If you do a simple online search you will find numerous articles on the concept of a sworn virgin way of life and the effects it has on ones position in society. Though, when trawling through the images and photos that you will find, you may not be aware of how some of the faces you see are hiding stories of human rights abuse and personal torment.
Recently journalists have been wondering through the North Albanian Alps meeting the people of the region. A curios fact is the description of sworn virgins. There’s much more than meets the eye with several of the old men that they meet, as their real identity comes as a complete surprise, they’re actually women that have taken an oath sworn virginity.
These women decided to give up on their feminine body, face, look, clothes and physical distinctions. This transition into embracing the look of a man, cutting their hair very short and wearing men’s clothes is essential in being allowed to embody the rights of men; meaning that they are essentially giving up all their womanly rights and power, which are minor and very insignificant compared to men’s rights in these remote areas.
By becoming sworn virgins they place family pride and honor above all by taking an oath of celibacy and never marrying or having any children. This is a decision that these women take in a belief that they need to sacrifice their lives to the benefit of their family, especially if there are high male losses. Some refer to this phenomenon as a social role that provides the function that a man would take in the families and communities of that specific rural region.
I wish things were as simple as this.
It is my belief that people that write these kinds of stories are at the least naïve and at worst damaging to Albanian women’s rights, unfortunately until recently I was one of these people.
These stories are not new, for a long time ethnologists have written books where they describe in detail how Albanian sworn virgins are the only way to support a family in need. That by leaving their limited female life and taking over the full-of-responsibilities of a man’s life they are fulfilling a social necessity to the continuation of life.
I have read these books, well as much as I could, and found myself unknowledgeable to the existence of this tradition in my country. I have closed those books and continued my normal life, completely indifferent from theirs, never turning my thoughts back to what the reality of their existence is.
Recently, as I tried to keep up with the Mediterranean refugee crisis, whilst simultaneously trying to avoid very disturbing pictures of desperate human loss, I scrolled past an article about a teenage girl in Bangladesh. The article described a very sad reality for one third of Bangladeshi girls. There exists in Bangladesh a phenomena called child marriage which affects the social wellbeing of teenage girls. It stops them from continuing their education, from pursuing their carrier and enters them into a forced obligatory relationship with a much older –not-of-their-choice man.
Whilst reading this article the picture of a sworn virgin of Albania came into my mind. All of a sudden I realised how stupid I had been to believe all of the stories I had read. Sworn virgins are not about limited female social rights via the acceptance of the social role of a man. Sworn virgins could have been the potential victims of child marriage abuse, but instead they are courageous women who dare to say no – and as a result accept to get lost under a man’s vest just to escape their involuntarily and unwanted predefined marriage.
I was born in the Albanian capital city of Tirana into a family that love me dearly and have given me every opportunity of a good education. My family believe that the real strength of a girl is her knowledge and independence and it is based on these values and principles that I will determine the education that I give to my daughter. I would like to believe in this day and age that this opportunity is available for all young women.
The number of sworn virgins have dwindled lately, which used to be great news to me, but now I am not so sure. I believe the alternative fate of child marriage to be far worse, as their life completely changes route after that and it's not a simple choice of will, it's a kind of social enforcement. Sworn Virgins show their strength in how they refuse to bow to child marriage and stand against their predicted fate by finding the necessary force to say no.
Still I have not met one of these admirable women, but I highly honor their fortitude and strength.