Serena Freewomyn

Albanian Women Defy Traditional Gender Roles

Filed By Serena Freewomyn | June 27, 2008 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Albania, gender roles, Leslie Feinberg, transgender, women

A recent story in the New York Times reveals that what we currently define as transgender identity has existed in different cultures around the globe for centuries.

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.

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. Her father was killed in a blood feud, and there was no male heir. By custom, Ms. 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.

She says she would not do it today, now that sexual equality and modernity have come even to Albania . . . "Back then, it was better to be a man because before a woman and an animal were considered the same thing," said Ms. Keqi, who has a bellowing baritone voice, sits with her legs open wide like a man and relishes downing shots of raki. "Now, Albanian women have equal rights with men, and are even more powerful. I think today it would be fun to be a woman."

The tradition of the sworn virgin can be traced to the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini, a code of conduct passed on orally among the clans of northern Albania for more than 500 years. Under the Kanun, the role of a woman 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 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.

"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."

Taking an oath to become a sworn virgin should not, sociologists say, be equated with homosexuality, long taboo in rural Albania. Nor do the women have sex-change operations.

In Leslie Feinberg's book Transgender Warriors, zie documents the various examples of transgender expression that can be found throughout history in different cultures. Although most of these examples wouldn't be considered transgender in their time (the term wasn't even coined until 1987), they certainly prove that the current movement for transgender inclusion is no passing fad.

I really don't think it matters that so-called "expert" sociologists say that the Albanian tradition of women living as men is mutually exclusive with lesbian or trans identity. I think the major point of this story is that gender expression is much more fluid than most people want to admit. To quote Feinberg:

"I hope you realize that we have always been in your life. You may have recognized an old lover, a coworker, or an aunt or uncle that family members whisper about at weddings and funerals. Or you may have seen yourself mirrored in these pages. And whether or not you identify as transgender or transsexual or intersexual, you have a stake in our struggle. My right to define and express myself is connected with a thousand threads to your own right to define and express yourself."

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Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | June 27, 2008 8:01 PM

I really don't think it matters that so-called "expert" sociologists say that the Albanian tradition of women living as men is mutually exclusive with lesbian or trans identity. I think the major point of this story is that gender expression is much more fluid than most people want to admit.

Absolutely agree with you--and disagree with the so-called experts!

Speaking from personal experience in how difficult it is to be trans, it's not something a person would do simply because it "was better to be a man," nor to avenge a death, nor to survive "in a world where men rule."

And exactly how do the experts know they remain true to their vows to stay "virgins"? Do same-sex interactions disqualify one from the definition of "virgin"? Oh, wait, the experts have already concluded that the folks do not engage in "homosexual" activities.

Sixty years is a long time to refrain from sexual activity and love.

The experts' language betrays an understanding of transgender identity so simplistic as to be laughable, were it not so sad.

Brynn, as usual, you and I are on the same page. I totally agree with you - sixty years is WAY to long to go without an o face!

This story reminded me a lot of Gerda Lerner's book The Creation of Patriarchy. In it, she shows that for womyn in the Middle Ages, choosing a celibate life was the only way that they would lead an intellectual life. Womyn joined nunneries in order to educate themselves. In the days before birth control and relative reproductive freedom, the life of a nun was the only option if one wanted to think and write. This is coming entirely from my own point of view - but if taking a vow of celibacy meant that I could do things that I had previously been denied, I would seriously consider it. Even though I love getting my o face on!

However, I think you make an excellent point, Brynn . . . the "choice" to live an authentic life is not easy. I'm not trans, so I can't speak for anyone's experience but my own. But I think it's like the argument people use about sexuality being a choice. Why would I voluntarily choose to be treated like a second class citizen? And as far as trans goes - when just using the bathroom can be a difficult (and often times dangerous) task, why would anyone "choose" to live their life as openly transgender unless it went to the very root of their being?

Anyway, I find this story fascinating, much like I found the stories in Feinberg's book intriguing. But I guess I'm just a history nerd.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | June 28, 2008 10:03 AM

It is interesting, whether it is Joan of Arc, or men who breastfeed babies. When the situation or ability calls for it the incredible adaptations all humanity can make to protect, nurture and suppress.

That article was so fascinating. Serena shared it with me earlier and I completely dropped everything absorbed in reading it. Thanks so much for sharing it, Serena!

The experts quoted in the article do not claim sworn virgins are not lesbians, just that the tradition should not be equated with lesbianism. I think the interviews with the Albanian women bear them out: it seems to be an example of gender identity being far more about what you do in general than who you (want to) fuck, especially in a culture that defined women as sexual targets (otherwise, why segregate so strictly?).

One of the virgins interviewed does express the desire to have married a woman, but given that the statement is couched in terms of traditional values, it might just as much be a desire for someone to keep house for her than sexual desire. Conversely, it is telling that only one of the women interviewed expressed a desire to be married - I would bet that if many of them had, it would have been reported as a more general phenomenon because a NYT reporter writing for Americans would know that readers would want to know about that aspect of the story.

Being an Albanian I must disagree with you. The "sworn virgins" are not allowed to ingage in sex, being that with a man or a woman. They are considered man in every sense, but can not have sex in any form. This doesn't means it does not happens: it simply means that if they get caught, theu face harsh punitions, even death. As for 'to avenge a death', honor is the most important value for a traditional Albanian. Where there are not male heirs, is expected that a daughter take responsability by becoming a male.