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Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Sworn Virgins
A topic of conversation that often occurs around the gender equality conversations is the issue of women having to act like men in order to be respected or even taken seriously by men. Many of us desire a world where people can be themselves (whatever that looks like) as they lead, teach, and live. With recent conversations regarding that issue on my mind, I came across this article in the paper today.

The article discusses the ancient Albanian custom of "sworn virgins." This is a "tradition in which women take an oath of lifelong virginity in exchange for the right to live as men. The process is not surgical. Rather, sworn virgins cut their hair and wear baggy men's clothes and take up manly livelihoods as shepherds or truck drivers or even political leaders. And those around them treat them as men... The practice has existed at least since the 15th Century, when the region's traditions were first codified, according to Dones. The sworn virgins came into being for emergencies: If the family patriarch died and there was no other man to carry on, a provision was needed so that a woman could run her family.... In the mountains of northern Albania, throughout modern history, women have had very few rights. They cannot vote in local elections; they cannot buy land; there are many jobs they are not permitted to hold; they cannot even enter many establishments. An ancient set of laws called the Kanun still helps govern the region. The Kanun says, 'A woman is a sack made to endure.'...Some women took the oath if the family patriarch died. Others swore the oath out of a fierce streak of independence, and still others because it was the only way to avoid an arranged marriage without disgracing the selected groom's family."

So as long as the women set aside their sexuality and identity as a woman they could do anything men could do and were given respect. This revels the deeply cultural and not biological assumption of gender roles for many people. Some are saying that this custom was in a sense progressive and freeing for the women. It gave them a chance at a different life but at a very high cost. It makes me question assertions in the church especially that try to force women into set cultural roles in order for them to lead. in my opinion it is just as offensive to force a women to act "like a man" as to insist that she abide by stereotypes of what it means to be feminine. Let a women be herself (let men be themselves for that matter). She may naturally act more masculine, or more feminine, or something different than those cultural pigeonholes. But as we see, in Albania and in the West even today this is still an ongoing issue.

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posted by Julie at 5:34 PM ¤ Permalink ¤


  • At 8/22/2007 07:44:00 PM, Blogger Linda

    I found this article very interesting. As to women in the church, it is my experience that women (sometimes even in emerging circles) have to do everything twice as well as men in order to receive the same recognition as men if they are assuming a position that has traditionally been filled by men in the church. I don't think it is always intentional, but I think it is deeply ingrained in the psyche of the church. I also think that most churches are afraid of women being themselves. (God help us if a woman gets emotional while leading in church!) I am tired of the way this all plays out in churches and hope that the way is being paved right now for positive change.

  • At 8/22/2007 08:30:00 PM, Blogger One Voice of Many

    Wow - I had never heard of that before today. Very interesting. In that culture, I would guess the SVs think that they are getting quite a generous offer to obtain freedom. Obviously in the West we think that's horrible - I certainly do. That culture just has so far to come that it seems insurmountable.

    Of course there is room for improvement in the U.S. as well but at the moment I can't stop from trying to wrap my mind around what it must be like to live in that level of gender war. Very sad indeed.

  • At 8/22/2007 09:16:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

    I imagine this could be biological as well, however, since a sworn virgin would not be in danger of having children. She would not have to set aside any of her plans in case of becoming pregnant. In that sense she would have a "male" life trajectory and could make choices, as men (usually) do, without regard to personally bearing and caring for children.

  • At 8/23/2007 12:01:00 PM, Blogger Michele L

    Very interesting! I am always amazed at how disconnected to the world I can be as an American. I agree with the comments here. I am extremely grateful to live where I have choices, can think, give opinions, etc. We do have a way to go, but after reading something like this I am reminded to be grateful.

    I agree with Linda's comments. As one who never worked in a church until our church "emerged", I agree that it has been hard. I have had to sort through issues, try to not take things personally, etc. I have to agree that sometimes I hate when I have gotten emotional, because sometimes I "feel" I look stupid. There is definitely a pressure to be more "manly"...whether it is more self inflicted....I don't know.

    It's a constant battle to decide if my own raising and expectations see something that is more my problem, or if the "men" just really don't understand how they come across. It can be hard sometimes. I do think though, at least in my setting, that whatever it is, it is unintentional, so I try to be understanding. (Which is not always easy...at least one time a month :) )

  • At 8/24/2007 01:47:00 AM, Blogger marilyn

    Interesting. In response to Linda's question I find myself asking several in return; why do we need the same 'recognition' as men? Is recognition a worthy goal? What exactly is the interpretation of female leadership in a church setting? Why do we care what men think when we are obviously emotional?

    These are not facetious or leading questions. These past few months of my life have been difficult, emotionally draining, and have brought many of my own demons to light. (some of you might be able to name them as victims of my past participation!) As I have been forced to work through my belief system yet again, I have found myself questioning both the meaning and interpretation of equality and leadership, and exactly what my role as a Christ follower is--regardless of gender.

    The information in this article is familiar to me, and I thank Julie for bringing it into focus for many of you; cultural awareness is an invaluable source of personal and spiritual knowledge, and I would encourage those of you who have not explored their family history to do so. My Grandmother, who was from a family of Russian/German immigrants, told me stories about similar occurrences many years ago, and her perspective on it didn't really hit me until I read about it once again. As I sit here and think back on her life, I realize that her legacy to me was freedom, pure and simple--she lived graciously, hopefully, and without pretense to the age of 102--with both dignity and sacrifice in equal measure. She modeled equality, submission, strength, Grace, hospitality, maturity, practicality, knowledge gained from experience, and demonstrative, intentionally significant, unconditional love. I can only hope to live up to a fraction of what she stood for.

