A virgin inheritance

July 21, 1995

In the inaccessible mountain villages of northern Albania, neighbouring Montenegro and Kosova, a number of women are living as men, having sworn an irrevocable oath to take on the male gender role and all that entails, and to remain celibate for life.

Anthropologist Antonia Young, honorary research fellow in the research unit in south-east European studies at Bradford University, has been studying these women, who are known as sworn virgins.

She quotes from a local code of practices and social ordering: "A woman is known as a sack, made to endure as long as she lives in her husband's house. Her parents do not interfere in her affairs, but they bear the responsibility for her and must answer for anything dishonourable she does." This mid-15th-century Kanun (Code) of Leke Dukagjini was passed down orally but not written down until this century.

Ms Young believes that such customs have given rise to the existence of sworn virgins. Women could take the oath as children, when parents or grandparents were likely to make the decision for them, or decide for themselves when they were older, although Ms Young found more of the former.

The relatively low status of women contributed to the practice, along with the strictly genderised customs and tasks of a pastoral economy. Certain things could only be done by men including heading households and inheriting property. If a family produced only female children, sometimes one would become a sworn virgin and live as a man in order to be able to inherit the property when the father died.

Another reason for a shortage of men was the area's long tradition of blood feuds. Ms Young estimated that currently there are up to 2,000 feuds involving 60,000 people.

If someone is dishonoured, the male members of the family affected must restore family honour, perhaps by killing a male member of the offending family - which in turn may lead to reciprocal killings. When a sworn virgin was killed last century, 72 men died in the resulting feuds. The potential for such feuds has increased since the end of Albania's totalitarian regime and the subsequent redistribution of land belonging to former co-operatives and state farms.

Ms Young met five sworn virgins aged from 40 to 80 and only one had any regrets, saying she would "not wish it on another woman". She was the only one to have become a sworn virgin as an adult.

Ms Young will be reporting to the American Anthropological Association meeting in Washington in November as well as producing an article for the international women's magazine which helped fund the study. She believes that some girls are still becoming sworn virgins, despite the influence of television and 50 years of suppression of the practice. And if blood feuding expands and male heads of household are in short supply then it could become more common.

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