Albanian Custom Fades: Woman as Family ManIn such a patriarchal society (as it was then), I wonder whether the personal sacrifices were worth the advantages of living as a man. Still, despite such inequality, it was rather ironic that women could prove that they were equal to men by emulating them.
By DAN BILEFSKY
Published: June 25, 2008
KRUJE, Albania — Pashe Keqi recalled the day nearly 60 years ago when she decided to become a man. She chopped off her long black curls, traded in her dress for her father’s baggy trousers, armed herself with a hunting rifle and vowed to forsake marriage, children and sex.
Pashe Keqi, 78, took an oath of virginity when she was 20 to become the family patriarch after her father’s death in a blood feud. Photo by Johan Spanner for The New York Times
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.
She says she would not do it today, now that sexual equality and modernity have come even to Albania, with Internet dating and MTV invading after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Girls here do not want to be boys anymore. With only Ms. Keqi and some 40 others remaining, the sworn virgin is dying off.
“Back then, it was better to be a man because before a woman and an animal were considered the same thing,” said Ms. Keqi, who has a bellowing baritone voice, sits with her legs open wide like a man and relishes downing shots of raki. “Now, Albanian women have equal rights with men, and are even more powerful. I think today it would be fun to be a woman.”
The tradition of the sworn virgin can be traced to the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini, a code of conduct passed on orally among the clans of northern Albania for more than 500 years. Under the Kanun, the role of a woman is severely circumscribed: take care of children and maintain the home. While a woman’s life is worth half that of a man, a virgin’s value is the same: 12 oxen.
The sworn virgin was born of social necessity in an agrarian region plagued by war and death. If the family patriarch died with no male heirs, unmarried women in the family could find themselves alone and powerless. By taking an oath of virginity, women could take on the role of men as head of the family, carry a weapon, own property and move freely.
They dressed like men and spent their lives in the company of other men, even though most kept their female given names. They were not ridiculed, but accepted in public life, even adulated. For some the choice was a way for a woman to assert her autonomy or to avoid an arranged marriage.
“Stripping off their sexuality by pledging to remain virgins was a way for these women in a male-dominated, segregated society to engage in public life,” said Linda Gusia, a professor of gender studies at the University of Pristina, in Kosovo. “It was about surviving in a world where men rule.”
Taking an oath to become a sworn virgin should not, sociologists say, be equated with homosexuality, long taboo in rural Albania. Nor do the women have sex-change operations.
Known in her household as the “pasha,” Ms. Keqi said she decided to become the man of the house at age 20 when her father was murdered. Her four brothers opposed the Communist government of Enver Hoxha, the ruler for 40 years until his death in 1985, and they were either imprisoned or killed. Becoming a man, she said, was the only way to support her mother, her four sisters-in-law and their five children.
Ms. Keqi lorded over her large family in her modest house in Tirana, where her nieces served her brandy while she barked out orders. She said living as a man had allowed her freedom denied other women. She worked construction jobs and prayed at the mosque with men. Even today, her nephews and nieces said, they would not dare marry without their “uncle’s” permission.
When she stepped outside the village, she enjoyed being taken for a man. “I was totally free as a man because no one knew I was a woman,” Ms. Keqi said. “I could go wherever I wanted to and no one would dare swear at me because I could beat them up. I was only with men. I don’t know how to do women’s talk. I am never scared.”
When she was recently hospitalized for surgery, the other woman in her room was horrified to be sharing close quarters with someone she assumed was male.
Being the man of the house also made her responsible for avenging her father’s death, she said. When her father’s killer, by then 80, was released from prison five years ago, Ms. Keqi said, her 15-year-old nephew shot him dead. Then the man’s family took revenge and killed her nephew. “I always dreamed of avenging my father’s death,” she said. “Of course, I have regrets; my nephew was killed. But if you kill me, I have to kill you.”
In Albania, a majority Muslim country in the western Balkans, the Kanun is adhered to by Muslims and Christians. Albanian cultural historians said the adherence to medieval customs long discarded elsewhere was a byproduct of the country’s previous isolation. But they stressed that the traditional role of the Albanian woman was changing.
“The Albanian woman today is a sort of minister of economics, a minister of affection and a minister of interior who controls who does what,” said Ilir Yzeiri, who writes about Albanian folklore. “Today, women in Albania are behind everything.”
Some sworn virgins bemoan the changes. Diana Rakipi, 54, a security guard in the seaside city of Durres, in west Albania, who became a sworn virgin to take care of her nine sisters, said she looked back with nostalgia on the Hoxha era. During Communist times, she was a senior army officer, training women as combat soldiers. Now, she lamented, women do not know their place.
“Today women go out half naked to the disco,” said Ms. Rakipi, who wears a military beret. “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.”
But even in the remote mountains of Kruje, about 30 miles north of Tirana, residents say the Kanun’s influence on gender roles is disappearing. They said erosion of the traditional family, in which everyone once lived under the same roof, had altered women’s position in society.
“Women and men are now almost the same,” said Caca Fiqiri, whose aunt Qamile Stema, 88, is his village’s last sworn virgin. “We respect sworn virgins very much and consider them as men because of their great sacrifice. But there is no longer a stigma not to have a man of the house.”
Yet there is no doubt who wears the trousers in Ms. Stema’s one-room stone house in Barganesh, the family’s ancestral village. There, on a recent day, “Uncle” Qamile was surrounded by her clan, dressed in a qeleshe, the traditional white cap of an Albanian man. Pink flip-flops were her only concession to femininity.
After becoming a man at the age of 20, Ms. Stema said, she carried a gun. At wedding parties, she sat with the men. When she talked to women, she recalled, they recoiled in shyness.
She said becoming a sworn virgin was a necessity and a sacrifice. “I feel lonely sometime, all my sisters have died, and I live alone,” she said. “But I never wanted to marry. Some in my family tried to get me to change my clothes and wear dresses, but when they saw I had become a man, they left me alone.”
Ms. Stema said she would die a virgin. Had she married, she joked, it would have been to a traditional Albanian woman. “I guess you could say I was partly a woman and partly a man,” she said. “I liked my life as a man. I have no regrets.”
I could do with more time off work.