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Crossing Genders in the Balkans

Monday, May 13, 2019 - 20:00

Horváth seems to have written extensively on this topic, with special attention to the ways in which early descriptions of the people and phenomenon were distorted by their own prejudices and social context. Horváth is careful to try to engage with questions of gender identity in a sensitive fashion without projecting modern categories into the past or onto other cultures, although readers who identify strongly with her subjects as trans men may find her pronoun usage disconcerting.

One of the things I find fascinating about the Balkan "man-woman" social category (this label is a literal translation of what appears to be the most typical of the in-culture names) is that it takes place within the context of an extremely patriarchal and--dare I say--misogyistic culture. For fiction writers, this is an interesting world-building point. One might think that  in such a social context the gender barriers would be most impermeable. And yet, the options provided by the man-woman role (considering also its restrictions) enabled some individuals to cross that barrier. Perhaps not fully, but in a socially accepted way.

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Full citation: 

Horváth, Aleksandra Djajić. 2011. ‘Of Female Chastity and Male Arms: The Balkan ‘Man-Woman’ in the Age of the World Picture” in Journal of the History of Sexuality vol. 20 no. 2 358-381.

[Note: I have followed Horváth’s treatment of pronouns within the article’s content, which is somewhat inconsistent and leans toward using female pronouns for individuals in the “man-woman” role described in this article. Although the cross-gender social role discussed here does not correspond fully or precisely to modern definitions of transgender, and not all such individuals occupied fully male-presenting roles, it is clear that most or all of the specific individuals discussed in the article identified as male and were unremarkably treated as such by their community.]

Horváth reviews several accounts of a formal gender-crossing role in the Balkans within the social and political context of the turn of the 20th century. This was an era when western culture defined itself in terms of a scientific understanding of the world, but simultaneously interpreted and categorized non-western cultures and phenomena in terms of a pseudo-scientific hierarchy of experience, particularly with respect to issues of gender and sexuality. But during this era, western view of gender and sexuality were far from value-neutral, imposing a strict “virgin-whore” dichotomy on female sexuality and expressing deep anxiety about sexual “deviancy”, as analyzed in works such as Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis.

Horváth’s specific topic is how this late 19th century western gaze interpreted and “translated” the figure of the Balkan “man-woman” (her term, intended as a neutral translation), an accepted and ritualized cross-gender role in which a female-bodied person renounced a female social role and became an honorary man, especially including social responsibilities relating to warfare and feuding. This role was present in a number of variations and using a variety of terms among tribal, pastoral communities of Montenegro and northern Albania.

This role was first recorded by outside observers in 1855 by a Serbian ethnographer who described meeting a woman named Milica who had vowed to remain unmarried and fulfill a surrogate male role in her family, due to having no brothers. She wore male clothing, carried arms, and was treated socially as a man within her community. A similar account was recorded in 1860 by an Austro-Hungarian consul who described meeting four Albanian women who had renounced marriage and changed their gender. Other scattered accounts can be found in following decades. Part of Horváth’s focus in this article is to compare the interpretations and purposes of these accounts, and the differing ways in which they engaged with their subjects.

The Balkan region was undergoing a significant transition as the receding borders of the Ottoman Empire opened up greater contact with western travelers and governmental officials. In reading the various descriptions of this practice of gender change, Horváth notes distinct differences between relative cultural insiders, and more external observers who interpreted the phenomenon through the lens of highly sexualized western perceptions of gender roles. She notes that, in common with other travel literature, such reports are often about defining the traveler’s own culture in contrast to the Other.

As a general characterization, western views of cultural and racial progress at the time focused not only on the development of reason, but on the repression and control of sexual impulses. Western men viewed themselves as the pinnacle of rationality, including the ability to repress the impulses, especially including sexual impulses. Women were lesser, not only for lacking the same capacity for reasoning, but for being subject to impulsive behavior of all types. The control of women’s sexuality was a prerequisite for civilization and one of the main purposes of Christian marriage. Women held a constant potential for disruption in parallel with the disruptive power of “uncivilized” cultures and races. Women were part of nature; men part of science and culture.

Ethnographic descriptions and even living exhibitions were popular during this era. The display--especially of women--in what amounted to human zoos particularly focused on the inversion of western roles and values. “Wild women” or “Amazons” were a particularly favorite topic, providing both fascination and anxiety that helped to reinforce ideas of civilization versus the Other.

This context supported the interpretation of western observers that the Balkan man-woman should be categorized as “war-like women” rather than being understood as men, despite the unremarked acceptance of them as such within their own cultures.

The Balkans had a liminal status at the edge of the Orient and Occident, or as the nearest lands that were part of the Orient (and geographically part of Europe). Early western travel literature describing the region in the 19th century focused on the image of penetrating and revealing a mysterious, closed society. Descriptions often projected static antiquity onto the Albanian culture and emphasized practices such as honor feuds that were considered backwards and primative.

These aspects were emphasized in descriptions of men-women, as in an 1885 account in a German newspaper of Maruk e Col-Doz, which emphasized military attributes and accomplishments, while describing her as a “virgin” who “acts as the lord of the household” when no other male relative is available.

Such accounts often focused on the subject’s “virgin” status, although renouncing marriage and (heterosexual) sexuality was only one part of the model. Taking on the role was one of the few socially acceptable ways for a woman to evade a family-arranged marriage (sometimes arranged in infancy for reasons of inter-familial bonding). It could be done with the father’s permission and involved a formal declaration before the (male) trival assembly, after which she would be according certain male-only privileges and would typically take on some behaviorally male attributes including name, hair style, and clothing. If she were found to have broken the vows relating to sexuality (e.g., by becoming pregnant), she would be executed along with her partner, if known.

Some women may have taken on the role to avoid an unwanted marriage, but in other cases the choice seems to have begun with parental choice when no sons were available, due to the strongly patriarchal structures of inheritance. Some observers speculated that women may have taken on the role in reaction to the restricted and repressed status of women in the culture, though this argument was tainted by language equating civilized status with the elevated treatment of women.

This German account reported a possibly exaggerated count of 200 men-women among 10 parishes in northern Albania, but with only 10-15 of them going armed and wearing full male dress, while others wore symbolic male headgear with otherwise female garments. But the focus (and all the photographic evidence) was on those who had taken on the full military role and male presentation. That is, the individuals who best fulfilled the fantasy of the “wild warrior woman.”

The German writer universally describes his subjects with female pronouns with a single exception, using the male pronoun in scare-quotes when contrasting a “pretty” appearance with the attribution of violent deeds. Bringing in the western fascination with an anatomical explanation for cross-gender behavior, he carefully notes that all the women in question had “normal” female genitalia. This was part of a systematic strategy of confining the men-women into a female classification and solidly part of a binary gender system.

Despite a wealth of vernacular terms to describe this role-change, the German writer consistently refers to them as “virgins”, focusing on the renunciation of sexuality to the exclusion of other factors. This allowed them to be viewed as virtuous (while still deviant) in contrast to gender-transgressing western women who were assumed to be sexually voracious. The word choice inherently sexualized the phenomenon while appearing to desexualize it. (A footnote provides 22 different local terms, representing perhaps 10 different linguistic roots in both Albanian and Serbian. The author’s gloss “man-woman” is a literal translation of several of these.) Labeling the men-women as “virgins” was a means of controlling the sexual danger of the “monstrous female.”

The second documentary source that Horváth examines comes from a relative cultural insider--a Serbian physician making a public health survey in Montenegro in 1885. He introduces the topic with a dramatized conversation with his hosts who hint at something unusual about one of the soldiers he is to examine the next day. The doctor had an advantage over other reporters in that he was somewhat familiar with the local culture and needed no translator to speak with the local residents. But at the same time, he was emotionally invested in the culture of glorification of military prowess and nationalist pride in the liberation from Ottoman rule.

As the doctor performs his examination (which is largely visual and by interrogation, not as intrusive as the phrase “medical examination” might imply), his hosts keep teasing him with hints about one particular soldier. Finally they say outright that “Miraš is a woman.” The village hosts expand on Miraš’s story: born Milica, the only child of a famous warrior who was killed shortly after the birth, her mother re-named her Miraš and raised her in male dress in order to provide her dead husband with a son. When later offered the opportunity to return to living as a woman, Miraš declined. [Note: this suggests a different tradition than the one in which reversing the role-change was punished with death.]

The doctor was able to have a private interview with Miraš to satisfy various technical interests (such as the topic of menstruation-- Miraš attested to having had only a couple of periods at puberty which then ceased) but declined to be too intrusive. Throughout, the doctor addresses Miraš as a man, in contrast with other reporters who frame similar individuals as women. Local people, he reports, shrug and explain, “He is, and he is not,” indicating some ambiguity to the classification.

Horvath concludes with a contrast of the two reports: one emphasizing the cross-gender role as aberrantly female and a symptom of the otherness and primitiveness of the local culture, the other focusing on personal experience and individual identity and allowing the subject of his study self-representation.

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