Self Made Men - The Avowed Virgins of Albania

Selman Brahim strides through the house with a confident swagger. He proffers cigarettes, and then orders a young woman to make coffee and bring the raki. Visitors are rare in this remote village in rugged northern Albania and, Selman as head of the family, takes pride in this opportunity to display his hospitality.

It is a poor, simple peasant’s house and under the single light bulb, Selman looks every inch the poor simple peasant. His hands are rough, his back straight, his hair short, his faced lined and slightly suspicious. He wears heavy boots, thick trousers and a white shirt that grubby around the cuffs. It’s the shirt that gives him away: it seems curiously tight in the wrong places; which of course it is. It was cut for a man and Selman Brahim is a woman.

Selma is 53 and has been living as a man for 40 years. She is perhaps one of only half a dozen women who cling to one of the region’s oldest and strangest traditions, that of the Avowed Virgins. It is related to another local tradition that is however, making a comeback: the blood feud. These vendettas are so endemic and unforgiving that it is not unusual for a family - even for one of the large extended families common in this region - to end up without a surviving male member. In this ultra masculine culture, that spells economic and social disaster. A family without a man at its head can scarcely function, let alone thrive. Hence the Avowed Virgins: young women who swear an oath to renounce their sex and take own the role of the head of the family.

Selma became paterfamilias when her father died: she was just 13. It has been hard at times, but she has no regrets. In a society where most women live lives of drudgery and servitude, her great transformation has given her great respect; the men of the village here have accepted her as on of their own.

“Is there any man who decided to be a woman?” Selman asks.

“Of course not. No. The man is more privileged everywhere”.

Many hours trek through the “Accursed “ Mountains of High Albania, there is an even poorer village on the edge of Thethi. Pashke Sokol Ndocaj, some 10 years older than Selman, is more troubled by her fate. Forty-five years ago, the Communists came, burnt the family home and killed her father and four brothers - possibly as part of a feud, though no one knows for certain. She had no choice but to take over the family. She seems happy enough as she drinks with the local men in the bar, but the regrets are never far away. She is quieter and gentler in manner than the others and when a neighbour gives her a child to hold, her face lights up. She stills weeps at her father’s grave. In her time, she has been used as forced labour on a railway hundreds of miles to the south, and served time in a prison camp - all as a man.

According to Pashke, the tradition of the Avowed Virgins goes back more than five centuries, to the semi mythical Nora Kelmendi - a Joan of Arc figure who is said to have dressed as a man to lead rebellion against the Ottomans. The Communist regime made every effort to crush the practice but was no more able to do it than eliminate the blood feuds. For all its strangeness, the tradition has a strong appeal for Albanians of both sexes: for individual women, it can represent an opportunity to escape from servitude: for men, it enables society to carry on running along patriarchal lines.

But capitalism has a way of reaching the part Communism could not. In the wide boulevards of the capital, Tirana, young women dress in the latest Italian fashions and are blissfully indifferent to the old social constraints of Albania’s traditional structure. Its decline is certain.

© Stuart Freedman