    I find it both thought provoking and ironic that a recent study has determined that the women of these last two decades of feminism are far less happy and less fulfilled than the women of the previous two generations, regardless of the benefits and advances procured on their behalf. When I look at the impact of my grandmother's life in relation to the ideals of feminism, it appears painfully obvious to me that we have been shortchanged; not just by men, but by each other, and by our own selfish agendas. The life we have carved out in our pursuit of 'equality' is nothing less than unsatisfying, unfulfilling, overly stressful and as I have come to believe lately--at odds with our God given female inheritance.

    I think we can be so much more than feminism has defined for us; God has never viewed as us as inferior or unequal, we've done that to each other, and subsequently to ourselves. Women are and always have been the influencers of society. We as women determine the success or failure of any earthly enterprise. It seems to me in light of my Grandmother's example, that it is only in the recognition of our god given power that we find freedom, not only from the confines of this world, but also from our own personal limitations.

    I prefer to look at these cultural definitions of femininity as opportunities to learn; how does Christ's view of women and their role in the New Testament church differ from the places we find ourselves today? What is our role as New Testament church disciples?

    I realize I've asked too many questions, but I want and need your honest feedback. There is no pressing personal point here, no agenda other than truth, and I welcome your insight, your experience, your discernment.

  • At 8/24/2007 06:13:00 AM, Anonymous eileen

    Excellent discussion here.

    This was a practice I was unware still existed today (although, I know I read about it in some of Marion Zimmer Bradley's fiction works).

    Freedom at such a price - actually - one wonders if it's "freedom" at all. It seems to me that it's just trading one set of stereotypic expectations for another, with the added bonus of relational isolation (unless these women are closet lesbians).

    Marilyn asks some very thought provoking questions. Why must women "act like men" to gain respect as leaders. The only answer that comes to mind is cultural expectation. To this point we have limited knowledge of what feminine/women's leadership looks like, although, we seem to have learned that our culture isn't ready to give up on it's masculine expectations for leaders.

    Should we strive to "be like men"? I suppose not, unless it suits your natural style - there are some women who naturally lead more like men due to their own personality makeup.

    It seems to me that this would be the next frontier for women - asserting our right to be feminine in our perspectives and style, and demonstrating that those qualities can provide balance in leadership roles. There is nothing wrong with being nurturing and relational, especially in the church, where what we are really trying to teach is how to have a relationship with God. Who better to teach about relationship building than a woman, who comes by that role culturally and likely, biologically as well.

    This isn't to say that men can't build the relationships, but, I'd wager, that the best priests/pastors are those who are some what feminine in their relational style - that is - those who are able to reach out and build and nurture relationships, and communicate about them fearlessly.

    That would probably make an interesting study.

    Just some thoughts.

  • At 8/24/2007 09:55:00 AM, Blogger Julie

    I struggle with the idea that by seeking respect and equality women are making themselves miserable and not living the life Jesus has called us to. I know that we all (men and women) are called to serve others and do nothing out of selfish ambition, but that doesn't seem to deny all possibility of equality. Just because some women feel pressured or pursue selfish ends doesn't mean that all women are like that. And just because some women fit a culturally defined idea of feminine doesn't mean that all women do or should. To me its all very complicated. I have to wonder if no one had challenged slavery and just kept saying that we should all serve others, obey our masters, and not seek selfish personal gain if injustice would ever have ended. There are levels here and nothing is an either/or.

  • At 8/24/2007 08:46:00 PM, Blogger sharecropper

    I've always wondered why crying was so verboten in the business world, and I cried anyway. Men stared at me; then we all went back to work. They screamed in anger, and I shrank in a corner; then we all went back to work.

    Emotions find outlets in many ways; men exhibit them differently than women and deny them more often, but we all have them.

    I think that feminism today is driven by current cultural definitions of success rather than a desire to express the feminine side of life as an equal to the masculine side of life. Some women who refuse to accept that struggle for "success" are branded as failures. Others gird up their loins and go back to work.

    Willie Nelson has a song about cowboys with a woman hidden deep inside that I find interesting.
    "And I believe to my soul that inside every man there's the feminine. And inside every lady there's a deep manly voice loud and clear."

    Many women epitomize the idea of sworn virgins by taking the reins of their family's cart horse and using all the skills they can find - both male and female stereotypical skills - to keep that horse in the road.

    As long as you don't fall for cultural definitions of self and success, happiness is possible through feminism.

  • At 8/24/2007 09:38:00 PM, Blogger Julie

    But what if leadership is a woman's gift? What if she is good at what is defined as a "successful career"? what if that is what she is meant to be doing? How can we say that because she is a woman it is wrong for her?

    Yes, to pursue success for the sake of success is wrong for people in general (men and women). But being driven is not more wrong just because one lacks a penis.

  • At 8/25/2007 04:56:00 AM, Anonymous eileen

    Julie -

    I don't think it's wrong to be successful at the man's game IF it's a natural fit. What I object to is that it continues to be the man's game, and all are forced to conform to that game.

    I wonder how many women find it a natural fit? I know I don't, but I recognize that could just be me.

    I think a better goal for feminists would be to expand the playing field to encorporate more leadership styles. I do think women, in general, have a different way of leading then men, and getting that way recognized could add something - woman's voice.

    At some point, I pray, it won't be women in a man's world, but just men and women in THE world, where both can have a voice, and exist in balance. And while I pray, I realize we are far, far away from that place.


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