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She's the Man

Elvira Dones' Documentary Sworn Virgins Examines A Centuries-Old Custom Of Social Gender Change In Albania

Michael Northrup
UNCHARTED TERRITORY: Elvira Dones returned to her native Albania to document "Sworn Virgins"

By Rahne Alexander | Posted 10/10/2007

Sworn Virgins, directed by Elvira Dones

1:30 p.m. Oct. 13 at 2640 as part of the Baltimore Women's Film Festival

www.bwfilmfestival.com

Five centuries ago, when the women of northern Albania could not own property or decide who they were to marry, the oath of the sworn virgin was established. Under this oath, a female would permanently exchange her sexuality for the acceptance by her peers as a man.

This phenomenon, which persists in the mountains of northern Albania, is documented in Elvira Dones' movie Sworn Virgins, which screens as part of the debut Baltimore Women's Film Festival this weekend. Dones is a novelist, journalist, and filmmaker who defected from Albania's communist regime in 1988 and now lives and works in Rockville.

"The reason that it all exists, it doesn't come from a gender problem," Dones explains by phone. "It doesn't come from a freedom or nonfreedom of living the sexuality how they want to live it. It comes from a five-century-old tradition of the Albanian mountains. It is this very old code of law [called the Kanun] that puts the women at the very bottom of the social rank.

"As a woman you don't have any right at all to decide on the property, on the family, on the marriages of the other women in the house," she continues. "But as a man, you can do all this kind of stuff. So in a family where, for example, five daughters live but no male heir--let's say the father is very ill, or very old, and he's going to die, and he doesn't have a male to leave the reins of his house--the Kanun says if one of these five girls is designated the role of the man, she dresses like a man. She takes the oath of eternal virginity, and from that moment on she is considered socially a man."

Dones has long been fascinated by the sworn virgins. Already a popular novelist in her home country and Italy, she published a deeply researched novel earlier this year about a sworn virgin who comes to regret her decision. But Dones had never met sworn virgins until she returned to Albania to interview them last year.

"I was quite fascinated by them, but . . . we didn't have the right to travel," she says of her earlier times in Albania. "It was a communist dictatorship, so things were more rumored than told. I was fascinated with everything about my country that was not told to us by the regime. I knew about them, but I couldn't go and touch them. I couldn't go talk with them and know how they lived."

Most of the sworn virgins Dones interviews on camera are clearly proud of their lives, and only one, Sanie, expresses regret for her decision. "She's 50, and it is 30 years now she is regretting it because she wanted to be a woman," Dones says. "She is the only one I'm trying to take out of Albania and bring her to the States, because she has a sister here. She cannot do it there. It's not a joke. You can't take your oath back. She will have dishonored all her family and she doesn't want to do that."

The tide seems to be turning for the sworn-virgin phenomenon. Dones interviewed only one person in her 20s who claimed to be a sworn virgin, though she eventually declined to be included in the documentary.

"Of course it is going to fade away," Dones says. "With the change of the regime in Albania and everything of the modern world entering, the women are free to choose now. They don't have any reason to find this kind of escape. I think that, bit by bit, it's going to fade. I asked them all the same question: `What if one of your nieces did the same thing now?' They said, `Well, there is no need for them to do that because now they are freer. They can do whatever they like with their life.' Things are changing."

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