Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Challenging Gender Order

KRUJE, Albania — Pashe Keqi recalled the day nearly 60 years ago when she decided to become a man. She chopped off her long black curls, traded in her dress for her father’s baggy trousers, armed herself with a hunting rifle and vowed to forsake marriage, children and sex.

For centuries, in the closed-off and conservative society of rural northern Albania, swapping genders was considered a practical solution for a family with a shortage of men. Her father was killed in a blood feud, and there was no male heir. By custom, Ms. Keqi, now 78, took a vow of lifetime virginity. She lived as a man, the new patriarch, with all the swagger and trappings of male authority — including the obligation to avenge her father’s death.

So begins an article in today's New York Times, which discusses how, in the current age of advancing women's right, the "sworn virgins" of Albania are disappearing. According to Dan Bilefsky, because regular women are allotted more privileges and independence now than they were even twenty years ago, they no longer see becoming a man as a necessary option for autonomy.

What is really interesting about this cultural gender switching is that it is based on economics and hierarchy, rather than personal gender choice. In Transparent, Cris Beam explores the ways in which transsexuals are physically one sex, but internally identify with the opposite gender. Beam also mentions some cultures, including Thai and Native American cultures, that allow for a "third gender" of transsexuals. But what separates these instances from the Albanian "sworn virgins" is that in Albania, a woman who has become a man is completely severed from sexual activity. These women have chosen to become men, not because of internal feelings or sexual attraction to women, but because it gave them standing within their villages.

As I read about the Albanian "uncles," I thought about gender politics here in the West--particularly in the workplace. Women in the office are seen as weak and incompetent, but if they change their tactics to act like men, they are deemed too tough and unfeminine. As Lisa Belkin notes, "women can't win." While in the Albanian village, it is accepted for a woman to assume the role of a man, in the Western office, women are not allowed to do the same. Think of how many people tarred Hillary Clinton with the word "mannish."

Imagine for a moment that a woman in America could be allowed to dress and present herself as a man, and gain respect from both men and women around her. (It's not a solution to the issue certainly; the real solution is for women to be valued for what they offer instead of being labeled by their gender.) But this situation wouldn't happen. If a woman dressed as a man in the American office, she would be labeled a freak. Even women who work hard to act like men (i.e. aggressively) are not safe once they reach the executive level; think of the spectacular fall of Zoe Cruz at Morgan Stanley. Were Zoe Cruz a man, she would have been considered a great success, or perhaps the template of an Alpha Male. But because she was a woman, she was called names like Czarina, Wicked Witch, and Cruz Missile behind her back. Furthermore, even though she had a proven track record in financial leadership, she was constantly being undermined by the men in her company:

Jay Dweck, a former Goldman Sachs executive who had switched over to Morgan Stanley was surprised to see the level to which Morgan Stanley employees went to undermine their female boss. When Ms. Cruz voiced her opinion that the company should pull out of its investments shorting subprime mortgages and going long on higher quality triple-A mortgages that were previously considered to be stable, the company did not immediately back her decision, but instead devoted precious time to questioning her judgment. Mr. Dweck was overheard by several people saying, “At Goldman, this isn’t happening. When they say get out, they get out. At Morgan Stanley, when Zoe says get out, people start negotiating.”

One of the criticisms leveled against Cruz is that she was "hard as nails" and "unsympathetic" to subordinates. What makes her any different from any number of high level Wall Street male executives? Would Cruz have risen to the role of Morgan Stanley's second-in-command if she had been more feminine? Organized office parties? Worn more pink? Of course not.

Back to the Albanian sworn virgins. Obviously choosing the male path is not a decision to be taken lightly. For one thing, these women no longer belong to the female social sphere, and for another, they are forswearing any sexual identity or expression. They cannot marry, have sex, bear children, and so forth. It is a huge choice to make. But what they gain is respect and power. Is it worth it? In the face of women's advancement, there are no new sworn virgins. If Albania is making this leap forward in valuing its women , perhaps American corporate culture could as well?

2 responses:

Pilgrim said...

This story really touched a cord for me. Being a female in IT, I face exactly the same challenges as Hillary does, the attempt to balance between being "mannish" and being labeled as "the girl." In a way, it would almost be easier of we could be one of the guys at work, and a girl at home, but reality just doesn't work that way. I don't have a solution to this problem, though I wish I did. Maybe someday ...

Zoe Brain said...

The obverse

Samoa's social acceptance of fa'afafine has evolved from the tradition of raising some boys as girls. These boys, were not necessarily homosexual, or noticeably effeminate, and they may never have felt like dressing as women. They became transvestites because they were born into families that had plenty of boys and not enough girls.

In families of all male children (or where the only daughter was too young to assist with the 'women's' work), parents would often choose one or more of their sons to help the mother. Because these boys would perform tasks that were strictly the work of women they were raised as if they were female. Although their true gender was widely known, they would usually be dressed as girls.

As they grew older, their duties would not change. They would continue performing 'women's' work, even if they eventually married (which would be to a woman).

Modern fa'afafine differ in two fundamental ways from their traditional counterparts. First, they are more likely to have chosen to live as women, and, secondly, they are more likely to be homosexual. These days, young Samoan boys who appear effeminate, or enjoy dressing as girls, may be recognised as fa'afafine by their parents. If they are, they will usually be neither encouraged nor discouraged to dress and behave as women. They will simply be allowed to follow the path they choose.


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