt sexuality, perhaps the single-most alluring yet threatening part of being a woman.

To become a man in these rural villages of Albania is as simple as swearing off one's sexuality, but more curious is the ease which others readily accept this casting off of gender.

Instead of giggles, side-glances, or even condemnation one might intuitively expect in such a Muslim land, the Sworn Virgin is immediately treated as a man by all who know her -- itself a commentary on the importance of maleness in their culture.

That was the case with the waspish Pashe Keqi.

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

When she stepped outside the village, she enjoyed being taken for a man. “I was totally free as a man because no one knew I was a woman,” Ms. 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.”

What is less fascinating to me, than the assumptions of what it is to be woman (everything to do with housework, childcare and lack of bravado), is the natural deference accorded to her even today.

As she later says, Sworn Virgins are no longer necessary in Albanian society.

It has progressed from both its tribal blood fueds, and Communist repression into the modern age of MTV and "discos", but still the younger generation treats her as a man, with a man's rights over the family's well-being.

Sure, she dresses as a man, she has short hair, and wears a fez-like hat, the qeleshe, to denote her male status, but curiously, save for the fez which I left at the cleaners, that would describe my workout shorts seated-self at the computer at this moment.

Yet I am all-woman, and have long since abandoned any pretense at virginity (shh, don't tell my parents).

Being male holds no allure for me at all. It is not necessary for me to renounce or sublimate my sexuality to be respected. The only social convenant which governs me is that of ladylike behaviour, which however is completely voluntary on my part. Should I break it, though, I won't lose any rights or privileges since those are tied to my humanity, not my sexual expression.

It is this awakening which modernity offers women which accounts for the odd reaction such Sworn Virgins have towards their younger counterparts.

Instead of happiness that it is no longer necessary to cast off their feminity to be respected or for their families to be protected, these she-males lament the olden days.

Ex-Communist officer, Diana Rapiki, who still wears a military beret wherever she goes, says "women do not know their place."

The intriguing bit is not that they are saying this as women who believe they are men in all but name, since many women believe that too without so much as donning a fez, but that they see this modern liberation as a negative.

For a Western woman today, it is enough to have the flexibility of a man, without needing a dramatic renunciation of their gender, least of all their sex lives as women.

And yet curiously once again, their society accepts that new role, perhaps if not with ease, at least with resignation.

But accept it they did the Sworn Virgin, and the Modern Woman, both.

That may be the real shock and moral lesson of this story: no matter how restricted throughout history, women have always gotten away with more than many feminists would have one believe.

Or, as we daresay: It's good to be the Queen.


Women Can Be Misogynistic Too
Shocker: Sworn Virgins Dying Out
Nuns By Another Name

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