Becoming a Woman-Man

Notes on the Phenomenon of Sworn Virgins in the Balkans

in Aspasia
Lada Stevanović Researcher, Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Serbia

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Mladena Prelić Senior Research Associate, Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Serbia

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The phenomenon of female cross-dressing and gaining the social role of a man has been witnessed in the tribal patriarchal society of the remotest parts of the Dinaric region since the nineteenth century. Once found within both Slavic and Albanian populations, today sworn virgins have been rapidly vanishing, and are rarely still found in northern Albania. The fact that occurrence was equally common among Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim populations in the remotest mountain regions points to the phenomenon's ancientness. As women who aspired to the social status of men, sworn virgins did not cease to be women; only the “degree” of their womanhood or manhood varied. Examining this social phenomenon as a third gender, this article contextualizes it through Judith Butler's theory of performativity. It also focuses on the relatedness of the phenomenon to the ancient past, turning to existing theories, but also providing an original contribution to the third gender debate.

The phenomenon of sworn virgins is fairly well documented in the ethnography of the highest and remotest parts of the central Dinarides (the mountain area on the Balkan Peninsula that separates it from the Adriatic coast). Most of the evidence of the phenomenon has been found particularly in the border areas of Montenegro, north Albania, and the region of Kosovo and Metohija, as well as its surroundings, but occasionally also in Bosnia and Herzegovina.1 Jelka Vince Pallua defines the nuclear region of sworn virgins more precisely, delineating it with reference to Trebinje, Lake Skadar, the valley of the Lim and the Adriatic Sea, while occasional spreading outside of this area was a consequence of the mobility of shepherds’ cultures.2

Sworn virgins were women who took a vow of virginity or were forced to do so (by the decision of their parents, at birth or later), thus changing their social role and becoming social men. The external sign of this change was the complete or at least partial cross-dressing in men's clothing. These girls and women not only dressed like men but also behaved like men, obtaining men's roles and statuses, participating in public life, moving and behaving freely, and gaining the respect that was reserved for men in patriarchal societies. Sworn virgins could inherit property; they could work outside their homes, doing all the jobs that only men were permitted to do; they were allowed to drink and smoke, to curse, carry weapons, and participate in war.3 Scholars have noted that this was a rare, if not the only, example of gender-crossing—at least in modern Europe—that was socially accepted and respected.4 However, there is evidence of a similar phenomenon of women-men in India (sadhin), as well as the reverse case of cross-dressing boys into girls (fa'afafine) in the South Pacific islands of Samoa, when society needed to compensate for the lack of working women.5

This article offers a short overview of research on sworn virgins, focusing on works by ethnologists from former Yugoslavia and published in local languages, since a recent work on Albanian sworn virgins is available to the English-reading audience.6 The first evidence of the phenomenon dates back to the nineteenth century, and a plethora of testimonies originated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from the Dinaric region, regarded as a specific cultural zone. Precisely the specificities of the patriarchal clan communities and tribes of this Dinaric region (regardless of state borders, nations, and religions) generated and enabled this phenomenon.7 However, the modernization of Yugoslavia was intensive during the twentieth century and especially after World War II, in contrast to life in neighboring Albania. The contrast between the two countries was particularly striking in the postwar period during the repressive communist regime of Enver Hoxha in Albania. While Yugoslavia opened to Western influences in everyday life, Albania was an isolated, closed country, still far from successful modernization, thus enabling prolonged existence of traditional forms of social life. Among other things, this led to a different development of the phenomenon of sworn virgins, resulting in its disappearance more quickly in Yugoslavia (and consequently its successor states) than in Albania. During Yugoslav socialism, patterns of traditional life rapidly started to transform, and sworn virgins adjusted their lifestyle to the new circumstances either in cities or in their villages. However, transformation is always a gradual process, which means that there were sometimes discrepancies between the new legal system and former customary law that did not vanish overnight, at least not among the people who lived within the latter's norms.8 Finally, within this process, sworn virgins disappeared everywhere, except in northern Albania. However, change is on the horizon in this country too, since the modernization process has intensified there as well since the last decade of the twentieth century.

The article turns particular attention to the tribal patriarchal society of the Dinarides and its understanding of sex and gender, questioning those concepts in dialogue with queer theories (focusing on Judith Butler), and examining the binary division of these concepts and the inherent worldview as a characteristic of the society in question. Focusing on sociohistorical context, we reveal that the social norms of this society strictly regulated the behavior of women and men, but at the same time this rigidity (mirrored in the impossibility of women to move or make decisions freely) generated a solution—the possibility for a woman to dress as a man and become one, at the same time not ceasing to be a woman. In other words, it was easier for a woman to change her gender than to disregard social norms and thus possibly impact structures of power relations within the community. Thus, the third gender of sworn virgins, who were social men and women at the same time, “worked” for this tribal patriarchal society.

Despite the previously mentioned strict social norms, we suggest that the phenomenon of sworn virgins was enabled by a specific worldview that differed from the prevailing biased and binary cognitive system that separates everything into total opposites (always privileging one part of the pair—man/woman, reason/emotion, spirit/nature, etc.). If it had not been for the worldview that also conceptualized opposites in totality, there would not have been the concept of the sworn virgin as a woman and a man at the same time—the third gender.

Grounding our arguments in the theoretical work of Olga Freidenberg (1890–1955), we suggest that the sworn virgin phenomenon could be interpreted in the light of her theory of cognitive development and the archaic worldview of ancient Greeks. According to Freidenberg, people were not always capable of abstract thinking, and in earlier times were even unable to differentiate the world around them, to discern self from other. However, after the initial phase, when everything was perceived as combined into one, and no differences could be made, each concept started to receive its double, although without the dichotomy that we inscribe to them, as the original idea of totality remained.9 As abstract thought developed, traces of forgotten cognitive patterns continued in myths, rituals, and other forms of vernacular culture. We address this theory in detail below, to argue that a trace of such thought is embodied in the idea of the third gender of sworn virgins. In addition, after explaining the social context in which the third gender appeared in the patriarchal clan communities and tribes of the central Dinarides, we open a fruitful dialogue between the past historical context and contemporary gender theories, not only in order to better understand the concepts of sex and gender in said societies of the past, but also to gain a better understanding of the contemporary situation.

The complex and interesting phenomenon of sworn virgins has been recorded by many domestic and foreign travel writers, scholars, ethnographers, ethnologists, and anthropologists since the mid-nineteenth century. The first unequivocal recorded example dates from 1855 (published in 1860), from the Montenegrin Rovca tribe, now in central Montenegro.10 Jelka Vince Pallua comprehensively identifies 136 documented cases of sworn virgins mentioned in literature, with the earliest source from 1860.11 And although the Canon (the Canon of Leke Dukagjini) that refers to Albanian customary law from the fifteenth century onward mentions the phenomenon, the fact that the text was written down at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century leaves open the possibility of later emendations, which makes it impossible to regard this source as firm evidence of the existence of sworn virgins in the fifteenth century.12 Nevertheless, the origins of the phenomenon are probably very archaic.

