Imagine you're a rural woman living in an impoverished and patriarchal country where your life is worth exactly 12 oxen. You're unable to carry a weapon, own property or move freely. What's a girl to do? Until recently, for some Albanian women the answer was: Become a man.
It was as simple as cutting off their long locks, hiding their curves with baggy men's clothing, deliberately deepening their voice and adopting masculine body language. They were then allowed to live as men, with all of the associated privileges (and hardships), except for one of life's significant joys: sex. Before the transformation was complete, they had to take a lifetime oath of celibacy. They remained sexless, unmarried and childless for life -- but, as one sworn "male," Pashe Keqi, told the International Herald Tribune, in the past, it was often worth the sacrifice: "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, and I think today it would be fun to be a woman." Were she born in Albania today, 78-year-old Keqi would choose to remain a woman.
In the past, Albanian women most often chose to become gendered males after the family patriarch died without male heirs, but some simply wanted to avoid an arranged marriage or enjoy the freedoms granted to men. Linda Gusia, a professor of gender studies at the University of Pristina in Kosovo, told the Tribune, "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. It was about surviving in a world where men rule." It's also possible that pledged males are able to slightly improve women's lot in life -- as Keqi said, "If the other men were disrespecting a woman, I would tell them to stop."
Since pledged males don't actually undergo a sex change, they are free to reclaim their womanhood later on. But, of course, it isn't always as simple as that -- they would have to relearn women's work and behavior. As Keqi said, "I don't know how to do women's talk."
This isn't transsexualism in the typical sense: These biological females don't inherently identify as the opposite sex, but they did elect to experience the social realities of life as men. For many, their sense of being female remains strong even after the transformation; Camile Stema, an 88-year-old sworn "male," said, "I guess you could say I was partly a woman and partly a man." Albanian women's rights have significantly improved since Keqi and Stema pledged more than 50 years ago to be male, so the custom is fast fading. In that sense, you could say this is a case of women faking it until they make it.