Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Albanian Custom Fades - Woman as Family Man - NYTimes.com

KRUJE, Albania — Pashe Keqi recalled the day nearly 60 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. For centuries, in the closed-off and conservative society of rural northern Albania, swapping genders was considered a practical solution for a family with a shortage of men. Her father was killed in a blood feud, and there was no male heir. By custom, Ms. Keqi, now 78, took a vow of lifetime virginity. She lived as a man, the new patriarch, with all the swagger and trappings of male authority — including the obligation to avenge her father’s death.

This sounds like an excellent arrangement. It's got to be better than "sex-reassignment surgery." I wouldn't have my body chopped up and spend the rest of my life shooting up hormones to play the male social role, but think I might be willing to give up sex to get it if I had to.

[Sworn virgins] dressed like men and spent their lives in the company of other men, even though most kept their female given names. They were not ridiculed, but accepted in public life, even adulated.

The Albanians are clearly more enlightened than we are in this matter. We're all snagged up with Freudian notions about sexuality and "authenticity," and don't accept much less adulate individuals who simply want to play opposite sex social roles. They're only accepted if they can "pass." In Albania, everyone knows that sworn virgins were born as women and are biologically female. They pays their money and takes their choice: they give up the perks--sex with men and childbearing--in exchange for getting to be guys and are fully accepted as guys. They aren't in the closet: they keep their names, their identities, and don't have to deny their personal histories.

Taking an oath to become a sworn virgin should not, sociologists say, be equated with homosexuality, long taboo in rural Albania. Nor do the women have sex-change operations.

Very enlightened indeed. For all our talk about the distinction between sex and gender we still believe that they're inextricably linked so that any woman who just wants to be a guy socially is assumed to be either a lesbian or a candidate for sex-reassignment surgery. Take it from me. I've always had the distinct sense that lots of people would feel more comfortable if I were a lesbian. Not that there's anything wrong with homosexuality: I simply resent that pressure to be something other than I am so that others can be more comfortable about sexist assumptions about what "real women" are or should be like.

Known in her household as the “pasha,” Ms. Keqi said she decided to become the man of the house at age 20...Ms. Keqi lorded over her large family in her modest house in Tirana, where her nieces served her brandy while she barked out orders. She said living as a man had allowed her freedom denied other women. She worked construction jobs and prayed at the mosque with men. Even today, her nephews and nieces said, they would not dare marry without their “uncle’s” permission.

Sounds good to me. If I could have worked construction or had any of the other fall-back positions guys had, I wouldn't have been so scared: I would have made different decisions and been bolder. I made dozens of bad major decisions in my life because I was terrified of being stuck with pink-collar jobs that I couldn't handle.

Nowadays young women who regard themselves as "Third-Wave Feminists" or even more commonly "Not Feminists But..." complain that we, their mamas, espouse a feminism that restricts choice. They don't want to be told that dressing up "objectifies" them or that staying home to take care of their kids is somehow degrading. They don't believe that they should have to pay, to give up traditionally feminine behavior for equality and basic respect, or for decent jobs. They're right. Albanian women shouldn't have to pledge perpetual virginity to count as persons rather than property; American women shouldn't have to buy into man-hating to count as good feminists or behave like guys to work in management or the professions.

But the current rhetoric fails to recognize the fact that some women want to "swap gender" not because it's a cost we think we need to pay to achieve equality and respect, or to get decent work or because we believe it's part of some ideological commitment to support Sisterhood, but simply because it's what we want, because it's what we need to do to "be ourselves." Feminism is precisely about breaking the link between biological sex and gender as traditionally construed in the interests of giving everyone more choices.

1 comment:

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