Although this phenomenon is primarily linked to one particular region, it spread across the borders of different ethnic groups and different religions (Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim) as well as different countries.13 What the central Dinaric region and its inhabitants had in common—the tradition of clan communities and tribes developed in the high mountains that resisted quick changes and influences after the Turkish invasion of the Balkans14—nowadays has largely vanished in its structural and functional aspects. High-mountain society was known for a strict tribal patriarchal system, one of (at least) three versions of patriarchy (tribal, oriental, and Western-influenced) that existed in the territory of Yugoslavia.15

As Mildred Dickemann puts it, the sworn virgin phenomenon appeared “primarily in mountain regions where a mixed pastoral-agricultural economy supported patrilineal nested lineages engaging in continual feuding. The lineages had defined but contested territories, elaborate oral legal codes, rigid sex segregation in association and activities, and a markedly lower status for women than for men.”16 As for the mentioned oral legal codes, one should not forget that they accompanied customary law, in which certain norms were very rigid and strict (norms regarding women's and men's behavior), while numerous other regulations were more flexible than in the official legal codes, which was also the reason that, as we shall reveal, sworn virgins appeared in many variations.

An individual had a plethora of reasons for becoming a sworn virgin. Probably the most prominent and the most often mentioned was a family's lack of a son.17 In this situation, not only was the patrilineality of the family threatened, but also its domestic cults and economic functioning, especially in situations where the father was absent or had died. Sometimes parents took the decision, often while the girl was still young (or even a baby), but sometimes an (adult) daughter would make such a decision on her own. Turning a daughter into a son offered at least some solution to the problem. Namely, such a son was able to inherit the land, the domestic family cult, and sometimes even to continue the family blood lineage, serving as the adoptive father of a sister's son.

There may have been other reasons as well to become a sworn virgin. When male family members were endangered by vendettas, a sworn virgin would be able to move freely outside the house and do the men's work, without being exposed to danger.18 Furthermore, girls and women (often widowed) frequently decided to become sworn virgins themselves to avoid marrying someone they did not want to marry (or when their fiancée died), when they became widows (for various reasons, e.g., to avoid being remarried or simply being vulnerable as a single woman), or when their father died and they wanted to help raise younger siblings, thus becoming the head of the house.

Becoming a sworn virgin was considered a permanent, or at least a long-term, complex change of social role. However, at least in some cases, the vow of virginity might have been reversible. For example, when the father or the last adult man in the family died, a girl would take the role of a man until her younger brother grew up. Additionally, when the reason was a blood feud, the moment the danger expired, a sworn virgin could become a girl or woman again.19 However, there are many recorded examples in the literature of girls who remained in the status of sworn virgins even after the initial reasons for it ceased to exist, and there are few examples of the reversal or breaking of the vow.

The variety of reasons for and performances of sworn virgins is, at least partly, reflected in the different terms used for them, such as virdžina/virdžin (sworn virgin), tobelija (Turkish tövbe—repentance, vow), ostajnica (the one who stays related to the primary family, from the verb ostajati—to stay), momak-devojka (guy-girl), muškobana or muškaobanja (a woman who looks like a man and behaves like a man), muškobaba (man-old woman), žena-muškarac (woman-man), or cura (among the Montenegrin Kuči tribe; elsewhere the word denotes a young unmarried woman, a girl).20 In Albanian there are terms such as vajze e betuar (sworn girl), murgéshë or morga (nun), and burrneshë (man-woman).21 The decision to use the term “sworn virgin” in this article is grounded in the fact that the term is already used by Antonia Young.22

Some Examples of Interpretation: A Brief Overview

While the early works of travel writers are precious as sources of information, they are often partial, imprecise, and sometimes burdened with an Orientalist discourse.23 On the other hand, native ethnologists and anthropologists of the twentieth century (Tihomir Đorđević, Mirko Barjaktarović, Tatomir Vukanović, Marijana Gušić) conducted fieldwork, met many sworn virgins, and collected information from and about them, often systematically. Some proposed possible interpretations of the phenomenon, its origins, functions, and meanings that had important influence on later researchers. For example, Mirko Barjaktarović suggested that, together with the ideological concepts connected with patriarchy, economic factors (like the need to preserve land ownership within the family) played a crucial role in inventing the sworn virgin phenomenon.24 In addition to collecting valuable ethnographic material, Marijana Gušić and Tatomir Vukanović also took a completely different direction, connecting the phenomenon with antiquity, matriarchy, and various Greek myths (about Athena or the Amazons).25 Further research brought new approaches and insights regarding the social function of sworn virgins. Ljiljana Gavrilović focused on the vow of virginity, offering a functional interpretation also related to Robert Merton's classic work,26 while Karl Kaser asserted that sworn virgins were a way to correct the systemic error of the patrilineal order—its potential weakness in relying only on the male or agnate line of kinship. René Grémaux27 was probably the first to introduce the discussion of the sex and gender identity of the women who became social men. The most comprehensive studies are written by Antonia Young,28 Predrag Šarčević,29 and Jelka Vince Pallua.30

Developing interpretations by Barjaktarović,31 Jelka Vince Pallua understands the phenomenon of sworn virgins as an institution of tribal patriarchal society that appeared when there was the need to compensate for the lack of men.32 Predrag Šarčević offers a more nuanced interpretation, pointing out that in patrilinear clan and tribal communities this problem of the nuclear family would have been minor if the relations that connected all the men of a clan as relatives had remained strong, and that the focus on the nuclear family as the smallest collective unit within this system revealed the transitional process that this society underwent during the nineteenth century, at the time when the national state (he refers to Montenegro) and the official legislative system were in the process of constitution.33

Some authors made an attempt to make classifications and categorizations of sworn virgin types, most notably Gušić and Gavrilović.34 However, it appears that such efforts are mostly artificial constructions, especially considering the fact that the phenomenon of the sworn virgin appears in numerous variations and combinations, thus actually evading classification.35 Its fluidity is expressed both in the reasons for and the ways of becoming a sworn virgin and living a life like one, choosing a masculine or a feminine name, performing one's gender sometimes exclusively as a man, sometimes in turns, both as a man and as a woman36 (e.g., there are examples of sworn virgins being men during the day, and sleeping at night as women, but there are also cases of the reverse, as well as rare cases of them doing both men's and women's jobs37). The unfixed gender of sworn virgins is an extremely interesting issue of performativity that we shall discuss below, interpreting it as the fluid quality of a third gender. We shall examine it through the lens of Judith Butler's theory of performativity, in which gender is understood as a discursive category, produced and performed through gender stylization of the body. “There is no gender identity behind the expression of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.”38

The most famous sworn virgins, with whom ethnographers had considerable contact and whose lives are known rather well, were Stana Cerović (1936–2016), Drko (Nurija) Memić (1910–1956), and Mikaš (Milica) Karadžić (ca. 1862–1934). When Mikaš was born, shortly after his father's brave death, his mother and grandmother christened the baby Milica, but she grew up as a boy and always behaved like a man. Not only did he live his life as one, but he was also accepted as a man by the tribal organization (three clans of the Drobnjak tribe) and by the tribe's chief.39 Drko Memić was also a sworn virgin in a family where only girls kept being born.40 Living life like a man, Drko adopted his sister's son, leaving all his property and the family name to him. However, problems emerged after his death, when his sisters started to fight over the inheritance that he left to his adopted nephew. Although Drko lived according to customary law, and although the community and the family accepted his status of sworn virgin and adoption of his nephew, property interests and the modern legislative system prevailed in the end, in part because Drko never formally adopted the boy.41

The Third Gender—From Anthropology to Theory

What is undeniably common to all sworn virgins is that the phenomenon refers to the inversion of sex and gender, and that a woman by birth (understood as a biological category) became a social man. This clear shift and division reveal that conservative patriarchal tribal society was able to differentiate between gender as a social category and sex as a biological one. This corresponds to the distinction between nature and culture, between biological sex and socially constructed gender, in the way that anthropologists since Margaret Mead (1901–1978)42 and second-wave feminists comprehended those categories. Sex is understood as pre-discursive and written into the body, “silent in its materiality, while gender is, on the other hand, a social and cultural consequence of sex.”43 Or, if we recall the famous quotation from Simone de Beauvoir, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” we may notice that it almost precisely defines the phenomenon, if we merely replace “woman” with “man.”

