A sworn virgin is a person who decides to live in the manner of the opposite sex while adamantly refusing ever to have sexual relations with another. The term itself can be misleading — "swearing" virginity can be a public or private act, and it does not even have to be a conscious decision (See Unconscious mind). The term itself is used by sworn virgins as a symbol of pride, but can also be used by others in a derogatory fashion.
The term sworn virgin has come to refer to a traditional social role in the Balkans: that of a man who was born female. This area is home to a patchwork of seemingly disparate groups, including the Slavic Bosnians/Serbs/Montenegrins and Croats, the Albanians, the Roma and sizable Greek and Romanian minorities. Religiously it is equally diverse: Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, the Bosnian Church and Muslim. However, among the highlander groups, a similar, cross-cultural clan-based orientation and highly marked sexual roles have created a situation where there has been a shortage of adult males. One suitable alternative is the sworn virgin (Slavic tobelija or tybelí, ostajnica "she who stays" or muskobanja "man-like woman"; Albanian virgjineshtë), a female-born person who takes on the social (but not sexual) role of a man. They dress, work and live as men, but remain celibate and unmarried.
The origins of Balkan "sworn virgins" is disparate: some choose this role (as early as childhood and as late as just before their marriage ceremony) while others are raised or forced into it by circumstance. Balkan societies have suffered a severe shortage of men due to interclan violence and Ottoman oppression; a clan without a patriarch might choose a female as an ostajnica, or female replacement, who would subsequently take on a male social role.
"Sworn virgins" enjoy great privilege in comparison to those living a female gender. They can smoke, attend male-only events, participate in male-only activities, use men's tools like guns and certain musical instruments, and generally obtain the respect of their born-male peers like any other man. However, there are limitations. First, they are forbidden from sexual activity with any other person. Second, they are limited to the traditional female immunity to blood-feud, which remains a major cause of male mortality. If a clan is under siege and all of its males are potential targets for a vengeance murder, the "sworn virgin" is limited to immunity as a target and limited to carrying out crucial men's work without fear of being killed.
- Aleksandra Djajic Horváth. A tangle of multiple transgressions: The western gaze and the Tobelija (Balkan sworn-virgin-cross-dressers) in the 19th and 20th centuries. Anthropology Matters Journal 2003-2.
- When women become men an article on the Albanian phenomenon
- Washington Post The Sacrifices of Albania's 'Sworn Virgins': A Rockville Filmmaker Tells Of an Old Custom That Both Liberates and Limits Women. By Joshua Zumbrun, Washington Post Staff Writer, Saturday, August 11, 2007; Page C01.
- René Grémaux: "Woman Becomes Man in the Balkans", in Gilbert Herdt, ed. 1996: Third Sex Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History. ISBN 0-942299-82-5
- Antonia Young 2000: Women Who Become Men: Albanian Sworn Virgins. ISBN 1-85973-335-2
- Alice Munro, "The Albanian Virgin," a piece of short fiction in the collection Open Secrets, published in 1994. ISBN 0-679435-75-1