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Last of Albania's 'sworn virgins'

By Mike Lanchin
BBC News, Kruje, Albania

Qamile Stema
Qamile wears the traditional clothing of an Albanian man

Almost eight decades on, Qamile Stema still remembers clearly the day she decided to give up her long hair and dresses in order to become the male head of her household.

"My father had died and the door of our house was shut because there were no more men in the family.

"So I cut my hair and from that day on kept the door of the house open," she says grandly.

Dressed in a baggy black suit and waist-coat, with a small fez hat perched on cropped white hair, Qamile has all the trappings of a typical Albanian old man.

But hearing the 88-year-old's high-pitched voice and seeing her smooth but deeply-lined face quickly dispelled any doubts about her true identity.

I think it's better to be barren like me, than to have children that bring grief to you, I've had a good life
Qamile Stema

"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 is one of just a handful of "sworn virgins" still alive in Albania: women, typically from poor rural communities in the north of the country, who opted to change their status, though not their sex.

According to the sociologist, Zydi Dervishi, who has interviewed more than 20 such women, some took such a life-changing decision in order to avoid an unwanted marriage; others, to make up for the absence of a male heir in the family.

He says that in Albania's historically patriarchal society, a family without a son or a father figure was often considered leaderless.

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Qamile says she has no regrets about her life-changing decision

Sitting in the afternoon sun on the patio of a small brick house, three hours north of the capital, Tirana, Qamile relates how her father's death had left her mother alone with just daughters.

Qamile, the youngest, decided that she would take her father's place.

She says that no one forced it upon her, and that some of her relatives later tried to persuade her to swap back.

But, 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.

Traditional punishment

At weddings and funerals, she would always hang out with the other men and came to be seen as one of the village elders.

"Even now she's always sought out in the village for advice of what's good and bad," one of her relatives says.

While Qamile clearly seems at ease in male company - laughing and joking with men as she talks about her life - other "sworn virgins" did not have such a positive experience, according to Mr Dervishi.

He says that some of the women he has spoken to - almost all now in their 80s - swapped roles when young in order to avoid their families being "punished" under age-old customs for refusing to marry.

Tradition, particularly prevalent in the north of Albania, dictated that turning down a suitor could lead to the man's family exacting revenge on the girl's father or brother.

Qamile Stema
"Sworn virgins" are part of Albania's fading folklore

The only way to settle the dispute without bloodshed, according to the same tradition, was for the girl to declare herself a virgin for life and assume the role of a man - and thus never marry.

Such practices were frowned upon during the 40-year period of communist rule in Albania, said Mr Dervishi, allowing some of these girls to swap back.

Those who remained in their assumed roles, however, were often deeply unhappy, he says.

"They were neither accepted wholly by men, nor accepted wholly by women."

Post-communist democracy, migration and the influence of the West has radically changed Albania and the position of women in society.

The sworn virgins are now seen as part of the country's fading folklore, said Mr Dervishi.

Yet Qamile, who has rarely ventured out of her northern village on account of her arthritis, says she has no regrets about having taken such a momentous decision.

"I'm happier to have stayed as a man because these days children leave home and then you are all alone.

"I think it's better to be barren like me, than to have children that bring grief to you. I've had a good life."


SEE ALSO
Country profile: Albania
03 Jul 08 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Albania
03 Jul 08 |  Country profiles

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