Friday, August 17, 2007

Sworn Virgins of Albania

I am posting on this story mostly because it is fascinating. In the mountains of northern Albania there is a centuries-old custom that if a woman takes an oath of perpetual virginity, she may have all the freedom, authority, and respect of a man.

This is a good illustration of the idea that gender is a social construct -- a liberal's idea, put to conservative use. It reminds me of anthropologist Mary Douglas' argument (in Purity and Danger) that we make systems of categories to help us sort out the world. There will always be a few anomalies, though, which are dangerous to the purity of the system. So we usually build in some escape valves, to allow anomalies to be socially constructed into a new category that doesn't violate the rules.

Some proponents of social construction want to take this idea as license to do away with all social categories. I don't think that is a livable solution. Recognizing that there are limits to our necessary category systems, though, lets us use them while still being humble about how absolute the categories are. There will always be anomalies. If they are not actually dangerous to society, we can find a place for them, too.

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