Tradition of 'sworn virgins' dying out in Albania
By Elena Becatoros
The Associated Press
SHKODRA, Albania - Drene Markgjoni spent 12 years in a hard-labor camp, punished for her fiance's attempt to flee Albania's regime, then one of the world's most repressive and isolationist.
She swore she would never suffer like that for somebody else again.
She pledged to forgo sex and marriage for the rest of her life, and declared herself a man.
That was six decades ago. Now 85, with close-cropped white hair, dressed in a man's blue striped shirt and black trousers, she greets visitors with a manly handshake. The way she walks, her confident gestures, everything about her is masculine.
Only her voice - soft and feminine - reveals her to be one of the last sworn virgins in Albania: Women who dress, act and are treated as men.
"I am happier like this," she says. "I don't regret it at all. Not a hair on my head does."
In this strongly patriarchal society where for centuries women had virtually no standing, sworn virgins enjoyed the same rights and respect as men. They could inherit property, work for a living and sit on the village council, although without the right to vote.
The privileges came at a price. They took an oath of celibacy and could never have sexual relations. And they could never go back to being women.
There are no official figures, but Antonia Young, a research fellow at the University of Bradford in Britain who has studied the practice for more than a decade, estimates that Albania had about 100 sworn virgins in the early 1990s. That number is now almost certainly much lower, as the practice and the women die out.
The reasons for becoming a sworn virgin can be practical - the head of the family dies with no male heir. Or they can be emotional - the woman does not want to marry the man chosen for her.
In Albania, particularly in the impoverished rural north, it was practically inconceivable for a woman to remain single and live alone.
But by becoming a man, Markgjoni was free. She could earn a living and eat and drink with men instead of being restricted to the kitchen. And she could adopt two habits denied to a traditional Albanian woman: smoking and wearing a watch.
She says she has worked in carpentry and farming, and in construction in her youth when, she proudly exclaims, she carried concrete slabs with the strength of two men.
Markgjoni still works, though now her job is less physical: making rosaries for her Catholic church in the northern town of Shkodra.
"I have had much more respect with my people, my family," she says.
The practice of sworn virgins stems from the Kanun, medieval laws handed down orally for generations before being codified in the early 20th century. It transcends religion, with sworn virgins found among Albania's majority Muslim community as well as the minority Catholics and Orthodox Christians.
In Albania's male-dominated society, a woman had virtually no rights: According to the Kanun, "a woman is known as a sack, made to endure as long as she lives in her husband's house." She could not inherit property, and work was limited to child-rearing and household chores.
Anthropologists stress that the tradition of sworn virgins, with its emphasis on celibacy, does not equate with homosexuality, which did not become legal in Albania until the 1990s.
"It's kind of the opposite extreme," says Young. "In one way, sworn virgins support patriarchy, because they support the feeling that you've got to have a man at the head, and this woman can be a man."
On the other hand, Young notes, "this would be a way round for a woman who had homosexual inclinations."
Traditionally the decision to become a sworn virgin turned on social reasons like not having enough men in the family, but recently it has become more a matter of the woman's choice, Young says.
With a deep rumbling voice and a distinctive swagger, Diana Rakipi, a security guard at a clinic in the seaside town of Durres, explains she always had a masculine outlook.
Rakipi, 54, who trades her security guard's cap for a military beret when not in uniform, never felt much like a girl.
"I have never worn a skirt," she says during a break at work. "It was not imposed by anyone for me to do this, nobody made me wear these clothes. I chose it."
Her Christian Orthodox family accepted her decision, and she has enjoyed the respect of her relatives and community ever since, she says, with nobody questioning her right to earn a living as she chooses.
"Nobody dared to ask me why don't I get married," she says. "I am considered No. 1 in my family."
This is the last generation of sworn virgins, according to Aferdita Onuzi, a professor at Tirana's Cultural, Anthropology and Arts Research Institute. In Albania these days, women enter parliament, government ministries, and the police force.
Qamile Stema, of Barkanesh, is one of Albania's last generation of sworn virgins. (HEKTOR PUSTINA / AP)
When Qamile Stema was a child, there were two sworn virgins in Barkanesh, a village perched in the hills above the northern town of Kruje. Stema, the youngest of nine girls, decided to stay and take care of her mother when her three surviving elder sisters married and moved away.
Now 88, dressed in baggy pants with a black waistcoat over her shirt and sporting the traditional white woolen cap of northern Albanian Muslim men, Stema is Barkanesh's last sworn virgin. She has lived a freer, if lonelier, life, she says.
"I have talked with other men, traveled with other men, even teased the women," she says. "Even when I went to dances, I danced as a man."
She has the unwavering respect of her family, she says. She has no regrets.
"I decided never to marry and I don't complain for that decision," she says. "Especially nowadays, all the old people are alone. I am alone. I don't complain. Because their children have left, and they are not different from me, the couples."