At the age of 16, living in a remote village in northern Albania, Shkurta Hasanpapaj faced being forced into marriage.
There was just one way out, and the young woman grasped it: she took the ancient, gender-bending oath to become a sworn virgin.
At a stroke, her life changed. She renounced sex, married life and parenthood.
In return, she won the right to live as a man and lead her family in a fiercely patriarchal society.
Nearly seven decades later, Hasanpapaj prefers to go by the male form of her name, Shkurtan.
“I chose to be with the men,” she said, her short white hair poking out from beneath a cap. “Those who like me call me Shkurtan, those who want to offend me use Shkurta.”
Seeing out the end of her life in a hospice in the northwestern city of Shkodra, Hasanpapaj is among the last of the sworn virgins – a social status once common in Albania and its neighbours in the Balkans. It’s estimated that fewer than 10 remain.
The exceptional life of the sworn virgin is rooted in the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini, a mediaeval code of conduct that was passed down orally among the clans of the craggy peaks and verdant valleys of northern Albania.
The Kanun, which also lays out the rules for the nation’s notorious blood feuds, allows two ways to become a virgjinesha, as sworn virgins are called in Albanian.
One possibility is when all males in the family are dead or gone, and a girl takes the oath to take over male duties and rights.
The other is to invoke it to peacefully avoid an arranged marriage. Without the oath, blood can be shed.
Refusing a proposal is seen as a major affront that can ignite a feud between the families of the would-be bride and suitor that can span generations.
Sworn virgins win the right to hold a job, smoke, knock back shots of fiery raki liquor at the bar, wear trousers and even make family decisions.
You don’t have to “serve food with your head bowed” and “disappear without looking at the guests”, said 62-year-old Djana Rakipi, who also goes by Lali.
She was born in the Tropojë region in northern Albania, but now lives on the coast in Durrës.
Dressed in a tie and military beret, Rakipi chainsmokes, has a crushing handshake and takes clear pleasure when the guard at the local port calls her “boss”.
Rakipi said that, for her, the oath was a form of liberty. The alternative path laid out for women in the Kanun is one of subservience, hard domestic labour and total lack of control.
“It was difficult for women to be part of life,” said Rakipi. “Being free was taboo.”
For Hasanpapaj, the pressure to change came early. She and her twin sister, born in 1932, were seen as a catastrophe by their parents, who had already had three sons die. Her sister was named Sose, which means ‘that’s enough’.
During the post-World War II communist regime of Enver Hoxha, Hasanpapaj was a leader of the local branch of the communist party and headed a brigade of about 50 farmers.
“I was tough,” she said.
Rakipi also feels nostalgia for the communist regime “that always recognised me as a man”, worked as a soldier training students to assemble a Kalashnikov rifle. She later became a police officer.
Much like Hasanpapaj, Rakipi says “she doesn’t give a damn” about not having children and brushed off the matters of sex and relationships.
“I am in love with nature, the sun. I paint,” Rakipi said. “What better love is there than that?”
Both these sworn virgins firmly reject homosexuality, with Rakipi saying it is “not moral”. “Two men and two women getting married, that is the end of the world,” she added.
For British anthropologist Antonia Young, author of a book on sworn virgins, sexuality had nothing to do with the custom.
The virgjinesha gained the privilege of being admitted into a male-only world, although their gender was never changed on their birth certificates.
“They were definitely within the masculine world. They mixed with men, they socialised with men, they drank with them, particularly in cafés,” she said.
For any women today who may be tempted to taking the oath of becoming a sworn virgin, much of the significance of the act will be lost because so much has changed in Albanian society, said Young.
“It won’t be the same – it won’t be for the benefit of the family or the community,” she said. “It would just be for individual choice.” – AFP