However, in feminist and queer theories these categories are further problematized, first of all by introducing intersectionality and by pointing out that gender is impossible to separate from political and cultural factors44 (this understanding is recognized in anthropological perspectives), thus indicating another essentialist trap that sees sex as a natural biological category, while sex is also culturally conditioned,45 being a social construct.46 Namely, the way we understand physiology and conceptualize sex is also discursively marked, and is rather limiting in its dual conceptualization toward the diversity that exists. “The concept of ‘sex’ is itself troubled terrain, formed through a series of contestations over what ought to be decisive criterion for distinguishing between two sexes . . . . [the] natural is construed as that which is also without value.”47

Being aware that sex and gender are constructed as analytical categories, we may presume that people of the society under examination could discern the categories of sex and gender in the following way—one is born either as a man or as a woman, but during one's life, a woman could become a sworn virgin—a social man, or a social man and a woman at the same time. In other words, the performativity of the masculine gender achieved through cross-dressing and through men's behavior (permanent or occasional, since, as we have said, some sworn virgins took the male role only partially) turns women into social men (permanent or occasional). The fact that at the same time they do not cease to be women makes them a third gender. Interestingly, the phenomenon (in its fluidity) illustrates well the concept of Butler's performativity, as continuous performances and enactments of gender through gestures and acts, always within official discourses and public regulations, and without any ontological status.48

As we have already seen, the third gender does not make patriarchal regulations less strong in Dinaric tribal society; it rather “works for” the society. This corresponds to Butler's theoretical insight that “gender can be rendered ambiguous without disturbing or reorienting normative sexuality at all. Sometimes gender ambiguity can operate precisely to contain or deflect non-normative sexual practice and thereby work to keep normative sexuality intact.”49 This raises the question of the sexuality of sworn virgins, a problem that has rarely been researched.

The huge caution among researchers not to relate this primarily transgender social phenomenon to homosexuality has multiple reasons. First of all, there is the virginity of sworn virgins. Furthermore, strong taboos surrounding sexuality in Balkan tribal patriarchal societies made it almost impossible to talk about. Antonia Young even claims that it was probable that lesbianism was unknown to Albanian women in isolated villages (though homosexuality among young shepherds was socially accepted).50 On the other hand, there is occasional evidence of homosexuality among sworn virgins. Vukanović mentions a Bosnian sworn virgin who was married to a woman, until the postwar authorities found out (after both, being ill, were admitted to a hospital) that he was biologically a woman.51 Earlier evidence from Tihomir Đorđević recorded that Ivan Zovko mentioned girls in Bosnia and Herzegovina who dressed like men, who enjoyed going to war, and who even fell in love with girls.52 In a television show about the last Montenegrin sworn virgin, Stana Cerović boasts about flirting with girls in his youth.53 Whether such boasting is merely performance of gender and an act of strengthening his maleness, or also has to do with his sexual desires, is impossible to determine. The issue is complex and both explanations are possible, although the most probable is the mutual dependence of the two. The obvious obstacle that is the lack of information makes the issue of sexual desire impossible to research.

Thus, despite the fluidity of the third gender, the sexuality of sworn virgins was controlled and policed, as is always the case with women's sexuality. Turning into a man, a sworn virgin was just a “social man” (or sometimes both social man and social woman) and not a “real” one—she was less and more than a man at the same time, receiving a sacred status as the third gender, for example, when protected from a blood feud. Regarding this aspect, which is doubtlessly social, it would be wrong to claim that sworn virgins were exclusively social men. They were also women-men in the social sphere—behaving like men, being respected as men—but in the social context of a blood feud they were treated as women. This gender shift indicates that it is necessary to regard sworn virgins as a third gender, in all its complexity and fluidity. A sworn virgin was both a man and a woman and “neither a man nor a woman,” as Tatomir Vukanović heard from his informants.54

The third gender (in its duality and totality) does not challenge the framework of men's and women's social roles. Whether the social role of a sworn virgin is stable and unchangeable (always acting as a man), or involves shifts between men's and women's roles, continuously involving a formative transgressive position of a woman-man (girl-boy), this transgender phenomenon is always created and performed within the normative gender role framework of the culture—a person performs either the male or female gender, yet the performativity is not defined once and for all. This confirms Butler's concept of performativity, with gender being performed always anew—continuously through repeated stylized actions.

Another interesting point in arguing the concept of the third gender is that, even when sworn virgins completely accept the social role of a man, they do not cease to be a woman, thus simultaneously being a woman and a man. Some of the terms for sworn virgins explicitly reveal this: devojka-momak (girl-boy) or momak-devojka (boy-girl). In the words of ethnologist Tatomir Vukanović, a Serbian scholar who met different sworn virgins over many years, “it rarely happens that sworn virgins hide their belonging to the female sex, but they always claim to be real men and they mostly behave in society like men would. Only sometimes, sworn virgins claim to be women and men at the same time, mostly those who deal both with women's and men's duties.”55 As we can see, the “degree” of the womanhood and the manhood of a sworn virgin is a variable.

Exactly this instability and inability to define sworn virgins as one of the binary pair (man or woman) is what most strikingly evokes the contemporary recognition and identification of LGBTQI people. And while contemporary self-identifications include transgender and different sexual orientations, the multiplicity of possibilities is their common denominator with the third gender of sworn virgins, which, as we try to understand and analyze it, escapes definition. Any of the aforementioned terms that refer to sworn virgins conceal the multitude of variations. The institution of the sworn virgin focuses on social roles rather than sexual (self-)identifications, since sexual desire is tamed in virginity, “de-bodying” sworn virgins and leaving the institutionalization of heteronormativity unchallenged. However, the specific social context of tribal patriarchal society offers an interesting perspective on the category of gender, inspiring theoretical insights and interpretation that might open fruitful dialogue with contemporary theories, with a similar notion of gender transgression that comes from completely different cognitive, social, or theoretical backgrounds.

Any theoretical dialogue that includes insights into the phenomenon of the third gender in the central Dinarides needs to take into account that the existence of sworn virgins is not a consequence of self-reflection and individualism, but rather of subordination to the collective, or as Mirko Barjaktarović points out, “to sacrifice for this collective . . . was considered to be obligatory and natural.”56 Jelka Vince Pallua understands the phenomenon as a “customary law racket” with its main function being to fulfill the needs of the family and society, and finds exactly in this function the reason for the high social status and huge respect that sworn virgins enjoyed.57 This collective need for the third gender is exactly what provided it with the license to exist and survive.

