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Old Albanian custom of 'sworn virgins' dying out

world Updated: Apr 04, 2009 09:48 IST

AlbaniaDrane Markgjoni is one of Albania's last "sworn virgins" -- an age-old custom in which women assume the role of a man and are accepted as such by their family and society.

"My life has been a dog's life," lamented the 87-year-old, gazing away in her modest home in Shkodra, in northern Albania, where religious paintings mix with photographs of her deceased loved ones.

Yet the octogenarian insisted she had no "regrets".

She quickly smiled again as she recalled memories of a destiny shaped by the weight of tradition and the exacting conditions imposed by the post-World War II communist regime of Enver Hoxha.

Dressed in old pants and a dark jacket, with her white hair trimmed short, Markgjoni, who never learned to read or write, tried to protect herself from the cold in her icy home.

She was born in Bajram Curri, in the north of the country. From the cradle, her marriage was arranged in line with the custom of the time.

But on her wedding day in 1949, her husband fled Albania for neighbouring Yugoslavia, a common occurrence during the difficult post-war period. Several hours later, Hoxha's police arrested all the men from his family.

Markgjoni suddenly found herself alone with the women and children of her husband's family. She said the marriage was never consummated.

And that is when she decided to "convert," adopting "the role of the man of the house" in line with the centuries-old Albanian tradition of sworn virgins.

The decision meant renouncing forever her gender, pushing aside the possibility of being like other women, of having another husband, bearing children and, of course, engaging in sexual relations.

"I didn't have any other choice," she said, recalling how she was deported to the south of the country with the women and children of her fiance's family.

'In the old times, you could trust men'

For 12 years, she lived the life of a man, working on building sites, carrying cement bags and even sharing dormitories with men, where she was accepted without any trouble.

Such women who become "the man of the house" are labelled a "virgin" in Albania.

Working shoulder to shoulder with men, they enjoyed wide respect and their choice was considered a "supreme sacrifice," said Aferdita Onuzi of the Anthropology Institute in Tirana.

Onuzi, an ethnologist, said the last cases of women who decided to become "virgins" date back to the 1960s.

The phenomenon also occurs in Kosovo and was found in both Christian and Muslim families. During Albania's 50 years of communism up until 1990, however, authorities nearly put an end to the practice.

Onuzi estimated that fewer than 10 "virgins" were still alive in Albania.

There were two ways to become a "virgin," she explained: a girl decides to take over man's duties when all males in the family are dead or gone, or to become a "virgin" to avoid a marriage with a man arranged at birth.

An uncle of such a young woman generally negotiated with the betrothed's family to find a solution, said Onuzi.

If the reasons for refusing the marriage were not considered valid, the young woman's family had to give the fiance's family a bullet to kill her, according to the ethnologist.

"To remain without a husband proves the strength of one's character. You have to be very determined," Markgjoni said.

"In the old times, you could trust men, travel with them. But now, women are considered an object. And women only think of how to pester their men," she said.

Markgjoni has also been marked by deep faith in the Roman Catholic church, which she said helped her cope in life.

"It is they who give me strength," she said as she reached out and touched the religious images above her bed.