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In Albania, most men are born to manhood; a few have it thrust upon them. But the curious tradition of Avowed Virgins may not survive much longer

Words,Photographs Stuart Freedman
Sunday 03 November 1996 00:02 GMT

Selman Brahim strides through the house with a confident swagger. He proffers cigarettes, then orders a young woman to make the coffee and bring the raki. Visitors are rare in this remote village in rugged northern Albania, and Selman, as head of the family, takes obvious pride in this rare opportunity to display his hospitality.

It is a poor, simple, peasant's house, and, under the single light bulb, Selman looks every inch the poor, simple peasant. His hands are rough, his back straight, his hair short, his face lined and slightly suspicious. He wears heavy boots, thick trousers and a white shirt that is grubby around the cuffs. It's the shirt that gives him away: it seems curiously cut, tight in the wrong places; which of course it is. It was cut for a man, and Selman Brahim is a woman.

Selman is 53 and has been living as a man for 40 years. She is one of perhaps only half a dozen women who still cling to one of the region's oldest and strangest traditions, that of the Avowed Virgins. It is related to another local tradition: the vendetta. Albanian blood feuds are so endemic and so unforgiving that it is not unusual for a family - even one of the large, extended families common in the region - to end up without any surviving male members at all. In this ultra-masculine culture, that spells social and economic disaster; a family without a man at its head can scarcely function, let alone thrive. Hence the Avowed Virgins: young women who swear an oath to renounce their sex and take on the role of head of the family.

Selman became paterfamilias when her father died; she was just 13. It has been hard at times, but she has no regrets. In a society where most women live lives of drudgery and servitude, her transformation has given her great respect; the men of the village have accepted her as one of them. "Is there any man who decided to be a woman?" Selman asks. "Of course not. No, the man is more privileged everywhere."

Many hours' trek through the mountains, in the even poorer village of Theth, Pashke Sokol Ndocaj, some 10 years older than Selman, is more troubled by her fate. Forty-five years ago, the Communists came, burnt the family home and killed her father and four brothers - possibly as part of a feud, though no one really knows why. She had no choice but to take over the family. She seems happy enough as she drinks with the other men in the local bar, but the regrets are never far below the surface. She is quieter and gentler in manner than the others; when a neighbour gives her a child to hold, her face lights up. She still weeps at her father's grave. In her time she has been used as forced labour on a railway hundreds of miles to the south, and served time in a prison camp - all as a man.

According to Pashke, the tradition of the Avowed Virgins goes back more than five centuries, to the semi- mythical Nora Kelmendi - a Joan of Arc figure who is said to have dressed as a man to lead a rebellion against the Ottomans. The Communist regime made every effort to crush the practice, but was no more able to do so than it was to eliminate blood feuds. For all its strangeness, the tradition has a strong appeal for Albanians of both sexes: for individual women, it can represent an opportunity to escape from servitude; for men, it enables society to carry on running along patriarchal lines.

But capitalism has ways of reaching the parts Communism could not. In the wide boulevards of the capital, Tirana - and, increasingly, in other Albanian towns - young women in the latest Italian fashions seem blissfully indifferent to the old social constraints on their sex, and a dilution of Albania's traditional patriarchal structure seems inevitable.

Certainly, talking to quiet, dignif- ied Virgins like Selman and Pashke, and seeing them pose next to photographs of their former selves (overleaf), it is hard to escape the belief - which they evidently share - that they are the last of their kind. !

Drowning her sorrows: Pashke Sokol drinks in the local bar with the other men (top). It's an ironic sight: a woman dealing with sadness in that most traditionally male way. Her regrets are never far below the surface; it is almost half a century since she took her bess - a vow which must be obeyed no matter what the cost - and became paterfamilias, but she still visits her father's grave, offering up cigarettes and biscuits in the graveyard where she took that vow. Right: Pashke praying with the men in the chapel; above: a roadside chat with neighbours

After 26 years in a male role, 41-year-old Lula Ivanaj (above, with a niece) looks more like a tomboy than a man, despite smoking (right) and drinking manfully. But that's not how others see her. "I am never regarded as a woman but as a man," she says. "I've never worn a dress, but at weddings I put on a clean shirt and a tie." Unemployed just now, she's worked as a truck-driver, mechanic and welder. "I don't know how to be with women," Lula says. "I'm not that comfortable with them." Selman Brahim, 53 (centre right, with a nephew and picture of herself as a young man), is untypical of Avowed Virgins in being Muslim, not Catholic. And she has a surviving brother (behind her, far right), deemed too young and weak to head the family on her father's death when she was 13. "Of course women are inferior to men," she says. She is proud to be a man and has no regrets. "I'd have made a bad wife - too headstrong"

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