We would like to point out that, although this is a secondary effect, the phenomenon of the sworn virgin sometimes offered benefits to the women who adopted it. Specifically, occasionally it enabled girls and women to have some choice and to escape situations in which their female destiny was strictly regulated by existing social rules. It was the only way to cancel a planned marriage without exposing one's family to a blood feud, or to avoid marrying entirely, as well as the only way for a woman to obtain a divorce. For example, Tihomir Barjaktarović mentions that he met Marica Boljević in Podgorica in 1939. She decided not to marry and to become a sworn virgin after the man she loved married another girl.58 Barjaktarović also mentions Đula Hasanović (born 1891) and Đuna Šabanović Murtezaj (born 1905) who became sworn virgins in order to avoid marrying. The former wore men's clothes in his youth, while the latter always wore women's clothes, but they both behaved like men and did men's work—the former rode a horse, and the latter was a shepherd.59

There is no uniform answer to whether becoming a sworn virgin was a burden or a relief for these women, because it was certainly both. Interestingly, many sworn virgins expressed strong misogyny, which is consistent with a successful shift in social roles. Among many examples, we will note the famous sworn virgin Mikaš (Milica) Karadžić, who treated Croatian ethnologist Marijana Gušić very arrogantly, not even directly addressing her. Mikaš did not consider Gušić worthy of their conversion.60 Therefore, Gušić collected information from Mikaš’s relatives and neighbors. Gušić’s husband also helped, because Mikaš agreed to talk to him, as one man to another.61 As this and many other examples reveal, an important dimension of the performativity of the masculine gender was misogyny.

Why Virginity?

What made it possible for a girl or woman to become a sworn virgin? As we have already stated, it was a vow of virginity. Renouncing sexuality resulted in losing some social rights, while gaining some others, implying a change in one's social status.62 Virginity thus appeared in the social context as a requirement and a possibility (a “license”) to rise above femininity.

The term “vow” should be understood in the broadest sense, because it did not always require a public act. Virginity as sexual abstinence63 erased feminine sexuality, as well as all duties and powers (biological and social) that women had that were related to the domain of sexuality, giving birth being the most important of them. This domain was marked with (ritual, hence social) impurity, and the reason for this might be located exactly in its power. To understand this better, we might take into account the status of menstrual blood, which was in many traditional cultures considered to be simultaneously impure and sacred.64 This tightly associated conceptualization of impurity and sacredness is a cross-cultural phenomenon related to the archaic religious concept of taboo (among Slavic, Turkish, Arab, and Jewish people, among others). This is also apparent in the Latin word sacer (saint, sacred and cursed, impious).65 Due to menstrual blood, women (and their bodies) were considered to be impure. “From the patriarchal point of view, [woman's] body was almost always an important basis for an ambivalent attitude toward women and for discrimination, based on ascribing a close relation of the female body to nature.”66 In the case of the institution of the sworn virgin, renouncing the woman's body and its impurity was possible through cross-dressing and performing the other gender. However, this was not enough. Under the clothes, there was a body that could be pure only if it was deprived of sexuality.

Kaser's interpretation of the vow of virginity stresses the social aspect, focusing on blood at a symbolic level, that is, on blood lineage in the context of clan-tribal patriarchal societies. Kaser points out that when a woman gave birth in patriarchal society it always meant continuing someone else's blood lineage. She could not give birth to a child that would belong to her primary family, and exactly for this reason, the continuation of the blood lineage of her primary family required a vow of virginity and possible adoption of a sister's son. The possibility of such a woman becoming a biological mother had to be excluded, and a vow of virginity regulated this.67 This corresponds to ideas of Gerda Lerner, theoretician of the history of patriarchy, who, reflecting on Lévi-Strauss's concept of “the exchange of women,” emphasizes that women's sexuality was actually commodified.68 Thus, in patriarchal society the control of woman's sexuality served its needs—either in the requirement to give birth to her own children (preferably sons), or in the requirement not to give birth and remain within the primary family. This specific control of the sexuality of sworn virgins and the ban on marrying did not deprive them completely from parenthood. One possibility was to adopt a sister's son. A famous example is sworn virgin Drko Memić, born Nurija, who raised a nephew, adopting him at the age of eight. The boy always addressed him as uncle and inherited the family's ancestor cult when Drko died (1956).69

The third interpretation of virginity as a requirement for becoming a sworn virgin is offered by Grémaux, who focuses on this phenomenon as equally male and female, wherefore he understands it as an intermediary category of the third gender.70 The existence of the third gender is seen by this author not only as a positive side of sworn virgins but also as a threat:

With regard to the virgins’ role in the prevalent man/woman division, it must be stressed that its impact is not merely affirmative. Virgins challenge common concepts of femininity, of which motherhood and dependence on men are basic traits, and moreover they threaten the clear-cut demarcation of both genders. In transvestite Balkan virgins, we see this inherent ambiguity and ambivalence substantially reduced by their classification as “social men,” as well as by prescription and restrictions concerning their sexual behaviour.71

The respect that sworn virgins had and the absence of transphobia in the society under examination undermine Grémaux's opinion, which appears to be influenced by the social perceptions of the transgender phenomenon in his time. Specifically, the existence of sworn virgins in the tribal patriarchal society of the Balkans reveals that the third gender represented less trouble for the collective than is the case today in some Balkan societies, at least on some collective level. Why was this so? Why did performativity not challenge the norms of patriarchal society? Above all, because it did not, in any way, challenge the concepts of femininity or masculinity, or the social order. The third gender represented the sum of the two existing genders. How it was possible to transgress so easily between the man's and woman's role without antagonism, especially in societies that so vehemently and strictly controlled women's and men's behavior, is a mechanism quite difficult to understand from the contemporary point of view. To explain this process, we turn to the domain of antiquity and its indirect relations to the issue of sworn virgins, using the theory of archaic thought of Olga Freidenberg, a classicist who researched cognitive development through myths and rituals of ancient Greece.

The Third Gender and Tribal Patriarchal Societies: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives

Some researchers consider the phenomenon of sworn virgins to be very archaic. The fact that it survived in the remotest parts of the Dinarides even into the twentieth century strengthens this assumption, since people in inaccessible, secluded areas are considered to be more attached to their customs and beliefs and less prone to change them.72 Although clear evidence of the exact chronology of the phenomenon does not exist, most written traces locate it in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Nevertheless, there are attempts among researchers to demonstrate its deep historical origin. Some have related the phenomenon either to the Illyrian natives of the region or to Greek antiquity.73 It is not unusual to start exploring a phenomenon through its relationship to ancient Greece, since the European nineteenth-century cultural colonization of its past defined Greece as the cradle of European civilization. In this case, some comparison with ancient Greece might be useful, above all because ancient Greek societies were tribal and patrilineal, and Greek culture is relatively well documented, or at least far better than other Balkan traditional cultures. However, since the nineteenth century, and the cultural colonization of the Greek past, and especially the colonization of its mythology by psychoanalysis, Greek myths have become the first and easiest (though the least reliable) place in which to search for the origins of various phenomena.74

