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The sworn virgins of Albania

The Kanuni i Leke Dukagjinit (The Code of Lekë Dukagjini) is an oral law code which ruled the lives of those residing in the Northern Albanian area for at least five centuries. It was first codified in the 15th century by the Albanian Prince Lekë Dukagjini, but it was not written down until the 19th century. For this reason, scholars are unsure as to its origins.

The Kanun is divided into 12-14 sections (depending on which version you are looking at) dealing with church, family, marriage, house, livestock, property, work, spoken word, honor, damages, criminal law, judicial law, and exemptions and exceptions. In short, it governed every aspect of daily life.

Of women, the Kanun says: “A woman is a sack made to endure.” Under the Kanun, women are the property of their fathers, and later of their husbands and their husbands’ family. There were very few jobs women could hold, and many establishments they were not allowed to enter.

However, what is fascinating about the Kanun is that it provides a way for women to regain control over their lives; it is a loophole, of sorts. In fact, you could even call it empowering if you are speaking from a pre-feminist standpoint.

The loophole was that women had the ability to become a man in the eyes of both family and society. The women who became men were, and still are, known as sworn virgins. Upon taking a vow set forth in the Kanun, a woman would dress like a man, act like a man, work like a man, and command the respect accorded to a man; the only thing she was not allowed to do was to engage in sexual activity .

Sworn virgin Shkurtan Hasanpapaj worked for many years as a high ranking officer for the Communist Party. She supervised many men, and none questioned her authority as a man even as the government body they worked for strove to stamp out adherence to the Kanun.

There are two primary conditions under which a woman would become a man. The first was that if a woman did not want to marry the man chosen for her by her family, she could become a sworn virgin. It must be said, though, that refusals to marry would often result in the woman being killed before she could take any sort of vow.

The second—and far more frequent—condition was in the case that a family had no sons, or that all of the men in the family had been killed. In that case, a daughter would become a sworn virgin, and act as the head of the family, and as the family’s spokesperson and protector in the eyes of the community.

You may be wondering under what conditions all the men in a family would be killed. The Kanun takes a distinctly eye-for-an-eye stance on murder, and dictates that for every person murdered, another would be murdered in their place. This resulted in the emergence of blood feuds between, and sometimes within, families. These feuds would often wipe out entire male lines, and continue to do so today.

Although blood feuds have been officially illegal since the Communists began their rule in 1946, and continued to be illegal after the Communists fell in 1991, it remains a problem in remote areas of Northern Albania. In fact, blood feuds are even more of a problem today than they were under Communist rule (for more on that, please see the video linked below).

About 50 sworn virgins exist in Albania today, and even though women are gaining equal rights, and even though the old traditions are slowly dying out, they still command the utmost respect of their communities. They are also active participants in blood feuds and, as men, can be targeted by them.

Pashe Keqi

One sworn virgin, 78 year-old Pashe Keqi, became a man because “back then, it was better to be a man because before, a woman and an animal were considered the same thing. I was totally free as a man because no one knew I was a woman. I could go wherever I wanted to and no one would dare swear at me because I could beat them up. Now, Albanian women have equal rights with men and are even more powerful, and I think today it would be fun to be a woman.”

As man, she is the head of the family, and has thus taken an active role in perpetuating a blood feud between her family and the man who murdered her father. When the man, at the age of 80, was released from prison, Keqi ordered her 15 year old nephew to shoot him. Her nephew was then murdered by the man’s family. 

She said that “I always dreamed of avenging my father’s death. My brothers tried to, but did not succeed. Of course, I have regrets my nephew was killed. But if you kill me, I have to kill you.”

Another sworn virgin, Lule Ivanaj said that she lives as a man “because I value my freedom. I suppose I was ahead of my time. Absolutely [I would have felt restricted in marriage]! More like squashed than restricted…Even when there’s love and harmony, only men have the right to decide. I want total equity or nothing.”

Sanie Vatoci, who is currently 50 years old, has come to regret the oath she took as a teenager after her father’s death. “While looking at other couples reading books, watching movies I began to wonder: Why don’t I have a partner? Why am I acting like a man? There must have been a man out there for me.” But, after living most of her life as a man, and living in a community which, even now, shuns those who break the oath, she can’t go back to life as a woman.

Qamile Stema, is, at 88 years old, the last sworn virgin remaining in her community. She took the oath at the age of 20 after the death of her father

Diana Rakipi, however, at 54 years old neither regrets her decision, nor does she think highly of modern Albanian woman. “Today women go out half naked to the disco and do not know their limits. I was always treated my whole life as a man, always with respect. I can’t clean, I can’t iron, I can’t cook. That is a woman’s work.”

The below two videos do a fabulous job of illustrating a. how sworn virgins feel about their identities as the circumstances which led them to take up those identities slowly disappear, and b. the continuous issue of blood feuds throughout the Northern Albanian region. The second video, at times, takes on a rather condescending, othering tone, and both videos misapply the term “transgender.” However, they still do an excellent job of expanding on some of what I’ve touched upon in this post.

The second video has disabled embedding, so you may view it here.

All quotations and most of the images in this post are from the following sources: 1, 2, 3.

Lastly, I plan on poking around some academic journals and seeing if any anthropologists or social scientists have conducted any studies on gender identity and sexuality in relation to the sworn virgins. I am sure they have, and I will supply the bibliographic details of anything I find in my next further reading post.

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