After taking a series of portraits, Jill Peters discusses these people. As women, often as young girls, they give up their womanhood - in a public and official way - to gain privilege, and become men. They are known as the Burrnesha - "Sworn Virgins." What surprises me is, according to this article:
I learned that the Burrnesha are well respected within their communities. They possess an indescribable amount of strength and pride, and value their family honor above all else.
It's pretty clear that this is not about transgenderism as we know it (although it's worth thinking about in a broad sense alongside our transgenderism). It does raise some very interesting questions about gender identity as perceived by other cultures, because these women are allowed to declare themselves men, make great sacrifices, and not only are they accepted as men but they are respected as men. A woman in the US today, doing these exact things - adopting a male "swagger", looking like a man, changing to a man's name - even without a transformation - gets ostracized and criticized and called names. Add in the "publicly sworn virgin" factor and who knows where that would lead.
They are making a clear choice, very much *deciding* to be men. These previously women decided to become men in order to be able to vote, drive, own property, and be the head of a household. It's terribly heartbreaking that this was the necessary action to have these rights; but I keep getting thrown off by the fact that this is allowed by a patriarchal society.
After some more Googling, I found a New York Times writeup on the subject. According to that article, the tradition is fading as women are gaining more rights. This tradition has been around for over 500 years, though. It comes from a sad place of patriarchal oppression and absolute desperation. From the article:
While a woman's life is worth half that of a man, a virgin's value is the same - 12 oxen....
...If the patriarch of the family died with no male heirs, unmarried women in the family could find themselves alone and powerless. By taking an oath of virginity, women could take on the role of men as head of the family, carry a weapon, own property and move freely.
Only through sexual purity can a woman be worth the same as a man (oh, there it is). This sounds familiar. It seems like this Albanian clan basically installed a loophole in the patriarchy. If women remove their sexuality and femininity, only then may they work alongside men, be in public alongside men, and be their own property instead of that of a man. They must truly pass as a man.
A small ray of sunshine in there is that the Sworn Virgins are not viewed as intellectually or physically inferior because of their born gender. As soon as they removed their sexuality, they were equals.
Another reason this sacrifice was made was to avoid an arranged marriage. Most of the interviewees in the Times piece did not want their own children or to marry and do not regret their decision, but surprisingly a Burrnesha was free to revoke his oath and return to womanhood to raise a family at any point. This happens only sometimes.
The tone of the quotes in the "no regrets" camp angered me at first - these Burrnesha were gloating about how great it was to be a man, how happy they were with their freedom. Of course it was great to bask in this privilege! To suddenly rise to a position of power, to have the same freedoms and advantages the most privileged people have. They even were angry that women today "don't know their place" and gender lines in Albania have become very blurred.
Some sworn virgins bemoan this female liberation. Diana Rakipi, 54, a security guard in the seaside city of Durres, in west Albania, who became a sworn virgin to take care of her nine sisters, said she looked back with nostalgia to the Hoxha era. During communist times, she served as a senior army officer, training women soldiers in combat. Now, she lamented, women did not know their place.
It's not the Burrnesha at fault for these feelings; they made a huge sacrifice to get the freedoms that women today enjoy, and they are understandably bitter about this. The anger, of course, is misplaced onto the women instead of the men who put the Burrnesha through something so dramatic just for the sake of being treated as human beings.