Sworn virgins of Albania: Antonia Young explains women becoming honorary men in remote, rural Albania in absence of heir

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Home | News | Sworn virgins of Albania: Antonia Young explains women becoming honorary men in remote, rural Albania in absence of heir
  • Remote mountain villages allow women to become 'honorary' men
  • They must cut hair, dress and act like men, and socialise with other men
  • Tradition occurs when no male heirs are left in a family
  • Patriarchal society means a woman cannot take over
  • Antonia Young wrote Women Who Become Men: Albanian Sworn Virgins

By Martha De Lacey

PUBLISHED: 09:19 EST, 27 March 2013 | UPDATED: 12:33 EST, 27 March 2013

These photos, taken in remote villages in rural Albania, appear to be portraits of elderly and middle-aged men.

But the subjects are in fact women, women known as 'sworn virgins', females who have chosen - in the absence of any suitable male heir within their family - to renounce their femininity, cut off their hair and live in celibacy as 'honorary' men for the rest of their lives.

Antonia Young, anthropologist and author of Women Who Become Men: Albanian Sworn Virgins, explains that the rigid patriarchy of remote Albania refuses to allow a woman to take over the family estate once all men have died.

'Sworn virgins' came about when there was no man left to inherit a family's land in rural, patriarchal Albania, and a woman was forced to take over by abandoning her womanhood and becoming a celibate male figure

'Sworn virgins' came about when there was no man left to inherit a family's land in rural, patriarchal Albania, and a woman was forced to take over by abandoning her womanhood and becoming a celibate male figure

And so when only women remain within a family, one will decide to become a 'man', swearing to remain an unmarried virgin forever and become the new head of the family. Or else, as is the case when girls are very young, her parents will decide for her.

Young explains that the sworn-in girl will be brought up and dressed as a boy, forced to act as a male and to socialise with other boys and men, shall organise the farmland and the work done on it, and even be permitted to carry a weapon. The 'sworn virgin' will never be allowed to revert back to being a woman. It is thought that breaking the vow was once punishable by death.

Sworn virgins, right, are required to dress and act as men, and be completely celibate - it is thought that breaking the vow was once punishable by death

Sworn virgins, right, are required to dress and act as men, and be completely celibate - it is thought that breaking the vow was once punishable by death

She adds that the ancient custom, now dying out, has lasted for some 200 years. It remained a strong tradition in Albania - and to a lesser extent in Montenegro and Kosovo - until the fall of communism in 1991, but sworn virgins are now a rarity.

Becoming a 'sworn virgin' did allow women to escape from unwanted arranged marriages
 

The practice was born from traditional, northern Albanian law, the Kanun of Lek Dukagjin, which believed that women belonged to their fathers until marriage, and then became the property of their husbands. Becoming a 'sworn virgin' did allow women to escape from unwanted arranged marriages.

Speaking about the custom, Young says it not only gave women independence, 'but also a right to head a family, and retain property which otherwise would be taken over by the closest male relative'.

In rural Albania the practice of 'sworn virgins', left, is the social norm, according to anthropologist Antonia Young, right

The public declaration in which the female becomes a man happens on one of three occasions: At her birth (if the family has no male heir and knows they never will), at the death of the family's only male (often at war), or at her refusal to marry the man her family wish her to accept as a husband.

'It is so accepted as normal that people could not understand why I found it so interesting'

Interestingly, most 'sworn virgins' confess to feeling proud of their fate, and say they gained status they would not otherwise have had in such a patriarchal society.

In rural Albania, the practice is still accepted as a social norm. Young says: 'It is so accepted as normal that people could not understand why I found it so interesting.'

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