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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #42 - Dickemann 1997 “The Balkan Sworn Virgin: A Cross-Gendered Female Role”

Full citation: 

Dickemann, Mildred. 1997. “The Balkan Sworn Virgin: A Cross-Gendered Female Role” in Islamic Homosexualities - Culture, History, and Literature, ed. by Stephen O. Murray & Will Roscoe. New York University Press, New York. ISBN 0-8147-7468-7

Publication summary: 

It is an unfortunately useful rule of thumb that any academic collection that both includes the word “homosexual” in the title and is edited solely by men will tend to be oblivious to the existence of lesbians. Fortunately, Murray & Roscoe’s Islamic Homosexualities does not follow that rule of thumb. The collection is a bit of an odd combination of historic studies and modern ethnographic work. Another somewhat unusual feature is that 2/3 of the contents are authored (or co-authored) by one or the other of the editors. To the best that I can tell (based purely on authors' names), the only authors that themselves come out of Islamic cultures are in the section on modern ethnographic work. Overall, although the editors seem to have made a sincere attempt to include diversity both in their topics and authors, it has a tacked-on feel. Despite that, the collection includes 5 articles that contain and least some material relevant to the LHMP. The first two I’ll present have a brief mention of lesbians in the context of articles primarily covering male topics. Next week I’ll finish up with the other three articles. One is the sole article focusing on lesbians as the primary topic, the other two being ethnographic studies of recognized cross-gender roles for women in specific Islamic societies where there is not an expectation of same-sex sexual activity.

Dickemann, Mildred. 1997. “The Balkan Sworn Virgin: A Cross-Gendered Female Role”

In summarizing this article, it's been a little tricky to be respectful regarding gender reference. Based on the discussions in the article, it seems that there is much variation as to where individual "sworn virgins" would identify on a transgender scale. Because the discussion indicates that gender self-identity is not uniform, it seems inaccurate to use either female or male reference universally. Although the specific social role under consideration here should not be considered a "lesbian" category, it provides a valuable real-life example of historic cross-gender behavior (both in fiction and life) that might otherwise be dismissed as exaggerated or implausible.

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Although this article concerns itself with evidence from 20th century ethnographic work, a number of researchers have suggested that the evidence of folklore and earlier historic references indicate that a recognized role of this type previously existed much more widely in various European cultures. (See, e.g., Clover 1995 covered previously.) The “sworn virgins” represent a trans-gender role, although one expressed with a broad range of variation in gender expression and identity. The basic characteristics of the role are: a woman elects or is selected to fulfill a masculine social role and swears to forego sexual relations with men. The context generally requires that there be no brothers--a situation that creates a functional void in the family structure of the strongly-patriarchal and gender-segregated traditional societies in which the role occurs. The need for a “surrogate son”, although significant, is not the only motivation and marriage-avoidance or the desire to provide support for a widowed mother are also cited, and in individual cases a childhood preference for male gender performance was mentioned. The “sworn virgins” typically wear male dress, perform male occupations, and are given the social privileges of men (and may participate in misogynistic language and practices). Other gender attributes may vary: they may take on male names or retain female ones, they may use (or be referred to) using male pronouns or female ones. Officially, the disavowal of sexual relations with men was permanent, however there are anecdotal cases of later reversals or covert sex with men. The available evidence for relations with women is scanty, but again there are anecdotal cases of two sworn virgins becoming “blood sisters” and forming a household together, as well as more common acknowledgment of sexual attraction to women and some cases of marriage to women or regular sexual liaisons with women. In at least one case, one of these couples is described as identifying as lesbian. But romantic or sexual desire/activity with women was not considered a core aspect of the role.

Time period: 

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