New Documentary: "Sworn Virgins"

By Christine Cupaiuolo — August 28, 2007

Bet you thought I’d be writing about purity balls or promise rings.

But not this time. The Chicago Tribune last week had a fascinating story about women in northern Albania who take an oath of lifelong virginity in exchange for the right to live as men. They are able to choose professions and an independence that would otherwise would have been off-limits to them because of their sex, but the sacrifices are obviously great.

Their history is the focus of the documentary “Sworn Virgins,” created by Albanian journalist and author Elvira Dones, who now lives in Rockville, Md.

The news story, by Joshua Zumbrun, was reprinted from the Washington Post, where you’ll also find a two-minute video clip. He writes:

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. […]

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.

Today there are only a few dozen sworn virgins who still live in Albania, and maybe a few more in Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro. Dones interviewed 12 of them for the documentary, ranging in age from 20-something to elderly women.

“Why live like a man?” one virgin, Lule Ivanaj, asks herself rhetorically in the documentary. “Because I value my freedom. I suppose I was ahead of my time.”

If you’re in the Baltimore area, you can see “Sworn Virgins” on Oct. 13, during the Baltimore Women’s Film Festival.

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 Zumbrun notes that the some of the women interviewed for the documentary are saddened by their sacrifices. They cannot ever marry or have children.

One 50-year-old woman, who took the oath as a teenager when her father died, says, “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? There must have been a man out there for me.”

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