Friday, September 30, 2011

The Albanian Highlander's Qeleshe (2) - Pashe Keqi

For centuries, in the closed-off and conservative society of rural, northern Albania, to swap genders was considered a practical solution for a family with a shortage of men.

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.

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.

Back then, it was better to be a man because before a woman and an animal were considered the same thing,” said Ms. Keqi, who has a bellowing baritone voice, sits with her legs open wide like a man and relishes downing shots of raki. “Now, Albanian women have equal rights with men, and are even more powerful. I think today it would be fun to be a woman.”

The tradition of the sworn virgin can be traced to the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini, a code of conduct passed on orally among the clans of northern Albania for more than 500 years. Under the Kanun, the role of a woman is severely circumscribed: take care of children and maintain the home. While a woman’s life is worth half that of a man, a virgin’s value is the same: 12 oxen.
The sworn virgin was born of social necessity in an agrarian region plagued by war and death. If the family patriarch died with no male heirs, unmarried women in the family could find themselves alone and powerless. By taking an oath of virginity, women could take on the role of men as head of the family, carry a weapon, own property and move freely.
Passport telling of Ms Keqi's sex
They 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. For some the choice was a way for a woman to assert her autonomy or to avoid an arranged marriage.

“Stripping off their sexuality by pledging to remain virgins was a way for these women in a male-dominated, segregated society to engage in public life,” said Linda Gusia, a professor of gender studies at the University of Pristina
, in Kosovo. “It was about surviving in a world where men rule.”
Thanks to the NY Times


  1. Mmmm, yes! I suppose it was not a bad deal given the alternatives? Still, it is a little extreme to have a "blood feud". I wonder how long it took, for her, to start aping the gestures and ...... pun intended ..... mannerisms? Didn't Frida Kahlo, also dress like a man? Though I'm sure she was not a virgin? Was Diego Rivera a beret wearer? Somehow, I think so?

  2. Thank you for the series about the albanian Qeleshe!
    As usually, you gave us lots of useful interesting informations about headgear... and people :)
    I've read that the qeleshe could be a possible relative or "grandson" of the latin and greek pileus (often depicted as the headcovering of Ulysses/Odysseus)
    If some albanian/arbereshe/arvanitis is reading, I want to express my admiration for your proud and ancient culture;

    and ciao from Italy to everyone and especially to Daan :)