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. National Geographic's Taboo estimated that there are fewer than 102 sworn virgins in the world.
The term sworn virgin has come to refer to a traditional social role in the highlands of Albania and Montenegro. 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 (Serbian tobelija or tybelí, ostajnica "she who stays" or muskobanja "man-like woman"; Albanian virgjineshtë / burrneshë), 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 chaste and unmarried.
The origins of the "sworn virgins" are 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. These 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.
- "National Geographic's Taboo". natgeo.com. Retrieved 2009-11-11.
- 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 0-679-43575-1
- 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.