Thus, it is not surprising that some researchers suggested a relationship between Greek Amazons (a mythical tribe of women warriors and hunters) and sworn virgins, providing quite general, but unsatisfactory arguments that intended to prove the relation of this phenomenon to matriarchy.75 Scholar Mirko Barjaktarović, however, refuted this idea with the argument that matriarchy would not need such an inversion in which women became men.76 Likewise, the ideas of Vukanović were inspired by the fact that sworn virgins could wear weapons and go into battle, but also by the meaning of the word Amazonka (“Amazon woman” in the Serbian language), which appeared to be a synonym of muškobanja, defined as a brave woman, a frightful woman;77 this word was also sometimes used to denote sworn virgins.78 However, the myth of the Amazons (women with one breast cut off to facilitate manipulation of weapons) does not have anything to do with the real women who changed their social role to behave as men. Rather, this myth originated in men's fantasies about women, and, above all, in their fear of women.79 As such it was meant to be a regulation and educational tool for both girls and boys, explaining the social and cultural construction of gender and the necessity of taming women in an extremely patriarchal Greek polis.80 Furthermore, the Amazons were a mythical collective of women, opposing and fighting men, while sworn virgins were individual social actors. The only correspondence between the myth of the Amazons and the social institution of sworn virgins is that both reaffirmed patriarchal order.81

Another ethnologist who argued for the ancient origin of the phenomenon, linking it to matriarchy, was Marijana Gušić. Claiming on one hand to relate the sworn virgins to the cult of the Asian divinity of the Great Mother (Magna Mater), with its erotic exaltation, and on the other to the Paleo-Mediterranean image of the goddess Parthenos (Virgo), Gušić mentions the virginity and warlike identity of Athena Parthenos.82 However, this divinity, descending from Minoan and Old European prototypes, became the goddess of war relatively late.83 Specifically, she received warlike epithets after the Indo-European invasion, when she became the protectress of the Athenian polis, a politically organized city-state founded in the eighth to sixth centuries BCE at the earliest. Athena's warlike image is undoubtedly related to the new political and social order of the male-dominated and belligerent culture of the invaders responsible for the later transformation of the goddess, while the aspect of virginity belonged to the earlier Old European Neolithic goddess.84

Although it is difficult, if not impossible, to trace ancient origins for sworn virgins, there is one archaic element that we would like to discuss, because it conceptualizes the third gender of sworn virgins as being a man and a woman at the same time. For this purpose, we rely on the theoretical work of Olga Freidenberg, who focused her research on cognitive and social changes in historical perspective, above all through researching Greek myths and literature.

Freidenberg recognizes a forgotten way of perception of the world in which nothing was differentiated. This sameness, of course, did not exist on the outer level, but on the level of perception. The world was perceived in its totality, and not in binary pairs, as in contemporary thought, in which one element in the pair is privileged, while the other (women and their domains) is always devaluated. Researching the archaic thought of ancient Greeks, Freidenberg argues that in the distant past, people did not make distinctions: between self and the world, between one and many, between day and night, or between life and death. Everything was seen and understood in totality, without the dichotomy that we inscribe into it.85 Gradually, thought developed and differentiated, which happened through metaphors, but this process occurred slowly and the early worldview did not disappear all at once. It remained in traces of mythical images, mythical episodes, oral literature, customs, and rituals that preserved the diversity of the metaphors that reflected different stages of cognition. As Freidenberg points out, it is essential to realize that in such archaic perception, everything was melted into one; nobody was distinguished from others and no one ruled over others. If this was so, the concept of hierarchy did not exist, and neither did the binary categories of gender and sex. Gradually, however, every human being and every object started to possess its double.86 Is it possible that in this early conceptualization, man and woman were doubles of each other, while in the archaic, earlier consciousness, they had been perceived as a unity? The evidence for this idea in Greek myth might be the simultaneous dual sexuality of primordial beings, believed to be ancestors of other gods, humans, and animals. Before the split, “to possess both sexes was to possess neither because at that stage generation could not proceed by means of sexual union.”87 The disconnection of the totality happened as soon as “I” was separated from “non-I.”88 This was a process, and the old worldview did not disappear at once, but its traces continued to coexist side by side with the new one.

Similar archaic thought patterns existed throughout the Balkans, according to research revealing that the same conceptualization of the unique image that splits into two (the double) could be found in the region. An example from Serbian tradition includes beliefs and customs related to jednodanci or jednomesečići—brothers born on the same day or in the same month (comparable to Greek Dioskuroi: Castor and Pollux), who at the same time embody a unique image, but also split the unity.89 Specifically, those brothers are at the same time inseparable doubles to one another; they are the same, representing unity, but when it is necessary (when one marries or dies), splitting rituals are performed. Undoubtedly, the idea of inseparability was still very strong, but a (ritual) procedure enabled overcoming it.

The ideas and norms of the two genders might have appeared only after the conceptual differentiation of the totalistic worldview in which everything was merged into one. Freidenberg's theory of the development of abstract thought and the archaic unified worldview might explain the non-agonistic concept of the third gender of sworn virgins, which functions as a sum of the two differently represented parts (we have mentioned variations in the proportion of manhood and womanhood in sworn virgins). The third gender appears as the union of the two, reflecting the time when duality started to emerge, but the idea of unity was still strong. This theory that explains blurring borders and the existence of the third gender might be put in dialogue with Judith Butler, who reflects on the hostile system of heteronormativity in an attempt to challenge it through deconstruction.90 “The institution of compulsory and naturalized heterosexuality requires and regulates gender as a binary relation . . . . The act of differentiating the two oppositional moments of the binary results in a consolidation of each term, the respective internal coherence of sex, gender, and desire.”91 Butler further questions the possibility of subversiveness through the multiplication of gender possibilities that would disintegrate and displace gender binarism.92 And while Freidenberg's theory discusses the totality of perception in which variety existed without the notion of difference, only as a totality (and only gradually started to differentiate into pairs), Butler's theory reflects on the existence and essentialism of constructed, dualistic concepts that create sex, gender, and sexual desire, and searches for ways to rupture binarism and inherent causality through deconstruction. This is the key point of our interpretation that posits deconstructivist thought side by side to the archaic, which might be traced in the perception of the third gender of sworn virgins. And while deconstruction tends to dissolve the binary conceptualization of gender and sex and to overcome it, archaic thought for its part could not (in the beginning) discern those concepts at all. And even when differentiation started, antagonism did not appear immediately, since the idea of the totality was still strong. The process of differentiation went on, but traces of the old worldview remained, and one such example is the existence of the sworn virgin—a man and a woman at the same time. Thus the fluidity of the third gender of sworn virgins represented the relic of the worldview in which antagonistic binaries did not yet exist.

Although sworn virgins gained a certain independence on the individual level, they did so exactly by taking the man's role, which on the social level meant only confirmation of the patriarchal order of society. Furthermore, their obligatory virginity deprived them of sexuality and sexual desire, which clearly leaves this phenomenon unable to engage the crucial issue of queer studies. However, the old worldview, mirrored in the fluid and unstable construction of the totality of the third gender in those tribal, patriarchal societies (and the inherent absence of the antagonistic attitude that lies below the binary worldview), bears the emancipatory potential of understanding and perceiving gender as a fluid category—as a sum of all possible transforming and transformative gender identities, appearing thus as “a zone of possibilities”93 in the domain of queer theory and politics.


