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Thread: Crossing Boundaries: Albania's Sworn Virgins

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    Post Crossing Boundaries: Albania's Sworn Virgins

    Crossing boundaries: Albania's Sworn Virgins

    Dress and Gender

    In some parts of Albania, particularly in the north, families follow a code of ethics called the Kanun. The Kanun is not a religious document (Kanun followers may be Christian, Muslim, etc.), but is sacred nonetheless. According to the Kanun, families must be patrilineal (meaning wealth is inherited through a family's men) and patrilocal (upon marriage, a woman moves into the household of her husband's family). Marriages are arranged - often at birth, if not before, or in early childhood. Once a woman is deemed eligible to marry, she moves out of her parents' home and into that of her husband. There she becomes part of (the property of) her husband's family.

    For Albania's Kanun followers, dress is an important gender marker. Like many societies throughout the world, here there are two genders - masculine and feminine, which are signified by dress. Men wear trousers, wristwatches and close-fitting caps; women wear skirts, aprons, headscarves, and in some more traditional households, veils. Thus, if a woman dresses like a man, she is a man. Her dress changes her gender. And in Albania, "women who become men" are called virgjinesha, or 'sworn virgins."

    Why Women Become Men

    A sworn virgin is called such because she swears - takes a vow under the law of the Kanun - to become a man. From the day she takes this vow (which is sometimes at a very early age), she becomes a man: she dresses like one, acts like one, walks like one, works like one, talks like one, and her family and community treat her as one. She is referred to as he. He will never marry and will remain celibate all of his life. According to the Kanun, a woman is ethically permitted to become a man under certain conditions. If a woman chooses not to marry her pre-arranged husband, she may not marry anyone else. In order to remain unmarried, however, she must become a sworn virgin and dress and act as a man. The other condition under which a woman may become a sworn virgin is if her parents deem it so due to a lack of sons. In Albania, because only men may be heads of household, and because only men may inherit family wealth, if there are no sons, the wealth of the family (its home and land) risks being usurped by the family of a daughter's husband, or some other non-blood relative. Thus, to prevent this from happening, a family will sometimes designate a daughter to become a sworn virgin.

    The Responsibilities of a Sworn Virgin

    Once the sworn virgin is of age to become the head of the household, he will assume the important responsibilities of that position, which include:
    • monitoring and supervising the wealth and labor of the family
    • defending the family in bloodfeuds (conflicts between rivaling families over questions of honor)
    • receiving guests (hospitality is extremely important to Kanun followers)


    As a man, the sworn virgin becomes the family's representative in the community. Although some descriptions of sworn virgins refer to them as women who have had to sacrifice their gender, on the contrary, it is not a sacrifice at all, but rather an avenue of opportunity. It's an important position, and one treated with tremendous respect. As such, through dress and demeanor a woman achieves social mobility - mobility that would otherwise be completely denied her. In Albania, a woman living as a man is a socially acceptable, if not socially expedient, way of life.

    One Woman's Decision

    Although the choice to become a sworn virgin is often made by other family members for the reasons described above, sometimes a woman will become a sworn virgin because she feels more comfortable as a man. Antonia Young describes her encounter with a sworn virgin, named Lule:

    Lule was the tenth child in a family of eleven. After seven daughters, her mother gave birth to twin boys, one of whom died shortly after. From all account Pjetar, the surviving twin, was thoroughly spoiled by the whole family, even smothered by his parents and seven older sisters. [. . .] Lule remembers only ever having behaved as a boy and spent her time as an equal with the boys in primary school. Her older sister Drane says 'we tried to dress Lule in skirts but she always refused. And we made such a fuss of Pjetar when he was little: he became incapable of doing anything for himself.'

