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Fewer Albanian women become men

26 June, 2008

A fascinating story appeared yesterday in The New York Times: Albanian Custom Fades: Woman as Family Man, by Dan Bilefsky. As the story reports:

For centuries, in the closed-off and conservative society of rural northern Albania, swapping genders was considered a practical solution for a family with a shortage of men. Her father was killed in a blood feud, and there was no male heir. By custom, Ms. Keqi, now 78, took a vow of lifetime virginity. She lived as a man, the new patriarch, with all the swagger and trappings of male authority — including the obligation to avenge her father’s death.

Ironically, this avenue for gender transfer has become less attractive, according to Bilefsky, as women have achieved higher status. As Keqi tells Bilefsky: ‘Now, Albanian women have equal rights with men, and are even more powerful. I think today it would be fun to be a woman.’

In Ms. Kequi’s case, the decision to became the patriarch of the family was also influenced by the fact that four brothers had been either killed or imprisoned for opposing the Communist government; by becoming a social male, she could take of her four sisters-in-law and her mother by taking on construction jobs. Another woman became an army officer after swearing virginity and taking up the roles expected of men.

Although the NYT piece is not terribly deep, it’s beguiling in its own way, with the women repeatedly saying that they ‘don’t know how’ to do women’s stereotypical jobs, talking about how much the enjoyed being men. The photos and things that the women say are a touching window in on their lives, but also on the enormous change since they pledged virginity and assumed the roles of men; some reflect back over sixty years as men. They come to grips in various ways with the fact that women are no longer making the same decision; one of the slides says that only 40 are left (although I don’t know where the author found the number).

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 27 June, 2008 2:28 am

    As I recall, this is about the 3rd time the NYT has written about the sworn virgins of Albania in the past couple of years. They’re quite fascinated with the topic, which is culturally interesting in and of itself!

  2. 27 June, 2008 9:16 am

    Found this story in the “Globe and Mail” today. Interesting, but just like Kate says, why the virginity oath? I mean, I can find explanations, but I think it is an interesting dimension of ‘becoming a man’ – not being betrayed by your sexuality (which seems understood in a very patriarchal manner). I guess the whole gender problematic is extremely interesting in this context.

  3. 2 July, 2008 8:49 am

    The Guardian had a piece last year, with individual profiles, by an author of a recent(ish) book.

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