This article aimed to offer a theoretical problematization of the phenomenon of the third gender of sworn virgins, whose presence was recorded in the tribal patriarchal communities of the Dinarides in the nineteenth century. Functioning through gender transgression that today bears emancipatory potential (practiced individually through self-reflection and self-expression), sworn virgins actually preserved and reinforced the existing patriarchal order and norms,94 while nevertheless enabling the existence and social acceptance of a third gender. Starting from the question of how the third gender in this context was possible, we used theories of archaic modes of thinking and conceptualizing the world, which, ultimately, engaged in fruitful dialogue with the gender conceptualizations represented in particular through the theories of Judith Butler. Different are the cognitive paths, as well as the social contexts, in which they appear—the archaic worldview of tribal societies was characterized by relatively stable images and social settings with a deeply rooted sense of devotion to the collective, while deconstruction of (also stable and resistant) culturally conditioned concepts implies undoing them, and at the same time searching for affirmation and questioning new possible norms and modes of realities.95 What the two have in common is affirmation. While the contemporary context involves affirmation of possible multiplying normative realities undoing existing norms (always acting from the individual position with an effort to affect society), archaic thought favors the absence of antagonism between ambiguities and acceptance, and even understanding them as a totality. The female and male genders fluently merge and shift in the unity of sworn virgins, conceptualized as the third gender, the totality of the two. The third gender of sworn virgins is performed by and in the collective. Its existence and acceptance is a remnant of the archaic phase in which the worldview started the process of differentiation, without losing the sense of totality.96 And although both conceptualizations (of archaic thought and of deconstruction) are ultimately affirmative, when applied to compatible contexts and issues, the key difference is that the phenomenon of sworn virgins tends to support the social order, while contemporary transgender theories and activisms are oriented toward challenging existing normativity, opting for radical social change.


Conversations with our colleagues, the ethnologists Miroslava Malešević and Miroslava Lukić Krstanović, have been precious and inspiring in the process of writing this article. We would like to thank our blind reviewers for their valuable comments that improved our article. We are also deeply thankful to the editor, Sharon Kowalsky, who was patient in reading the article, encouraging us to work on clarifications and improvements with joy.



Jelka Vince Pallua, Zagonetka virdžine: Etnološka i kulturnoantropološka studija [The riddle of sworn virgins: An ethnological and cultural anthropological study] (Zagreb: Institut društvenih znanosti Ivo Pilar, 2014), 58–59.


Ibid., 168–169. See also Milenko Filipović, “Pleme” [Tribe], in Enciklopedija Jugoslavije [The encyclopedia of Yugoslavia], vol. 6 (Zagreb: JLZ, 1965), 512; Marijana Gušić, “Ostajnica- tobelija-virdžin kao društvena pojava” [Sworn virgins as a social phenomenon], in Treći kongres folklorista Jugoslavije [Third congress of Yugoslav Folklorists], ed. M. S. Lalević (Cetinje: Savez udruženja folklorista Jugoslavije, 1958), 55–64, here 55–56.


Sometimes sworn virgins gained the right to vote in tribal or fraternal assemblies, but this was not always the case. The ban on such privilege is noted in the Canon of Leke Dukagjini, the most famous collection of laws that represent the customary law of Albanians. Konstantin Štjefen Đečovi, Kanon Leke Dukađinija [The Canon of Leke Dukagjini] (Zagreb: Stvarnost, 1986), 166.


Mildred Dickemann, “The Balkan Sworn-Virgin: A Cross-Gendered Female Role,” in Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History and Literature, ed. S. D. Murray and M. Roscoe (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 197–203, here 197; Karl Kaser, “Die Mannfrau in den patriarchalen Gesselschaften des Balkans und der Mythos vom Matriarchat” [The manwoman in patriarchal societies in the Balkans and the myth of matriarchy], L'Homme: Zeitschrift für feministische geschichtswissenschaft [L'Homme: European Journal of Feminist History] 5, no. 1 (1994), 59–77, here 67.


Antonia Young, Women Who Become Men: Albanian Sworn Virgins (Oxford: Berg, 2000), 114. It has been suggested that in contemporary Afghanistan, in sonless families there are so-called bacha posh girls, who dress as boys, acquiring social permission to go to school or move freely and work, which is otherwise impossible. However, since information on bacha posh is insufficient and mostly unreliable, stemming from media and not academic research, it is not possible to make cross- cultural comparisons and analyses. See “Bacha posh,” Wikipedia, (accessed 19 December 2021).


Young, Women Who Become Men. Except for the work by Antonia Young, all research regards sworn virgins as a phenomenon of the Dinaric cultural zone and never separates cases from different regions and countries, since the varieties that existed were not regionally conditioned. The recent book by Jelka Vince Pallua, Zagonetka virdžine, offers the most comprehensive and systematic research on the phenomenon—examining its historical and geographic context (she based her research on comparing data with the information collected in the Ethnological Atlas of Yugoslavia), using all accessible sources regarding sworn virgins, offering as much information about each individual case as possible (even making readable all existing materials), and introducing the literary aspect of the phenomenon as well as turning to the similar (but not identical) phenomenon of the so-called Istrian Amazons.


The Dinaric tribal society we discuss in this article developed gradually, probably during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. With the Turkish conquests, both Byzantium and the medieval states in the Balkans collapsed. Under pressure from the conquerors, parts of the population migrated to inaccessible mountain regions and began restoring older forms of social life, such as clans and tribes. More will be said about their characteristics, and above all, about their patriarchy later in the text. The tribal way of life that had been built for several centuries began to slowly disintegrate starting in the mid-nineteenth century, with the gradual liberation from Turkish rule and the creation of nation-states in the Balkans. However, some aspects of the tribal way of life and its values persisted much longer, even after the disintegration of the social organization. For introductory information about the Dinaric tribes, see for example Filipović, “Pleme,” 512–513.


The last known sworn virgin in Montenegro, Stana Cerović (who died in 2016), received a lot of attention, not only from researchers, but also from the media, and was willing to talk about his own life in front of television cameras. See Radio Televizija Crne Gore [Radio and Television of Montenegro], “Zapis: Poslednja crnogorska virdžina” [Records: The last Montenegrin sworn virgin] (TV show, 2014), (accessed 23 June 2023). Throughout the text we use sometimes feminine, sometimes masculine pronouns for sworn virgins, dependent on context. As we are going to problematize further in the text, the gender of sworn virgins was fluid.


Olga Mihailovna Freidenberg, Poetika sjužeta i žanra [The poetics of plot and genre] (Moscow: Labirint, 1997), 64–65. On the archaic thought of Olga M. Freidenberg see also Lada Stevanović, Laughing at the Funeral: Gender and Anthropology in the Greek Funerary Rites (Belgrade: EI SANU, 2009), 25–53.


Milorad Medaković, Život i običaji Crnogoraca [Life and customs of Montenegrins] (Novi Sad: Episkopsko knjigopečatenje, 1860), 22–25; Tihomir Đorđević, “Celibat” [Celibacy], in Naš narodni život [Our people's life] (Belgrade: Izdavačka knjižarnica Gece Kona, 1930), 1–9, here 6. The sworn virgin Medaković met was thirty-five at the time, born around 1820. Vince Pallua, Zagonetka virdžine, 196.


Vince Pallua, Zagonetka virdžine, 199–281.


The Canon was written down by Shetjefën Gjequovit (1874–1929), who was a Franciscan. Konstantin Shetjefën Gjequovit, Kanunii Lekë Dukagjinit [The Canon of Leke Dukagjini] (Shkoder: Shtypshkroja Françeskane, 1933).


It is not a rare phenomenon in the Balkans that a custom, holiday, belief, or ritual praxis was shared among people of different religious and ethnic groups.


