Saturday, August 11, 2007

Traditional Changing of Gender Identity in Albania

The Sacrifices of Albania's 'Sworn Virgins'
A Rockville Filmmaker Tells Of an Old Custom That Both Liberates and Limits Women

By Joshua Zumbrun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 11, 2007; C01

When the Albanian journalist and author Elvira Dones was traveling in the mountains of northern Albania, she asked for directions from someone she thought was a man walking his mule through a village, rifle on shoulder.

After the exchange, her guide whispered, "That is one of them."

Dones, who lives in Rockville, had just met an adherent of an ancient northern Albanian tradition in which women take an oath of lifelong virginity in exchange for the right to live as men. The process is not surgical -- in these mountains there is little knowledge that sex-change surgery is even possible. Rather, sworn virgins cut their hair and wear baggy men's clothes and take up manly livelihoods as shepherds or truck drivers or even political leaders. And those around them -- despite knowing the sworn virgins are women -- treat them as men.

The idea that a woman would need to forsake love and live as a man to control her own fate seems primitive to modern eyes. But perhaps, in the context of a once-upon-a-time culture, a culture before feminism, it can be seen as progressive. The existence of sworn virgins reveals a cultural belief, however inchoate, that a biological woman can do all the work of a man.

"Why live like a man?" one virgin, Lule Ivanaj, asks herself rhetorically in an English-subtitled documentary that Dones (pronounced DOH-nez) made on the women for Swiss television called "Sworn Virgins." Ivanaj looks like a man in his 50s, with short hair, thick arms and a wide metal watchband on one wrist. "Because I value my freedom. I suppose I was ahead of my time."

Dones, 47, learned about sworn virgins 25 years ago from her university classmates in Albania's capital, Tirana. The practice has existed at least since the 15th century, when the traditions of the region were first codified, according to Dones. The sworn virgins came into being for emergencies: If the patriarch of the family died and there was no other man to carry on, a provision was needed so that a woman could run her family.

When Dones was in college, the country was under the control of communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled for more than 40 years until his death in 1985. Dones had the itch to tell the story of the sworn virgins, but the communist regime tightly controlled the media and travel to the north was not allowed.

In 1988, Dones -- then a journalist for state-run television -- defected, in part because of frustration with her country's government. She moved to the Italian-language region of Switzerland, where she worked for Swiss television and wrote novels.

Three years ago, she moved to Rockville, where she continues to write and make documentaries for Swiss television. She is now a popular novelist in Italy and Albania, having written eight books of fiction; her most recent novel, published this year in Italian and Albanian, is about a 34-year-old woman named Hana, who comes to regret her decision to live as a sworn virgin. For her book, Dones read up on the tradition, which has been documented by historians and sociologists. But until recently she had never met a sworn virgin, except for that brief, unwitting encounter with the rifle-toting virgin while filming a documentary on another topic.

"I was happy with the novel, but I wanted to see them," Dones says, "I was obsessed by them."

So last year Dones traveled to meet with them. There are only about 30 to 40 sworn virgins remaining in Albania, Dones says, with perhaps a few in the neighboring mountains of Kosovo and Serbia and Montenegro. Dones interviewed 12, from elderly women to 20-somethings. The documentary debuted on Swiss television this year and has been accepted into the Baltimore Women's Film Festival, which takes place in October. It also is available through Dones Media, the U.S.-based production company Dones co-owns with Swiss television.

In the mountains of northern Albania, throughout modern history, women have had very few rights. They cannot vote in their local elections, they cannot buy land, there are many jobs they are not permitted to hold; they cannot even enter many establishments. An ancient set of laws called the Kanun still helps govern the region. The Kanun says, "A woman is a sack made to endure."

Other traditional practices of the north were repressed by the communists, but leaders in Tirana simply never cared if a woman in the impoverished and remote mountains wanted to dress and labor as a man.

Over the years, women became sworn virgins for different reasons. Some swore the oath if the patriarch of the family died. Others swore the oath out of a fierce streak of independence, and others because it was the only way to avoid an arranged marriage without disgracing the family of the selected groom. The oath is traditionally sworn in front of a town's elders, though some women take the oath privately.

One virgin that Dones interviews in the documentary, Shkurtan Hasanpapaj, once served as the local secretary of the Communist Party, the top office in her region. She was in charge of all the men, and though they knew the reality of her anatomy, her authority was unquestioned.

Asked if she would have felt restricted in a marriage, the virgin Ivanaj responds, "Absolutely! More like squashed than restricted. . . . Even when there's love and harmony, only men have the right to decide. I want total equity or nothing."

"I wanted to tell their stories and respect the way they told their stories," Dones says. "I found an extreme sense of beauty in them. They are not bitter. They carry the stories with such dignity. . . . They are so comfortable with their role."

But the virgins in Dones's documentary acknowledge there are many sacrifices with this lifestyle. The women may enjoy the rights of men, but they are denied their womanhood. They will never experience the pleasures of having a lifelong partner or bearing children.

Sanie Vatoci, a 50-year-old who took the oath as a teenager when her father died, speaks of how she has slowly come to regret the life she now leads as a solitary truck driver.

"While looking at other couples, reading books, watching movies -- I began to wonder: Why don't I have a partner? Why am I acting like a man?" Vatoci says. "There must have been a man out there for me."

But it may be too late for her. Even as movies and television creep into northern Albania, even as traditions slowly die, Vatoci could never go back on her oath, she says. Breaking the oath was once punishable by death, and though Dones doubts such punishment would be enforced today, a deflowered sworn virgin would nevertheless be shunned, she says. She would certainly never be accepted as a woman.

It's easy now for people to come down from the mountains. Travel is no longer restricted. The city beckons. And just as many members of the new generation leave their ancestral homelands for a modern life, modern life slowly trickles back into the mountains. The choice between being a woman and having the rights of men is no longer absolute.

"I asked the young girls of the region what they think of the sworn virgins," Dones says. "They said they respect them, but they would never follow their path. Not now."

Vatoci, the truck driver, has applied to immigrate to the United States, where her sister has lived for seven years, and maybe here, Vatoci figures, she could have a fresh start.

"She deeply feels that she needs to give love to someone else," Dones says. "And of course, she's not delusional. She knows that perhaps she will never find a man. And perhaps she could never start a life as a woman at 50."

Though Vatoci speaks no English, she has the "skills of a man," and Dones thinks she could make it in America: "She went to school for being a truck mechanic. She's a tough guy."

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