In Albania, gender equality has a literal meaning — and a less modern, more traditional translation that your 9 to 5 or Working Girl tropes. For centuries, sworn virginity has allowed woman to live as men, with all the responsibilities and rights that accompany the role in a conservative society.
In closed-off rural northern Albania, the practice of swapping genders was a practical solution motivated by social necessity, for a family with a shortage of men. One woman decided to make the change after her father was killed leaving no male heir. The custom she chose requires a vow of lifetime virginity — in exchange for living as a man with all the authority the gender commands — including the obligation to avenge her father’s death. Though she says she wouldn't necessarily do it now, then it was an easy decision:
Back then, it was better to be a man because before a woman and an animal were considered the same thing. Now, Albanian women have equal rights with men, and are even more powerful. I think today it would be fun to be a woman.
With sexual equality and modern trappings seeping into Albania (including MTV which popped in after the fall of the Berlin Wall) the tradition is fading. Not needing to make the vow to own property, move freely, or avoid an arranged marriage, now there are only about 40 sworn virgins remaining. The decision not only created equality in life, it created equality in worth. A woman is worth is half that of a man, but a virgin is worth the same as a man — 12 oxen.
The changes of modern times don't sit well with all the sworn virgins. To see why,
One, who served as a senior army officer, grumbles that women do not know their place.
Today women go out half naked to the disco. 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.
The remaining few are well respected for their sacrifice. One sums up her life on the border between genders saying:
I guess you could say I was partly a woman and partly a man. I liked my life as a man. I have no regrets.
It's a sacrifice perhaps not on par with donning a shoulder-padded 80s powersuit in the quest for gender equality, but not without its own message about the role of femininity and authority — that shunning sexuality brings power. Do we require female leaders to participate in a tacit subtle version of this custom still? Are femininity and authority mutually exclusive?