Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Albanian Renunciates

According to a story in the International Herald Tribune, women in Albania could until recently decide to live as men. To do so, they had to dress and act like men, and take an oath of celibacy, but once they did, they were freed from the extreme limitations placed on women and entitled to both the greater freedom and greater responsibility assigned to men. They could even pray with men in the mosques.

They call them "sworn virgins," which immediately made me think of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Renunciates (also called Free Amazons). Of course, Bradley's characters got to have sex and lived in an all-female guild, but they did give up their right to be protected as women.

Apparently a lot of Albanian women made the choice because their fathers had been killed and the family needed male leadership, which is not dissimilar to Bradley's idea that women took oath as Renunciates due to terrible experiences.

It seems to me that I have heard of a similar practice in another Central European country, though I have the idea that those women were allowed to marry as men as well. I believe there were similar practices in some of the Native American nations as well, and I suspect something similar may have taken hold in other cultures when there was a shortage of men.

I find myself wondering what I would have done if my only choices had been to live as a man or conform to a very limited role as a woman. I'm not sure how I would have felt about giving up sex -- especially when I was young and my hormones were raging -- and I hate to make permanent choices about anything, including gender. Still, I know how hard I would have found it to spend my life stuck in a traditional female life. Nothing frightens me more than the 1950s concept of the homemaker, and the Albanian role for women was even more limited than that. Living as a man might have been an easier compromise for me than living as a woman in that world.


Phoebe said...

What I found interesting is the way in which becoming a sworn virgin was framed in terms of being an externally motivated change. That is, you didn't usually become a sworn virgin because you *wanted* to, you became one because your family *needed* you to. This is very different than the other 'third sex' traditions I am aware of, such as the traditional 'Two-Spirit' (Native American) that you mentioned, which are invariably presented as a change you make because you are internally motivated. (As I think about it, though -- leaving aside Two-Spirit for the moment, which is all over the map -- most of those are cases where the person is taking on a more restrictive role. So much less societal policing would be needed.) That may well just be an issue of framing, either in this article, or in the way that sworn virgins found they needed to justify it to others (and themselves), but it was still rather striking to me.

The problem of knowing what you might do in that situation, of course, is that a mismatched gender identity can be every bit as suffocating as a mismatched gender role, so changing the former in order to fix the latter is problematic. I found myself wondering about the ones who tried to live as sworn virgins, but failed at it. Even the ones they interviewed, who had been very successful in the role, said that they would have rather lived as women, if things had been different.

And what's really interesting is that the deeper you get into these things, the obvious question of whether it is worth giving up sex starts to fade, as it is the smaller day-to-day sacrifices that start to loom in importance.

John Nicholas said...

The Chinese movie Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker is about a women who is acting within society as a male in order to keep leadership of the family business. Similar to the Albanian example she acts like and is treated like a man down to even being referred to by male terms. The tension of the story comes from her being attracted to an artist who is hired to restore some paintings.

Should be appealing to anyone who likes Gong Li style Chinese movies.