The Turkish invasion of Europe and gradual conquering of the Balkan Peninsula started during the fourteenth century. The process did not end until the end of the fifteenth century, when the Ottoman Empire finally succeeded in conquering Montenegro (1499). However, Turkish rule also meant a certain autonomy, especially in areas that were inaccessible to official authorities, where tribal systems and customary law remained. Žan Vejnstejn, “Balkanske provicije 1606–1774” [Balkan provinces 1606–1774], in Istorija Osmanskog carstva [History of the Ottoman Empire], ed. Robert Mantran (Belgrade: CLIO, 2022), 325–384, here 332–333. Sworn virgins are found exactly in these areas. Gradual liberation of the Balkan states from Turkish rule started by the end of the seventeenth century and ended finally with World War I.


Vince Pallua, Zagonetka virdžine, 138–141; Vera Stein-Erlich, Jugoslavenska porodica u transformaciji [The Yugoslav family in transformation] (Zagreb: Liber, 1971), 366, 372.


Dickemann, “The Balkan Sworn-Virgin,” 198.


Tatomir Vukanović, “Virdžine” [Sworn virgins], Glasnik Muzeja Kosova i Metohije [Bulletin of the Museum of Kosovo and Metohija] 6 (1961), 79–112, here 95; Mirko Barjaktarović, “Problem tobelija (virdžina) na Balkanskom poluostrvu” [The problem of tobelia (sworn virgins) in the Balkan Peninsula], Glasnik Etnografskog muzeja u Beogradu [Bulletin of the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade] 28–29 (1966), 273–285.


It would have been a great shame and in contrast to the heroic ethos of the Dinaric region for a man to kill a woman.


Ljiljana Gavrilović, “Tobelije” [On Tobelias], Glasnik Etnografskog muzeja [Bulletin of the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade] 47 (1986), 67–79, here 69.


For more variation in terminology, see Vukanović, “Virdžine,” 84–85.


Young, Women Who Become Men, 60–62.




On the representation of sworn virgins mainly by foreign travelers, see Aleksandra Đajić Horvath, “An Amazon Warrior, a Chaste Maiden or a Social Man? Early Ethnographic Accounts of the Balkan Man-Woman,” Aspasia 3 (2009), 1–30.


Mirko Barjaktarović, “Prilog proučavanju tobelija (zavetovanih devojaka)” [Contribution to the research on tobelias (girls who made a vow)], Zbornik Filozofskog fakulteta [Collection of papers of the Faculty of Philosophy] 1 (1948), 343–352; Barjaktarović, “Problem tobelija (virdžina)” 273–285.


Vukanović, “Virdžine,” 1961; Marijana Gušić, “Ostajnica-tombelija-virdžina kao društvena pojava” [Ostajnica-tombelija-virdžina as a social phenomenon], in Treći kongres folklorista Jugoslavije [The third congress of folklorists of Yugoslavia] (Cetinje: Savez udruženja folklorista Jugoslavije, 1958), 55–64; Marijana Gušić, “Pravni položaj ostajnice—virdžineše u stočarskom društvu regije Dinarida” [The legal position of ostajnica—virdžineša in cattle-breeding communities of the Dinaric region], in Odredbe pozitivnog zakonodavstva i običajnog prava o sezonskim kretanjima stočara u jugoistočnoj Evropi kroz vekove [Provisions of positive and common law on the seasonal migrations of cattle-breeders in southeastern Europe throughout the centuries] (Belgrade: SANU, Posebna izdanja Balkanološkog instituta/special editions of the Institute for Balkan Studies, 1976), 269–297.


Gavrilović, “Tobelije,” 67–79.


René Grémaux, “Mannish Women of the Balkan Mountains: Preliminary Notes on the ‘Sworn Virgins’ in Male Disguise, with Special Reference to Their Sexuality and Gender- Identity,” in From Sappho to De Sade: Moments in the History of Sexuality, ed. Jan Bremmer (London: Routledge, 1989), 143–172; René Grémaux, “Woman Becomes Man in the Balkans,” in Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, ed. Gilbert Herdt (New York: Zone, 1996), 241–281.


Young, Women Who Become Men.


Predrag Šarčević, “Virdžine—konstruisanje rodnog identiteta” [Sworn virgins—The construction of gender identity], MA thesis (Belgrade: Filozofski fakultet [Faculty of philosophy], 2008).


Vince Pallua, Zagonetka virdžine. See endnote 2.


Barjaktarović, “Problem tobelija (virdžina),” 283.


See especially Vince Pallua, Zagonetka virdžine, 135.


Šarčević, “Virdžina,” 103.


Gušić, “Ostajnica-tombelija-virdžina kao društvena pojava,” 55–56; Gušić, “Pravni položaj ostajnice—virdžineše u stočarskom društvu regije Dinarida,” 270–274; Gavrilović, “Tobelije,” 67–80.


Gušić, “Ostajnica-tombelija-virdžina kao društvena pojava,” 56; Gušić, “Pravni položaj ostajnice—virdžineše u stočarskom društvu regije Dinarida,” 274.


Mirko Barjaktarović mentiones Đurđa (born 1921), from Tuzi, near Podgorica, whom he met in 1939. When she was about to marry, after her two sisters already had, she noticed that her mother was sad. Finding out that her mother was sorrowful about being left by all her children, she decided to become a sworn virgin. She cut her hair, put on a man's hat, and started to smoke and act like a man, while the only thing that she kept from the former times was her skirt. Barjaktarović, “Prilog proučavanju tobelija,” 346.


Vukanović, “Virdžine,” 111.


Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999), 33.


Gušić, “Pravni položaj ostajnice—virdžineše,” 271.


Vukanović “Virdžine,” 90.


Barjaktarović, “Problem tobelija (virdžina),” 273–274.


Margaret Mead was not the only anthropologist who noticed that the social roles of women and men were differently defined in various societies, and that there was nothing “natural” about it, but she was the first to introduce the analytical categories of sex and gender. Margaret Mead, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (New York: Morrow, 1963 [1935]), 280–281. See also Mirjana Prošić-Dvornić, “What Can Women Do: Making the HiddenWomen's Culture Visible,” in Naučnice u društvu [Women scholars and scientists in society], ed. L. Stevanović, M. Prelić, and M. Lukić Krstanović (Belgrade: Institute of Ethnography SASA, 2020), 221-232, here 223.


Adriana Zaharijević, Život tela: Politička filozofija Džudit Batler [The life of the body: Judith Butler's political philosophy] (Belgrade: Akademska knjiga, 2022), 159.


Butler, Gender Trouble, 6.


Predrag Šarčević, “Sex and Gender Identity of ‘Sworn Virgins’ in the Balkans,” in Gender Relations in South Eastern Europe: Historical Perspectives on Womanhood and Manhood in 19th and 20th Century, ed. Miroslav Jovanović and Slobodan Naumović (Belgrade: Udruženje za društvenu istoriju, Institut für Geschichte der Universtät, Abteilung Südosteuropäische Geschichte, 2002), 125–141, here 126–127.


Butler, Gender Trouble, 161.


Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter (New York: Routledge, 1993), 5.


Ibid., 173.


Ibid., ix.


Young, Women Who Become Men, 59.


Vukanović, “Virdžine,” 86.


Đorđević, “Celibat,” 8.


Radio Televizija Crne Gore, “Zapis: Poslednja crnogorska virdžina.”


Vukanović, “Virdžine,” 90.


Ibid., 84.


Barjaktarović, “Problem tobelija (virdžina),” 283.


Vince Pallua, Zagonetka virdžine, 135.


