Gordana Knezevic is author of the Balkans Without Borders where she offers her personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. Journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, she was also director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. Her blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.
Balkans Without Borders
An unusual medieval practice has stubbornly endured until the present day in remote villages in Montenegro (and a few other places in the Balkans). Traditionally, if the head of a household in this strongly patriarchal society died without a male heir, one of his daughters could choose to become a man.
She would dress like a man. She was permitted to smoke and mingle with men in the village cafe. She could even carry a weapon.
But these privileges came at a price. She had to become a “sworn virgin.”
Her vow of celibacy and her promise to look after her mother, any sisters, and the family property were lifetime commitments. In many cases, it was the only way by which a woman could inherit her family’s wealth.
At the end of May, the last sworn virgin of Montenegro was moved from her village near Savnik to a home for the elderly in the coastal town of Risan. Stana Cerovic was born in 1936, the youngest child in a family of five girls and two boys, both of whom died young.
While still a child, she promised her father she would never marry and would, instead, take care of the family. All her life, she socialized with men. She started smoking at the age of 5. She began working in her father’s fields at the age of 7. Her father taught her how to shoot.
Stana has never dressed as a woman. Traditional “women’s tasks” like laundry and cleaning were always done by her sisters. Stana has always been “the man of the family.”
All her life, Stana saw herself as privileged rather than deprived of her female identity and her life as a woman. In fact, the belief that it is an honor for a woman to assume the role of a man has been the foundation of the sworn-virgin custom over the centuries.
But now, at the age of 80, Stana is slowing down. She was forced to sell off most of her cows. The remaining one injured her a year ago.
Recently, a television feature about Stana touched the hearts of many people in Montenegro. Offers of help came from throughout the country. The local authorities arranged a place for her in the nursing home, turning back offers of financial help from the public.
“It is our duty to take care of Stana,” a Savnik social worker told Montenegrin television.
This archaic set of social rules originated in the mountain villages of Montenegro, southern Kosovo, and northern Albania in the 15th century. Some Dalmatian coast islands also had their sworn virgins. Such women cut their hair short, dressed as men, and often even changed their names. Many adopted male mannerisms and gestures so completely that they became second nature.
A few years back, U.S. photographer Jill Peters traveled to northern Albania and took a unique collection of portraits of sworn virgins in order to document this dying phenomenon.