This Albanian man is a tough lady Virgins: One of the few ways a woman can gain some freedom in the conservative, male-dominated society of Albania's boondocks is to vow to remain a virgin.

Sun Journal


LEPUROSH, Albania -- Sema Brahimi was 14 years old when she decided to become a man.

It was a sacrifice dictated by the harsh circumstances in which her family found itself. Sema's father had died, leaving his hapless widow, four daughters and a baby son to cope on their own. In these pitiless mountains choked with rock and brush, it was unthinkable to run a household without a man in charge. Sema volunteered to take on the job.

She cropped her hair short and donned trousers. She went to work in the fields. She changed her name from Sema to its masculine equivalent, Selman, and her mother and sisters began referring to her with the pronouns "he" and "him."

"I've lived my whole life as a man. I've got the habits of a man. If anybody has a problem with it, I've got my gun to deal with them," said Selman Brahimi, now 55, with a blustery gesture to the back pocket of her baggy gray trousers.

Perhaps more remarkable than Brahimi's permutation of gender is that nobody does have a problem with it. The men in the village accept Brahimi as a man among equals. In this deeply conservative culture in which the responsibilities and customs of men and women are sharply delineated, her decision to become a man is regarded as part of a centuries-old, noble tradition.

In a 1909 book about Albania, the British travel writer Edith Durham described the tradition of the "Albanian virgins" -- women who took an oath never to marry in order to fill a void left by a dearth of males. The folklore of northern Albania and bordering Montenegro is rich with heroic accounts of these avowed virgins who sometimes became fierce warriors or village chieftains.

Until recently, when Albania reopened to outsiders after a half-century of Stalinist communism, it was widely believed that the tradition had died out. Its survival into the modern era can be attributed to the extreme isolation of mountainous villages such as Lepurosh, which are unknown territories even for most Albanians.

The village of Lepurosh, population 300, lies in the Dinaric Alps. It has not a single telephone, automobile or house with indoor plumbing. The women wear traditional attire of long skirts, aprons and white head scarfs.

The Brahimis live in a sun-bleached stone house overlooking fields of tobacco, cucumbers, tomatoes and onions from which the family ekes out a hardscrabble existence.

Selman Brahimi was born in this house in 1940, the youngest of four daughters. The older girls already were married or engaged, their brother still a baby, when their father died. Selman Brahimi gradually assumed responsibility for tending to the fields and for making the arduous, three-hour trip to the nearest city by mule when it was time to sell crops.

"The idea came as the result of necessity. There was nobody to take care of the men's work," she said while rolling a cigarette with home-grown tobacco.

As the head of the household, Brahimi took responsibility for selecting a wife for her brother. She wore a suit and tie at his wedding, assuming the role of father of the groom. In keeping with village tradition, she learned to play musical instruments reserved for men, the flutelike fyell and a stringed instrument known as the lahute.

"I've had to work very hard to earn bread for the family and to be honest and correct in my relations with others," she said. "But no, I never regret the decision. I've not had a bad life as a man."

She has the petite stature of a woman and a wry smile, displaying gold-capped teeth through a crooked grin. She happily acknowledges that her life is far easier today than before.

Her brother, Elez, has four sons -- two of whom work abroad, sending money back to the family, and two who work the fields. She now spends much of her time smoking and drinking brandy with the men of the village.

Elez Brahimi's wife, Hasije, does all the housework and looks at the woman to whom she refers as her brother-in-law with just a hint of envy. "There is no doubt that the woman's life is tougher. I have to do everything -- the laundry, the cleaning up, the cooking for six men," said Hasije as she served a lunch of home-baked brown bread, goat cheese and cucumbers for Selman Brahimi and the others.

Selman Brahimi is the first and only avowed virgin in Lepurosh, which is entirely Muslim. The tradition is more common among Albanian Catholics. But villagers do not seem in the least perturbed.

"He [Selman Brahimi] respects all the rules and always conducts himself properly," said 70-year-old Dyl Dylholli, one of the village elders.

Says Elez nonchalantly, "I consider Selman to be my brother."

Selman Brahimi's masculine status is recognized under a centuries-old body of law that prevails in the region.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.