Correction to This Article
An Aug. 11 Style story on a documentary about the "sworn virgins" of Albania incorrectly identified Swiss Television as a partial owner of Dones Media. Swiss Television co-produces documentaries with Dones Media but does not have an ownership interest.

The Sacrifices of Albania's 'Sworn Virgins'

When "sworn virgin" Shkurtan Hasanpapaj was an official with the Communist Party, the men she supervised did not question her authority. Elvira Dones's documentary explains why some women took an oath to live as men. (Dones Media)
By Joshua Zumbrun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 11, 2007

When the Albanian journalist and author Elvira Dones was traveling in the mountains of northern Albania, she asked for directions from someone she thought was a man walking his mule through a village, rifle on shoulder.

After the exchange, her guide whispered, "That is one of them."

Dones, who lives in Rockville, had just met an adherent of an ancient northern Albanian tradition in which women take an oath of lifelong virginity in exchange for the right to live as men. The process is not surgical -- in these mountains there is little knowledge that sex-change surgery is even possible. 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 -- despite knowing the sworn virgins are women -- treat them as men.

The idea that a woman would need to forsake love and live as a man to control her own fate seems primitive to modern eyes. But perhaps, in the context of a once-upon-a-time culture, a culture before feminism, it can be seen as progressive. The existence of sworn virgins reveals a cultural belief, however inchoate, that a biological woman can do all the work of a man.

"Why live like a man?" one virgin, Lule Ivanaj, asks herself rhetorically in an English-subtitled documentary that Dones (pronounced DOH-nez) made on the women for Swiss television called "Sworn Virgins." Ivanaj looks like a man in his 50s, with short hair, thick arms and a wide metal watchband on one wrist. "Because I value my freedom. I suppose I was ahead of my time."

Dones, 47, learned about sworn virgins 25 years ago from her university classmates in Albania's capital, Tirana. The practice has existed at least since the 15th century, when the traditions of the region were first codified, according to Dones. The sworn virgins came into being for emergencies: If the patriarch of the family died and there was no other man to carry on, a provision was needed so that a woman could run her family.

When Dones was in college, the country was under the control of communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled for more than 40 years until his death in 1985. Dones had the itch to tell the story of the sworn virgins, but the communist regime tightly controlled the media and travel to the north was not allowed.

In 1988, Dones -- then a journalist for state-run television -- defected, in part because of frustration with her country's government. She moved to the Italian-language region of Switzerland, where she worked for Swiss television and wrote novels.

Three years ago, she moved to Rockville, where she continues to write and make documentaries for Swiss television. She is now a popular novelist in Italy and Albania, having written eight books of fiction; her most recent novel, published this year in Italian and Albanian, is about a 34-year-old woman named Hana, who comes to regret her decision to live as a sworn virgin. For her book, Dones read up on the tradition, which has been documented by historians and sociologists. But until recently she had never met a sworn virgin, except for that brief, unwitting encounter with the rifle-toting virgin while filming a documentary on another topic.

"I was happy with the novel, but I wanted to see them," Dones says, "I was obsessed by them."

So last year Dones traveled to meet with them. There are only about 30 to 40 sworn virgins remaining in Albania, Dones says, with perhaps a few in the neighboring mountains of Kosovo and Serbia and Montenegro. Dones interviewed 12, from elderly women to 20-somethings. The documentary debuted on Swiss television this year and has been accepted into the Baltimore Women's Film Festival, which takes place in October. It also is available through Dones Media, the U.S.-based production company Dones co-owns with Swiss television.

In the mountains of northern Albania, throughout modern history, women have had very few rights. They cannot vote in their 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."

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