Sworn virgin is an identity found in remote areas of the Balkan Peninsula in which a tradition exists for women to become men. Although sworn virgins are not synonymous with transmen or Lesbians, they are an example of a pre-Stonewall trans identity based on traditional Balkan family values, thus are important in the study of Gay-related folklife as a Balkan tradition for gender-variant women.
Terms, Geography, and Traditional Law
The Balkan region in Eastern Europe is ethnically and linguistically mixed. Sworn virgin identity tends to cross ethnic, religious, and linguistic lines. Analysis of the terms used for sworn virgin identity delineate what the identity encompasses:
vergjineshë (Albanian: female committed to virginity)
muskobanja (Croatian: manlike woman, “tomboy,” “butch”)
tobelija (Serbo-Croatian: person bound by a vow).
The two most common terms seem to be vergjineshë and muskobanja.
As their name suggests, these men have consented to a life of celibacy and thus are not involved in sexual relationships of any sort.
Documented cases of several hundred sworn virgins have been found since the early nineteenth century, centered in the mountainous regions of northern Albania, and to a lesser extent in neighboring Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, and southern Serbia. However, most scholars contend that the phenomenon dates from at least the fifteenth century, since it is mentioned in two versions of the traditional law, the Kanun (Code or Canon) of Lekë Dukagjini and the Kanun of Skanderbeg, which were developed at that time. Because these laws predate the widespread conversion to Islam in the Balkans, sworn virgins may be found among both Muslim and Christian (Orthodox and Roman Catholic) families.
Masculinity as Duty, Escape, and Religious Vocation
In patriarchal cultures of the Balkans, the existence of sworn virgins is traced to one of three rationales, listed in order of frequency: 1) women become men to serve as the nominal head of household and inheritor of property in the absence of biological males, especially to replace a brother or father who has been killed in a blood feud. 2) Women become men to opt out of an unwanted arranged marriage, thereby avoiding the shame that would normally attach itself to the two families involved if they, as women, refused to honor the arrangement. 3) Women become men to enter a life of religious celibacy and asceticism. In none of these cases do women become men because they are sexually attracted to other women or because they enjoy cross-dressing.
Sworn virgins adopt traditional male attire and hairstyles, functioning for all intents and purposes as men. They are permitted to drink, smoke, hunt, carry firearms, and participate in vendetta. Antonia Young writes that sworn virgins are “permitted to carry a weapon and uphold the family honour in blood feuds.” Mildred Dickemann writes that some sworn virgins “became heads of all-man feuding and guerrilla bands.” use the masculine form of address, and entertain visitors — all of which are customarily prohibited to women — and they typically abandon the traditional female tasks of housekeeping, cooking, knitting, and childcare. Moreover, they are accepted as men by the men of their communities. The one obvious limitation is that sworn virgins must remain chaste and consequently have no direct heirs.
Decline of Sworn Virgins
The future of sworn virgins remains unclear. As Albania emerges out of the cultural and political isolation that characterized its nearly fifty years of strict Communist rule after World War II, and as even the remotest areas experience some modernization, its patriarchal culture – including the subservient role of women – is declining. There is less need for surrogate males to head households or for marriages to be arranged. Henceforth, the women in Albania (and other parts of the Balkans) who adopt the appearance and behavior of men may be recognized as lesbians, and the tradition could disappear.
Special acknowledgment to Slate and Jill Peters, the photographer who took these excellent images of sworn virgins (all except for the first one) that can be found in the article, “Sworn Virgins: Men by Choice in the Balkans” by Daphne Denis.
Bilefsky, Dan. “Old Custom Fades in Albania: Woman as Man of the Family.” New York Times, 25 June 2008, 1.
Dickemann, Mildred. “The Balkan Sworn Virgin: A Traditional European Transperson.” In Gender Blending, ed. Bonnie Bullough, Vern L. Bullough, James Elias. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1997. Pp. 248-55.
Grémaux, René. “Woman Becomes Man in the Balkans.” In Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, ed. Gilbert Herdt. New York: Zone Books, 1994. Pp. 241-81.
Young, Antonia. Women Who Become Men: Albanian Sworn Virgins. New York: Berg, 2000.