    At the age of nineteen, Lule decided to become a sworn virgin, even though she still had a brother who legally could inherit the family's wealth. Today, Lule runs a household of ten, including all of her brother's children. In an area where all women wear skirts and headscarves, Lule wears trousers and a wristwatch (typically male vestments). Her hair is short (women keep theirs long, under scarves). She runs a welding business and tends the family's land by performing all the cutting and planting necessary to feed their animals. (Women's work, by contrast, is within the home: cooking, cleaning, serving guests (but not sitting with them), sewing, washing, etc.) Lule's family refers to her as "he."

    Opportunity is not without its responsibility, however, and one of the responsibilities of a man is to defend the family in the case of a bloodfeud. Women do not fight in bloodfeuds, nor are they potential targets. Thus, where no men exist in a given household, this duty falls to the sworn virgin. Were Lule's family to be engaged in a bloodfeud with another family, she would become a target for attack.

    But for Lule, this is no doubt a small price to pay. Many of the basic rights women take for granted in other societies (the right to choose a husband and to speak freely, for example) are not available to Kanun women. So for Lule and for many other women and men uncomfortable in the roles of their biological sex, crossing gender boundaries offers something that many people don't realize: freedom.

    Bibliography:
    -Denny, Dallas. "Transgender in the United States: A brief discussion." SIECUS Report, 8, no.1 (1999): 8-13.
    -Vesilind, Priit J. "Albanians: A People Undone." National Geographic, February 2000, 52-71.
    -Young, Antonia. Women Who Become Men: Albanian Sworn Virgins. New York: Berg, 2000.

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    Post Re: Women become men in Albania

    I know that such things happen in different primitive societies, but however, its a perversion.

    F.e. if two families are bound together by marriage, they can even bring two daughters together if there is no son.

    Its idiotical and unnatural because such families, if they dont have the opposite sex available, have usually already not enough children, so if they let people of the same sex marry, under conditions they cannot have sex with others, this means that the family might even die out because of such traditions.

    Such cases are sometimes just overvalued by "transgender-homosexual-hyper-egalitarian-nurture is everything etc." people.

    However, the should never be what is possible, but what makes sense for the collective.

    I just wonder, because such things usually happen in primitive societies, whether this custon doesnt conflict with Islamic rules?
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    STOP GATS! STOP LIBERALISM!

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    Mad Re: Women become men in Albania

    Albania is SOOOOOOOO un-European!!! Indeed.

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    Post Re: Women become men in Albania

    It is not acceptable in Christianity or Islam for a woman to dress and behave like a man under any circumstances.

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    Post Re: Women become men in Albania

    Quote Originally Posted by lg
    It is not acceptable in Christianity or Islam for a woman to dress and behave like a man under any circumstances.
    Thought so as well...but interesting that such old-primitive social rules are still there.
    If there are proven recent cases it might say something about the importance of Islam in Albanians in general...
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    Post Re: Women become men in Albania

    Quote Originally Posted by Agrippa
    Thought so as well...but interesting that such old-primitive social rules are still there.
    If there are proven recent cases it might say something about the importance of Islam in Albanians in general...
    The kanun of the Albanians carries dozens of demented rules and regulations which make them into a potentially dangerous and backward group.

