These Albanian "sworn virgins" lived like men—but with their hymens intact.
If you're like me, sometimes you fret about what Europeans must think of us Americans and our schizophrenic sex lives. Despite our Britneys and our Pamelas, it's no secret we're quite Puritanical. I worry some dashing Italian man or sexy Frenchwoman is watching a TV program (lounging in fabulous lingerie, I'm sure) about virginity pledges and purity balls and shaking their head at our country, which prizes purity so much we have industries built around it.
But an article on the BBC this weekend relaxed me a little bit about Europe: meet Albania's "sworn virgins." These poor, rural Albanian matrons chose decades ago (almost a century ago, in some cases) to live as virgins in order to be the "head of the household," often in the absence of male heirs. In their patriarchal society with strict gender roles, instead of marrying and becoming wives and mothers, these women had the option to act as fathers to their sisters and take care of the "man's business."
An 88-year-old "sworn virgin" told the BBC that even though she doesn't wear her hair or enjoy dresses, life as the "male head of household" brings with it benefits plenty of other women across the world take for granted:
"People respect me, and shake my hand, as they would with a man; but when they hear my voice and see my face they know I'm a woman," Qamile says.
"And they still say to me, 'how you've been' - just as they would say to a man!" she adds with a broad smile...
Qamile says, as the self-proclaimed "man" in her family, she enjoyed privileges beyond the reach of other women.
She earned the right to carry a rifle, as well as the duty to defend family honour; she could work and smoke with the other men in the village and even pray with the men at the local mosque."
It's inspiring, of course, to see these women capably do everything their male counterparts can do and be considered "village elders." But to learn that men are so respected in this patriarchal society is discouraging to hear about in 2008 -- especially since the price she pays for it is to never experience any sexual activity whatsoever. Virginity becomes a bartering chip and it's one that women seem practically forced to give up: though some women assumed the "male head of household" role after their fathers died, others chose the life to escape unwanted marriages, the BBC said. Refusing a suitor could bring revenge upon the family, so some women became "sworn virgins" -- living life as a man -- to avoid causing the rebuffed-suitor shame.
Not the most progressive culture, is it? But there are so few of these "sworn virgins" around, hopefully the practice will die out. For the sake of Albanian women who have suffered under this "sworn virginity," I hope their culture will progress forward in a way that's more accepting of untraditional gender roles.
Qamile does admit to one plus-side to being a lifelong virgin: no bratty kids. She says,
"I think it's better to be barren like me, than to have children that bring grief to you."
And that benefit, even I can agree with.