At the age of 16, living in a remote village in northern Albania, Shkurta Hasanpapaj was 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. But 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, as short white hair poked 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.
Today experts estimate that fewer than 10 remain.
The exceptional life of the sworn virgin is rooted in the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini, a medieval 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 in order 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 remote Tropoja region in northern Albania, but now lives on the coast in Durres.
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 — “That’s enough” in Albanian.
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 up “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 kids and brushed off the matters of sex and relationships.