    Code of Leke Dukagjini /Kanun i Leke Dukagjinit
    The Code of Leke Dukajini was a body of customary law by which the northern clans of Albania were ruled from about the15th up to the beginning of the 20th Century, or even later. Although attributed to Leke Dukagjin, it evolved over many centuries --before, during, and after his lifetime. Presumably the formulation of the Code conformed to the needs of the times. Leke Dukagjin (1410-81) belonged to the family of the Dukagjinis, feudal rulers whose domain in the 14th and 15th centuries extended from the Zadrimi to the confluence of the Black and White Drin Rivers. After Skanderbeg's death in 1468, Leke Dukagjin was one of the principal figures of the war waged against the Ottoman Turks. The Code is divided into the following sections: Church, Family, Marriage, House, Livestock and Property, Work, Transfer of Property, Spoken Word, Honor, Damages, Law Regarding Crimes, Judicial Law, and Exemptions and Exceptions. In general, it would be correct to say that observance of the Code by all with due regard to its implications and consequences would assure safe living and passage, although with a very limited choice of alternatives. The smallest violation, however, could and probably would have disastrous or even possibly fatal consequences. A Franciscan priest, Shtjefen Gjecov, began collecting the works that first appeared in printed form in 1913, and the completed Kanun was published in 1931 after his death. From time to time during the annals of history, various figures (some of the political and scientific dissertations of Benjamin Franklin come to mind) have transcended then-existing laws by devising their own codes of ethics or rules for society to follow. When pondering the conduct and manners by members of various modern-day elected bodies of government, it might be both prudent and timely to review the ancient excerpts below from the Code of Leke Dukagjini's Rules of Assembly:
    (English translations by Agron Alibali)
    1113. The Men gathered in an assembly sit in a semicircle so that each person may see everyone else and if someone is called on to speak, his path is clear among the Chiefs and the Elders. Burrat e bashkuem ne kuvend rrijn ne gjymes rrethit; ashtu qi te mund te shofin shoqi shoqin e, po u thirr kush, te ket shteg per me u duke nder Krene e Pleq.
    1115. Regardless of how long the Men of the land are at the assembly, a stranger has no right to associate with them. Sa te jene ne kuvend burrat e dheut, s'ka tager kush i huej me u perzie nder ta.
    1117. The Chiefs and the Elders sit at the Assembly according to rank and seniority. Krenet e Pleqt rrijn ne kuvend mbas priject e tagrit.
    1118. At an Assembly, when one person speaks, the others must listen and remain silent. Ne kuvend, sa te flase njani, tjeret do te ndigjojn e te heshtin.
    1122. Offensive language is not permitted at an Assembly. Fjala e rande nuk bahet ne kuvend.
    1123. The Kanun forbids insults to anyone at the Assembly; if someone insults another person, a fine up to 5 sheep is imposed on him. Kanunja s'ban qi te shahet kush ne kuvend; po bani kush ket pune, do te gjobitet mje ne 5 desh.
    1124. If someone calls another person a liar at an Assembly, a fine of up to 500 grosh is imposed on him. Po i tha kush kuej se rrene ne kuvend, do te gjobitet mje ne 500 grosh.
    Page 202 The Code of Leke Dukagjini, Gjonleka Publishing Co., New York, NY 1989 Page 69 Historical Dictionary of Albania, Raymond Hutchins, The Scarecrow Press , Inc., Lanham, MD and London, 1996

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    Post Re: Women become men in Albania

    Quote Originally Posted by lg
    In some parts of Albania, particularly in the north, families follow a code of ethics called the Kanun.
    Oh , no! it's just in Northern Albania where their tiny minority of christians live , and with this thing of women that "become" men , they will fade away if compared to mudslims!

    look at this map that describes how many men are there , is it a mere coincidence that the more we go northward the more we found "men"?

    Here's you are an intersting site about marriage patterns in Albania
    http://http://www-gewi.uni-graz.at/s..._patterns.html

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    Post Re: Women become men in Albania

    The practice is not common enough to effect population statistics. Antonia Young, the author of Women Who Become Men: Albanian Sworn Virgins had to travel to remote villages in the north to find this practice at all.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Evolved View Post
    The practice is not common enough to effect population statistics. Antonia Young, the author of Women Who Become Men: Albanian Sworn Virgins had to travel to remote villages in the north to find this practice at all.
    There are indications it has deeper IE roots though "officially" it is a response to Ottoman predation. It should be pointed out the custom has little to do with gender identity or transgenderism. Carleton Coon met birjinesha in Albania and noted that only one of then had what we might call gender dysphoria. The other was merely following local custom and was in fact promiscuously heterosexual - itself a masculine sexual lifestyle to Albanian culture although in the past it carried the death sentence for the birjinesha. The custom served to regulate inheritance and reproduction.

    A real social phenomenon such as this was probably reflected in goddesses such as Athena, Skadi et cetera.

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    Seems like degenerate behavior no matter what it's origins are and how old they are.

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