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The Albanian Sworn Virgins

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Charlie Caplan

Critical Feminist Literature

Writing Assignment 2

14 November 2008


The Albanian Sworn Virgins


          When most people lose a father or older brother, it is often devastating news. Preparations are made for funerals, for telling other friends and family, and how to get on living. In northern Albania, however, it brings thoughts as to who will take his place as the patriarchal head of a family. In most cases, it’s a woman.

          The Albanian sworn virgins, or burrnesha, are part of a tradition that dates back to at least the 15th century in northern Albania (Zumbrun). They follow the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini, an oral code of conduct passed through Albanian generations, to which both Mulsims and Christians in the mostly-Muslim nation adhere (AJC). The Kanun of Leke Dukagjini states that if there is no male heir, “women could take on the role of men as head of the family, carry a weapon, own property and move freely” (AJC). In such a “male-dominated, segregated society,” women who attempted to become heads of families “could find themselves alone and powerless” (AJC). According to Linda Gusia, a professor of gender studies at the University of Pristina in Kosovo, "It was about surviving in a world where men rule" (AJC). However, no sex-change operation is performed to achieve this change in role; sworn virgins simply “cut their hair and wear baggy men's clothes and take up manly livelihoods” (Zumbrun).

          Becoming the patriarchal head of a family is not the only reason to become a sworn virgin, however. It is a shameless way to escape an arranged marriage, and also allows an unvalued woman a chance to live their lives in a streak of independence.

          No sex-change operation is performed; “there is little knowledge that sex-change surgery is even possible” (Zumbrun). The virgins merely make a vow of virginity in front of a group of town elders, or make a vow of virginity to themselves, in private. Either way, the result is the same: “despite knowing the sworn virgins are women, [other people] treat them as men” (Zumbrun). While they may or may not keep their given, female names, they are referred to with male pronouns, act like other men, and are looked upon with respect.

          However, this is a practice that is slowly dying out. Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Albania’s 40 year long communist government of Enver Hoxha, which never cared enough about what clothes women wore to stamp out the tradition, a diverse myriad of influences are entering the country, informing everyone that women are completely capable of leading a family, and that taking on the male gender role is not necessary to succeed in society.

Only about 40 sworn virgins remain in Albania (AJC). While they are still respected and treated as men, today’s generation say that they could never choose to take such an oath; for them, there is no need to. Having been exposed to “internet dating and MTV invading […] girls here do not want to be boys anymore” (AJC). Men and women have “equal rights,” and women “are even more powerful” (AJC).

However, this death of the sworn virgin does not indicate that the practice was misogynistic. While the concept of giving up love in order to live freely seems unfair, it “reveals a cultural belief, however inchoate, that a biological woman can do all the work of a man” (Zumbrun). And, in a culture where “a woman and an animal were considered the same thing,” this can certainly be seen as progressive (AJC). Because, besides a vow of virginity, the only thing standing between a life of oppression and freedom is a pair of pants and short hair. The gender roles, and what each one is allowed and expected to do, are very strict in the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini. However, it seems that gender itself is not.

In our American society, it takes a lot of work to be socially considered a man: surgeries, changing legal documents, monitoring one’s voice and movements, and ultimately trying to “pass”. And, even then, one always is afraid of being “found out,” which invites ridicule, prejudice, and possible harassment. Gender roles are also very strict: children are scolded if they attempt to play with the toys of the wrong gender, or act outside of their given gender role.

The concept of merely changing one’s clothes and pronouns, regardless of the state of one’s body, makes one realize that gender is not something so rigid and constraining, as some believe. The fact that sworn virgins are respected in society, as well, indicates that, unlike America, traversing the border between genders is not looked down upon, but in fact revered. Not only do sworn virgins have courage to become men in order to face obstacles – the loss of a paternal figure, an unwanted arranged marriage, etc – but they have courage to behave and live differently than what is expected of them.

Since the fall of Enver Hoxha’s regime, gender equality has come more and more into focus in Albania. Without the insistence of a patriarchal society, women do not have to become men in order to support their family and live freely. However, their relaxation of gender limitations and eased way to change one’s gender is something to be commended, especially by a society that stresses that pink is for girls, blue is for boys. True gender equality comes from the defeat of gender limits, and the Albanian sworn virgins are certainly a competent example of that.


Works Cited


“Albanian Sworn Virgins.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 15 Feb. 2002. <>


Zumbrun, Joshua. “The Sacrifices of Albania’s Sworn Virgins.” Washington Post. 11 Aug. 2007. < AR2007081002158.html>


skumar's picture


Your paper, Charlie, is very interesting! You write: [women must] “cut their hair and wear baggy men's clothes and take up manly livelihoods.” This reminds of Mira's Nair's film Water, a film about the unfortunate consequences for a female child widow who was forced by her financially deprived family to marry a rich old man. In the film, she also shaves her hair so to look more "masculine." The reason? Women are no longer womenly without their male counterpart so must look unrecognizable and live in dearth with other widowers in an ashram.

It is an extermely emotional film, but I would HIGHLY reccomend it if you are at all interested.

Anne Dalke's picture

"The defeat of gender limits"


You're focusing here on a fascinating phenomena, a particular practice of gender-crossing in a very particular social (and, since the practice seems to be dying out, also in a very particular temporal) location. I want to know much more! Your only sources are two newspaper articles. I see that there's a 2001 anthropological text, Antonia Young's Women Who Become Men: Albanian Sworn Virgins (Dress, Body, Culture), which would certainly be worth consulting.

Much of the theoretical work we have done in this course might also be quite useful in illuminating this practice; part of the "cultural context" that needs to be further highlighted here is not only the particular social location you are examining, but the social location from which you are examining it. The phenomenon of the Albanian sworn virgins would form, I think, a fascinating illustration of Judith Butler's claim that gender is "always about something else," a challenge to any profound ontological claim of "realness," to the inalienability of gender identity, as demonstrated by the ease with which it can be performed.

Of particular interest to me is the fact that, in order to become men, these women must forgo sex. What is the logic of that? To prohibit homosexuality? If that's the case, then you have unearthed a very striking but not unique practice, one perhaps not so far different (albeit absent the surgery) from that Afsaneh Najmabadi describes in Truth in Sex: as she explains it, while trans-sexuality in Iran is made legitimate, homosexuality is insistently reiterated as abnormal. This decision would then not be so different, either, from our critique of the plot line of Middlesex as homophobic: better for Cal to be a man than to be a lesbian....