Thursday, June 26, 2008

On Women and Men. Again.

Somehow the media became interested in the story of an Albanian woman who became the man of her family. No, this is not about sex surgery. But it is about the ways in which we think of men and women, and the arrangements in our societies around this. The New York Times (and then many others) ran a story about an Albanian woman, now in her 80s, who has taken the alpha-male role in her family: she gave up her woman lifestyle, took on male clothes, sworn herself to virginity (unclear why, as someone pointed out to me today, 'real men' are not expected to do this...) and became the head of the family. From that moment on, she was accepted by everyone as a man (except for this virginity thing, I know), since - says the story - this is an old custom in Albanian communities.

I have read of a species of fish where there's only one male per flight, but if he dies, the alpha female changes her sex and becomes male. Trying to figure out where I got this info from, I ran across a lot of other interesting stuff about sex changes in fish. Now, I've said it again, I know we are not fish, but I think it is interesting that we tend to ignore this information and regard any transgression of our 'given' biological sex (we assume it is a given, and there's no doubt about it) as an anomaly. I wonder how would we think of men and women - and those who do not comfortably fit in these two labels - if we would adopt a different viewpoint.


a very public sociologist said...

Very interesting.

With this cultural heritage in Albania I'd like to know how trans people are received. Is gender swapping only acceptable in this context?

Lindsay said...

I've read about the sworn virgins before, and what one commenter (identified as "Albanian") said was that the sworn-virgin thing isn't about having a fluid concept of gender, but about economic necessity. Women are not allowed to do certain things in traditional Albanian culture, so if a woman has to do those things because she has no male protector, she can become a sworn virgin. You can almost see it as a way to maintain a more rigid gender system by allowing for this limited exception.

It should also be pointed out that the sworn virgins' celibacy is not something they practice just because it fulfills them personally: it is the price of their taking on a male role. As long as they pay an obvious price for their (limited) subversion of gender norms, I do not see the sworn-virgin thing as particularly revolutionary. I like it, I'm glad it exists as an option for these women, but I do not think it challenges gender roles.

thinkingdifference said...

I agree, I do not think that the sworn virgin is necessarily a different way of thinking about genders - or particularly revolutionary. I didn't have much contact with the Albanian cultures, but from the little I know, it is a very patriarchal society. I doubt trans people or sexual minorities are very well received. Even this practice - it is, after all, about being a man or a woman. That there are economic rationale, I do not doubt. I think it is one of those cases when one can link gender and economy very clearly.

radu c said...

I see that the sworn virginity raised a lot of comments. In order to become the heir of her family (and that equals her survival), after her father's death, she was forced to assume the male role in her family. She could not have been perceived as such by the community, and most important by the males of other families, unless she gave up the prospect of getting married and having her own children. That indicates the perception of the sexual act in such patriarchal societies: the male dominates the woman. She could not have been accepted as a male (dominant) and at the same time allowed to have sex (being dominated). I think that's the way to explain the situation.

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