Yesterday morning over breakfast, I was riveted by a New York Times article on elective female-to-male transgenderism in rural Albania. The story detailed the practice of "sworn virgins" (although I think this name is misleading and sensationalizing), women who, after the death of the family's patriarch, volunteer to remain virgins for the rest of their lives and then assume the male role of the family. (Since a virgin is worth 12 oxen - the same value as a man - the conversion is easy.) From then on, society defers to these biological females as men, and accords them the power and respect that men receive. The practice has existing for centuries, in both Christian and Muslim cultures. In this society of rigid gender roles, there is no question based on sex organs which gender the women are. It is just accepted that they are men. This is fascinating to me.
Other women looked at the article from other perspectives. A at Combing My Hair related it it to modern Western culture:
After reading this article I initially believed that it was a medieval practice that, due to isolationism, had survived the evolution of thought concerning gender and sex over the years. And then I realized that this article was only a hyper example of the norm still found in even the most liberated countries like America. This might be because I spent last night watching the Tila Tequila pre-reunion (a blog-worthy subject in itself)... After reading this article I initially believed that it was a medieval practice that, due to isolationism, had survived the evolution of thought concerning gender and sex over the years. And then I realized that this article was only a hyper example of the norm still found in even the most liberated countries like America.
Kate Hutchinson at Defending Pandora compared the sworn virgins to women in corporate America today:
Imagine for a moment that a woman in America could be allowed to dress and present herself as a man, and gain respect from both men and women around her. (It's not a solution to the issue certainly; the real solution is for women to be valued for what they offer instead of being labeled by their gender.) But this situation wouldn't happen. If a woman dressed as a man in the American office, she would be labeled a freak. Even women who work hard to act like men (i.e. aggressively) are not safe once they reach the executive level... [In Albania] In the face of women's advancement, there are no new sworn virgins. If Albania is making this leap forward in valuing its women , perhaps American corporate culture could as well?
Rachel Storm at Crash thought about it from the perspective of patriarchal domination:
One thing that I find fascinating about these sworn virgins is that they can even take on the misogynist beliefs of a man. Well, at least men from their generation. They believe that women these days don't know their place, and act inappropriately. Which makes sense, if they only fraternize with men, and are treated by their society like men, it makes total sense that they would agree with the patriarchal beliefs that create the need for their existence as a sworn virgin in the first place.
Still, I am most intrigued by how cultures choose to acknowledge gender. Many countries have what is considered to be a "third gender," a gray area for people whose gender and sex do not match. Albania has sworn virgins; Samoa has fafafini (biological males assigned to be women; they are considered by society to be female and marry heterosexual men); Thailand has katooeys. As Nadia at Nadia's Transgender reminds us, "transgender people have always been here, we will always be here, and in a sense, we are a necessary part of society and humanity." So true.
In BlogHer's May podcast with transgender activist Calpernia Addams, Calpernia noted that one of the main barriers transgendered individuals face is being accepted for who they are without surgery. She said, "A lot of transgendered women feel comfortable with their birth genitals as long as they can live the social role... [but] it's about how outsiders tolerate us." I think Americans and other Westerners - supposedly open-minded and liberal cultures - cannot handle the idea that a woman can dress like a man, live like a man, and consider herself a man unless she has a penis. That is, society as it is does not accept that gender can function outside of biological sex. It is striking to me that cultures with extremely rigid gender roles can manage to dissociate sex from gender under certain constraints. I'm not saying that it is better to live in rural Albania or Samoa, where women's roles are strictly confined to child birth, child rearing, cooking, and cleaning, but that there is something interesting to way these societies make allowances that Western ones don't. Kate's point about corporate America is right-on: it is hard for women who act like men (as well as men who act like women) to be respected. At best, people face severe discrimination. At worst, the violence that is often unleashed on transgressors is horrifying.
Today, the Times article points out, women in Albania have made progress in many areas of life. As a result, there are only 40 or so sworn virgins. As women gain rights around the world, will the practice of recognizing third genders fall by the wayside? If so, is that really progress? I think not, and it is my sincerest hope that one day we can all live in a world where people are free to express their gender in the way that fits best for them as an individual.
More from living