KRUJE, Albania: Pashe Keqi recalls the day nearly sixty years ago when she decided to become a man. She chopped off her long black curls, traded in her dress for her father's baggy trousers, armed herself with a hunting rifle and vowed to forsake marriage, children and sex.
Had she been born in Albania today, says the 78-year-old sworn virgin, who made an oath of celibacy in return for the right to live and rule her family as a man, she would choose womanhood.
"Back then, it was better to be a man because, before, a woman and an animal were considered the same thing," says Keqi, who has a bellowing baritone voice, sits with her legs open wide like a man and relishes downing shots of Raki and smoking cigarettes. "Now, Albanian women have equal rights with men and are even more powerful, and I think today it would be fun to be a woman."
Sworn virgins became the patriarchs of their families, with all the trappings of male authority, by swearing to remain virgins for the rest of their lives.
The ritual was a form of self-empowerment for rural women living in a desperately poor and macho country that was cut off from mainstream Europe for decades under a Stalinist dictatorship. But in Albania today, with Internet dating and MTV, the custom is all but disappearing. Girls no longer want to become boys.
The tradition of the sworn virgin can be traced to the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini, a code of conduct that has been passed on orally among the clans of northern Albania for more than five centuries. Under the Kanun, the role of women is severely circumscribed: Take care of children and maintain the home. While a woman's life is worth half that of a man, a virgin's value is the same - 12 oxen.
The sworn virgin was born of social necessity in an agrarian region plagued by war and death. 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.
They dress like men, adopt a male swagger and spend their lives in the company of other men.
Some also took the vow as a means to avoid an arranged marriage. Still others became sworn virgins to express their autonomy. Some who regretted the sacrifice transformed themselves back into women and married later in life.
"Stripping off their sexuality by pledging to remain virgins was a way for these women in a male-dominated, segregated society to engage in public life," says Linda Gusia, a professor of gender studies at the University of Pristina in Kosovo. "It was about surviving in a world where men rule."
Taking an oath to become a sworn virgin should not, sociologists say, be equated with homosexuality, which has long been taboo in rural Albania. Nor do the women have sex changes. In the northern Albanian countryside, about 40 sworn virgins remain, according to researchers studying the custom.
Known in her household as the "Pasha," Keqi says she decided to become the man of the house at age 20 when her father was murdered in a blood feud. Her remaining four brothers opposed the communist regime of Enver Hoxha, who ruled Albania for 40 years until his death in 1985, and they were either imprisoned or killed. Becoming a man, she said, was the only way to support her mother, her four sisters-in-law and their five children.
Lording it over her large family in her modest house in Tirana, where her nieces served her brandy while she barked out orders, Keqi said living as a man had allowed her freedom denied other women. She could work construction jobs and pray at the mosque alongside other men. Even today, her nephews and nieces said, they would not dare marry without their "uncle's" permission.
"I was totally free as a man because no one knew I was a woman," Keqi said. "I could go wherever I wanted to and no one would dare swear at me because I could beat them up. I was only with men. I don't know how to do women's talk. I am never scared." When she was recently hospitalized for an operation, she recalled, the other woman in her room was horrified to find herself sharing close quarters with a man and requested a move.
Keqi said that being a woman made her a more compassionate man. "If the other men were disrespecting a woman, I would tell them to stop." She said being deprived of a life of sexual intimacy was a necessary sacrifice. She did not miss having children, she added, because she was surrounded by her nieces and nephews. "Once I made up my mind 100 percent, I had the strength to never turn back."
Being the man of the house also made her responsible for avenging her father's death, she said, including the Kanun's edict that spilled blood must be met with spilled blood. When her father's killer was released from prison five years ago, by then a man of 80, Keqi said she ordered her 15 year-old nephew to shoot him. Then the family of the man took revenge and killed her nephew.
"I always dreamed of avenging my father's death. My brothers tried to, but did not succeed. Of course, I have regrets my nephew was killed. But if you kill me, I have to kill you." In Albania, a majority Muslim country, the Kanun is adhered to by both Muslims and Christians, though the Ottoman Turks and successive governments have all tried to limit its influence.
Albanian cultural historians said the cleaving to medieval customs long discarded elsewhere was a byproduct of the country's previous isolation. But they stressed that today, the traditional role of the Albanian woman was changing.
"The Albanian woman today is a sort of minister of economics, a minister of affection and a minister of interior who controls who does what," said Ilir Yzeiri, a critic who writes about Albanian folklore. "Today women in Albania are behind everything."
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.
"Today women go out half naked to the disco and do not know their limits," said Rakipi, who has cropped hair and wears a military beret. "I was always treated my whole life as a man, always with respect. I can't clean, I can't iron, I can't cook. That is a woman's work."
But even in the remote mountains of Kruje, about 50 kilometers, or 30 miles, north of Tirana, where long dirt roads snake through olive groves, locals say the Kanun's influence on gender roles is disappearing. They said erosion of the traditional family, in which everyone once lived under the same roof, had altered women's position in society.
"Women and men are now almost the same," says Caca Fiqiri, whose aunt Qamile Stema, age 88, is the last sworn virgin remaining in her village. "We respect sworn virgins very much and consider them as men because of their great sacrifice. But there is no longer a stigma not to have a man of the house."
Yet there is no doubt who wears the trousers in the family's one-room stone house in Barganesh, their ancestral village. There, on a recent day, "uncle" Qamile was surrounded by her clan, dressed in a qeleshe, the traditional white cap of an Albanian man. Her only concession to femininity were pink flip-flops.
Pointing to an old black and white photo hanging in the entrance - showing a handsome young man in his prime - Stema said she took an oath of virginity at age 20, after her father died, and she was left the eldest of nine sisters.
After becoming a man, Stema said she could leave the house and chop wood with the other men. She carried a gun. At wedding parties, she sat with the men. When she talked to women, she recalled, they recoiled in shyness.
Stema said becoming a sworn virgin was a necessity, and a sacrifice. "The truth is I feel lonely sometimes. All my sisters have died, and I live alone. But I never wanted to marry. Some in my family tried to get me to change my clothes and wear dresses, but when they saw I had become a man, they left me alone."
Stema said she would die a virgin. Had she married, she joked, it would have been to a traditional Albanian woman. "I guess you could say I was partly a woman and partly a man, but of course I never did everything a man does," she said. "I liked my life as a man. I have no regrets."