“Sworn virgins” – but no promise rings here

A couple of days ago, everybody’s favorite pretentious publication, The New York Times, ran a fascinating piece on the dying trend of “sworn virgins” in rural Albania. These are women who – due to disease, warfare, or a simple overload of girl babies – were left without a male figure to lead their families, and decided to step into that role themselves. The gender switch was a thorough one; it entailed the chopping off of hair, the adoption of male dress, and the commitment to a life without marriage, sex, or children.
What’s especially striking about this practice, however, is how it was and continues to be received by the rest of Albanian society. The sworn virgins are celebrated and revered, just like a traditional patriarch would be. People realize that the shift into life as a man was a necessity for these women, meant to protect their loved ones from the poverty that was once inevitable for families without a male leader. By inhabiting an ambiguous gender space (for example, most of the sworn virgins kept their female names while taking on masculine mannerisms and duties) – these women took hold of power not usually available to them.
I only wish the Times had spent more time on the implications of the sworn virgin phenomenon, because it raises a lot of questions. Why do these women-living-as-men get along so easily into their highly traditional patriarchal society, while in our “progressive” country people who do the same thing struggle to fit in? What does it take for a group to decide that crossing the gender divide is acceptable, even natural?

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