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While Tirana embraces the modern sexual revolution, traditional moral codes still hold sway in remote northern Albania. But even there, things are gradually changing.
Altin has come home to find a virgin. Tall, good-looking and in his thirties, he is back from Britain where he has worked for more than a decade, seeking an appropriate girl to marry.
But three weeks into his stay at his hometown of Korce in southern Albania, the hunt is proving frustrating. “It’s been weeks since I came here and in four more days I have to go back,” he complains.
Altin says his relatives and friends promised to find a good selection of virgins that he could meet during his visit.
Despite high expectations, the search for his virgin bride has so far been fruitless. The virgins were just not what he expected.
“They’re either too young or just inappropriate,” he declares with a shrug, smoking the Gauloises cigarettes he brought with him from Britain.
Gazing into the sunset, he does not try to conceal a general sense of discomfort. “What if I just picked one of them and then found out that she’d been touched?” he asks. “What should I do then, send her back?”
In London, where he is a waiter, Altin has been involved in several casual relationships with local girls. But these liaisons were never intended to lead to marriage. An Albanian wife, he says, “has a different role and other obligations”.
Shuke Deda, meanwhile, is definitely a virgin, though hardly of prime marriageable age.
Aged 90, she wears long woolen white socks, a symbol of her untouched status. She has lived all her life in Theth, a village in mountainous northern Albania.
“I didn’t like the candidates they proposed for marriage, so I decided to remain a virgin for the rest of my life. That is the custom,” she whispers almost inaudibly, her words partially translated by her sister-in-law.
Shuke is a classic example of the survival of the ancient Albanian law code known as the Canon of Leke Dukagjini.
The code declares that if a girl refuses the candidate proposed to her - and no extraordinary mitigating circumstances are in place - she must remain a virgin forever.
She had been living with her brother but since he passed away, his widow has been her only companion. Shuke still lives in the same house that her parents lived in, an imposing two-floor stone structure built more than a century ago, which embodies traditional architectural styles and motifs.
Like her ancient, dignified dwelling, Shuke herself is a museum piece, a relic of a disappearing world. Today, even in remote parts of Albania, where customary taboos have held sway for centuries, the sexual dynamics are changing.
Histories of Albania have long dwelled on the importance of virginity in society. From the 19th century onwards, foreign writers in particular put Albanian marriage codes, blood feuds, religion, hospitality, as well as such phenomena as “sworn virgins” - women who obtained male status by pledging eternal virginity - under a spotlight.
They portrayed the “Land of Eagles” as an untamed and archaic society, cut off from the modern world.
Albania has changed a lot since then and today it aims to join the European Union. But fragments of the old cultural codes have survived.
Ancient code of conduct
In mountainous rural Albania, the loss of a woman’s virginity to anyone other than her husband remains a taboo, thanks in large part to the continuing influence of the Canon of Leke Dukagjini.
Nebi Bardhoshi,an expert in Albanian customary law and professor at the European University of Tirana, explains that what is conventionally known as ‘the canon’ represents an evolved set of rules and values updated over centuries by several authors, lawmakers and local or national leaders.
“Although this set of rules, commonly referred to as the ‘canon’, exists mostly in northern Albania, identical or similar values still exist in other parts of the country, bearing the same origin and legacy,” Bardhoshi notes.
The canon comprises a complex framework of regulations, ranging from matters of communal concern to sentences for certain offences – for some of which the canon demands the death penalty.
Referring to demands for the death penalty in the event of breaches to the sexual code, Bardhoshi clarifies that such severe punishments were mostly confined to cases of sexual relations between blood relatives. The death penalty did not necessarily apply to cases of lost virginity.
“If a bride was found to have been deflowered on her marriage night, she would normally be taken back to her family and confined to the house for life, or remarried to a lower-status husband,” he says.
Aferdita Onuzi, an Anthropology professor at the University of Tirana, says that in terms of Albanian custom, virginity did not represent a moral issue alone. It traditionally played a practical role, defining the status of institutions such as marriage.
“From my own observations, particularly in rural areas, almost half-a-century of communist rule and the imposition of its values failed to have much impact on existing moral customs and values,” she says.
A moral revolution
Traditional values may be holding on in country areas but since the collapse of the communist regime, rapid change has become evident in Albanian approaches to sex.
Urbanization, the deeper penetration into society of the media and migration are all playing a significant role in changing Albania’s morality.
In a Tirana nightclub, Artemis floats alone, lost in bossa nova rhythms and oblivious to the insistent glances coming from the masculine audience seated at surrounding tables.
The smooth music and low, smoky lights create a sense of intimacy in the Charles Bistro, a mainstream club in the centre of the capital city.
“The band is not that great, but you can still dance,” she says, emptying what’s left of a Cuba Libre cocktail. That is her first and last drink for the night. She is feeling sad, having broken up with her boyfriend more than two weeks ago.
“My mother knows about it all but we don’t really talk that much; not about these matters,” she adds. Now 23, Artemis has been living in Tirana for about ten years. Before then, she and her family lived in the much smaller, more conservative district of Kukes in northern Albania.
Her father, now a businessman, used to be a primary school teacher, while her mother was a housewife. Artemis feels lucky that her family moved to Tirana, or she would have remained hostage to the tight traditional restrictions placed on Albanian girls that her cousins have had to live with.