Barjaktarović “Prilog proučavanju tobelija (zavetovanih devojaka),” 346.


Barjaktarović “Problem tobelija (virdžina) na Balkanskom poluostrvu,” 278.


Gušić, “Pravni položaj ostajnice—virdžineše,” 271.


Grémaux, “Woman Becomes Man in the Balkans,” 248.


Gavrilović, “Tobelije,” 67.


As in ancient Greece, virginity “did not require the presence of [a] seal over the genitals,” since a woman could have become a sworn virgin even after becoming a widow. Giulia Sissa, Greek Virginity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 170.


In Serbian tradition as well. See Miroslava Malešević, “Ritualizacija socijalnog razvoja žene—tradicionalno selo zapadne Srbije” [Ritualization of the social development of a woman—A traditional village of Western Serbia], in Zbornik radova Etnografskog instituta [Collection of Papers, Institute of Ethnography] 19, ed. Dušan Bandić (Belgrade: Etnografski institut SANU, 1986), 7–118, here 47.


Veselin Čajkanović, Studije iz srpske relgije i folklora 1910–1924 (Belgrade: SKZ, BIGZ, Pros- veta, Partenon M.A.M., 1994), 250–251.


Lidija Radulović, Pol/rod i religija [Sex/gender and religion] (Belgrade: Srpski genealoški centar i Odeljenje za etnologiju i antropologiju Filozofskog fakulteta u Beogradu, 2009), 167.


Kaser, “Die Mannfrau in den patriarchalen Gesselschaften des Balkans,” 74. Gerda Lerner emphasizes that control over women's sexuality and procreation preceded class society and the conceptualization of property, being thus one of the core mechanisms in the creation of patriarchal societies. Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 8.


Lerner explains that the commodification of sexuality led to other mechanisms of oppression and control over women. Ibid., 213, 216.


Barjaktarović, “Problem tobelija (virdžina),” 273–274.


Šarčević, Virdžine, 104; Grémaux, “Woman Becomes Man in the Balkans,” 246.


Grémaux, “Woman Becomes Man in the Balkans,” 246.


Vince Pallua, Zagonetka virdžine, 141–142.


Interest in and arguments for the ancient origin of sworn virgins are developed in the works by Tatomir Vukanović and Marijana Gušić. See endnotes 75 and 82.


See more in Ranjana Khanna, Dark Continents, Psychoanalysis and Colonialism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 27–37; and Page duBois, “Listening, Counter-Transference and the Classicist as the Subject-Supposed-to Know,” in Classical Myth and Psychoanalysis: Ancient and Modern Stories of the Self, ed. E. O'Gorman and I. Zajko (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 315–329, here 316–317.


Vukanović, “Virdžine,” 80–81.


Barjaktarović, “Problem tobelija (virdžina),” 281–282.


Rečnik srpskog jezika (RSJ) [Dictionary of the Serbian language] (Novi Sad: Matica srpska, 2011), s.v. amazonka.


Ibid., s.v. muškobanja.


Svetlana Slapšak, Antička miturgija: Žene [Ancient mythourgy: Women] (Belgrade: XX vek, 2013), 13–14.


Removing the layers of old myths and abandoned mythical patterns (of fertility), Svetlana Slapšak recognizes sexual connotations in references to the Amazons, often reflected in language containing war and battle terminology. Slapšak, Antička miturgija, 15–16.


Vince Pallua, Zagonetka virdžine, 135; Barjaktarović, “Problem tobelija (virdžina),” 285; Slapšak, Antička miturgija, 13.


Gušić, “Ostajnica-tombelija-virdžin kao društvena pojava,” 60; Gušić, “Pravni položaj ostajnice—virdžineše,” 283–284.


Marja Gimbutas, The Living Goddesses (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 152.


Ibid., 157–158.


Freidenberg, Poetika sjužeta i žanra, 64–65. See also Stevanović, Laughing at the Funeral, 25–53.


Olga M. Freidenberg, Mit i antička književnost [Myth and literature of ancient times] (Belgrade: Prosveta, 1987), 49–50; Stevanović, Laughing at the Funeral, 40.


Luc Brisson, Sexual Ambivalence, Androgyny and Hermaphroditism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity, trans. J. Lloyd (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 3.


Olga M. Freidenberg, Image and Concept: Mythopeic Roots of Literature (Amsterdam: Harwood, 1997), 28.


Mirko Barjaktarović, “Pitanje ‘jednodančića’ iz naših narodnih verovanja” [The issue of ‘jednodančići’ from our popular beliefs], Glasnik Etnografskog muzeja 36 (1973), 67–80, here 67–69; Stevanović, Laughing at the Funeral, 47.


Deconstruction is not easily and widely accepted among feminist and queer thinkers, exactly because self-awareness and stable selfhood are regarded as necessary in much of feminist theory. On this, see Seyla Benhabib, Judith Butler, Drucilla Cornell, and Nancy Fraser, Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange (New York: Routledge, 1995).


Butler, Gender Trouble, 30–31.


Ibid., 160.


Annamarie Jagose, Queer Theory: An Introduction (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 2; Lee Edelman, Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literature and Cultural Theory (New York: Routledge, 1994), 114.


One of the paradoxes of patriarchy is that as a constitutive ideological part of another ideology, it is so focused on the preservation of the system that it opens some space for variation and sometimes even a better position for women. Probably the most famous example isthat of the independence of Spartan women, due to their role and importance for the whole community. In the Spartan warrior society, where the main goal was producing healthy and capable warriors, even girls and women as (future) mothers had considerable independence and a good position (much better than in the famous Athenian democracy). In this patriarchal militarist society, girls and women were educated, could move freely, exercised and competed in sport, maintained connections with their primary families even after entering new families, married much older, ate better than Athenian girls and women, and even had the right of polyandry and the right to possess their own property. Sarah Pomeroy, Spartan Women (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). All the aforementioned was the consequence of only one goal—to enable the functioning of society and its main principles.


Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 29.


According to Freidenberg, the traces of early stages of cognitive development are best preserved in myths. Freidenberg, Mit i antička književnost, 49–50; Stevanović, Laughing at the Funeral, 40.

Contributor Notes

Lada Stevanović is a principal research fellow at the Institute of Ethnography, Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (SASA) in Belgrade, Serbia. Her special interests are anthropology of ancient worlds, classical reception studies, and feminist theory, especially gender stereotypes and gender identity construction through history. She has published two books, Laughing at the Funeral: Gender and Anthropology in the Greek Funerary Rites (Belgrade: EI SASA, 2009) and Antika i mi(t) [Antiquity and myth/us] (Belgrade/Loznica: EI SASA/Karpos 2020). She is one of the editors of Women Scholars and Scientists in Society and Gender, Knowledge and Power: History, Heritage and Significance of Women Scholars and Scientists in Serbia (Belgrade: Institute of Ethnography, SASA, 2020 and 2022).

Mladena Prelić is a senior research associate at the Institute of Ethnography, SASA. Her research and publications are primarily devoted to the issues of identity and ethnic minorities. She has carried out extensive fieldwork among the Serbian minority in Hungary. She is the author of two books and the coeditor of several. Recently, she coedited Women Scholars and Scientists in Society and Gender, Knowledge and Power: History, Heritage and Significance of Women Scholars and Scientists in Serbia (Belgrade: Institute of Ethnography, SASA, 2020 and 2022).

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The International Yearbook of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern European Women's and Gender History