“Both my uncles’ daughters are already married, or are engaged, even though two of them are younger than me,” she explains, adding that girls in her hometown rarely go out. As for being caught in a physical relationship, “he had better be your future husband or else,” she says.
“You have to be a virgin and preserve your honour intact, so you can marry a suitable husband,” she explains, “and that is the only man you will ever be with for the rest of your life.”
Back in Kukes, things are not yet done as they are in Tirana. Here, after sunset, it is still rare to see unaccompanied women. Bars are often busy, but the clientele is overwhelmingly male.
Ahmet Merguti, [pictured right] a father of six who is now in his eighties, has lived to see the rise and fall of communism in Albania and watch new values replace old ones. He has witnessed old orders falling apart and new conventions being put in place.
But throughout all these tumultuous changes he has always upheld traditional Albanian codes of morality, especially regarding marriage and virginity.
None of his sons and daughters has married without his consent and active intervention. “I was the one to decide, for I know what they didn’t know and I’m aware of what’s best for them,” he says.
Merguti now has a dozen grandchildren. As the oldest member of his clan, relatives come to him for counsel. But times have changed and that doesn’t please him at all.
“It’s gone beyond what I would have ever imagined,” he complains. “I've seen things [being done] in public that are hard to tolerate.”
He feels a sense of shame about some of the things shown these days on television. “They think they discovered freedom, or that maybe they invented it, but what they are following is false,” he says.
Ahead of their time
The 2006 book Tri motra ne nje qytet (Three sisters in a city) tells the story of three Albanian sisters who were born in Australia but came to live in Kukes.
Enticed by communist propaganda about “the happiest country in the world”, the book tells the tale of how the sisters moved to the land of their ancestors and what happened then.
Although the book is fictional, the author, Petrit Palushi, says it is based on a true story. “They arrived in the 1970s and lived in a house by the Black Drin River,” he explains.
Palushi, now director of Radio Kukes, adds that while the story is authentic, he changed the names and most of the events in his book for ethical reasons.
“One of them used to teach me English, when I was just a little boy,” he recalls. Many people in Kukes also remember the sisters, partly because they came from abroad, but most of all because of their disregard of traditional moral conventions.
“I remember they were so pretty, they dressed differently and conducted a life that was antagonistic to communist values,” Palushi says, adding that they at least two of them had boyfriends, which was unthinkable in such a town at that time.
Their modern lifestyle cost them a good deal. One of the sisters was jailed for five years on charges related to ‘agitation’ and ‘propaganda’. Another fled to what was then Yugoslavia. The third stayed in Albania, not in jail, but living in miserable conditions, until the regime collapsed. All three are alive and now back in Australia.
“They used to bathe in bikinis in the river and people would watch them. They hated them and desired them at the same time,” Palushi recalls, emphasising how the women wrought a quiet sexual revolution in their dozy northern town.
Their way of life was shocking to the people of a region who had fused traditional Albanian values with communist moral conservatism. “There was a clash of civilisations and maybe it was somehow premature,” Palushi says.
But if such an exercise in sexual freedom was premature in the 1970s, not everybody agrees that the recent rapid change in Albanian moral codes has been an unmitigated success.
Gjergj Sinani, a professor of philosophy at the University of Tirana, stresses that a gradual process is necessary if people are to adapt to new values. “The process of taboos collapsing may find people unprepared to build their lives on new values,” he says.
Change comes to Sicily
Sicily was once like Albania, a traditional patriarchal society where women were expected to go their marriage beds “untouched”.
Today, the streets of Sicily are as loud and vibrant as they ever. But in recent decades the island has undergone changes in terms of moral conventions and social regulations even more radical than those in Albania.
In a small café near the centre of Santa Flavia, a village near Palermo, Caterina, the grandmother of two cheerful little girls, explains that traditional values have undergone huge alterations since her youth. Relations between the sexes have been transformed.
“Before my husband and I married, we sat five metres apart from each other,” she recalls. “Now these youngsters do as they please and no one cares.”
She feels unhappy about it. “Since women gained independence and equality, things have gone bad in households,” she continues. “They always ask for more and have abandoned their role in the family.”
Santa Flavia is not what one would expect of a typical village. The commune is very urbanized today. In fact, little of what might be considered “purely traditional” remains anywhere on the island.
“You might have more luck if you went to Hollywood,” jokes Michele, a young financial expert, referring to the American film industry’s nostalgic obsession with old-time Sicilian culture.
In front of the church of Santa Ana in Santa Flavia, Salvatore Troia, a man in his seventies, offers a guided tour. There, among other striking religious exhibits, visitors can peer at the remains of Santa Colomba, exposed in a glass container in a corridor.
Troia expressed similar concerns to Caterina, though he maintains that some values have survived in Sicily. Marriage is still seen as important and even the young respect it. “Last Sunday, for instance, we had two weddings in this church and this is a tiny community,” he says.
Young people in Sicily do indeed respect traditional values - even if they only partially practice them. Giuseppe Commande, a young bus driver, agreed that marriage was important, as long as it did not conflict with enjoying life and having girlfriends.
“Things have changed,” he says, “but it doesn’t mean we should deny our inherited values with the excuse that we live in modern times.”
In Sicily, as in Albania, the other side of modern sexual freedom is the rise of a more egotistical society in which there is also more social isolation.
Change must come at a gradual pace, Professor Sinani says: “Freedom is quite a heavy meal and the main question is whether our stomachs are ready to deal with it.”
This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN.