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Stana Cerovic is shown as social workers help her to move from her village to a home for the elderly in late May. (Photo courtesy of Radio and Television of Montenegro)

An unusual medieval practice has stubbornly endured until the present day in remote villages in Montenegro (and a few other places in the Balkans). Traditionally, if the head of a household in this strongly patriarchal society died without a male heir, one of his daughters could choose to become a man.

She would dress like a man. She was permitted to smoke and mingle with men in the village cafe. She could even carry a weapon.

But these privileges came at a price. She had to become a “sworn virgin.”

Her vow of celibacy and her promise to look after her mother, any sisters, and the family property were lifetime commitments. In many cases, it was the only way by which a woman could inherit her family’s wealth.

At the end of May, the last sworn virgin of Montenegro was moved from her village near Savnik to a home for the elderly in the coastal town of Risan. Stana Cerovic was born in 1936, the youngest child in a family of five girls and two boys, both of whom died young.

While still a child, she promised her father she would never marry and would, instead, take care of the family. All her life, she socialized with men. She started smoking at the age of 5. She began working in her father’s fields at the age of 7. Her father taught her how to shoot.

Stana has never dressed as a woman. Traditional “women’s tasks” like laundry and cleaning were always done by her sisters. Stana has always been “the man of the family.”

All her life, Stana saw herself as privileged rather than deprived of her female identity and her life as a woman. In fact, the belief that it is an honor for a woman to assume the role of a man has been the foundation of the sworn-virgin custom over the centuries.

But now, at the age of 80, Stana is slowing down. She was forced to sell off most of her cows. The remaining one injured her a year ago.

Recently, a television feature about Stana touched the hearts of many people in Montenegro. Offers of help came from throughout the country. The local authorities arranged a place for her in the nursing home, turning back offers of financial help from the public.

“It is our duty to take care of Stana,” a Savnik social worker told Montenegrin television.

This archaic set of social rules originated in the mountain villages of Montenegro, southern Kosovo, and northern Albania in the 15th century. Some Dalmatian coast islands also had their sworn virgins. Such women cut their hair short, dressed as men, and often even changed their names. Many adopted male mannerisms and gestures so completely that they became second nature.

A few years back, U.S. photographer Jill Peters traveled to northern Albania and took a unique collection of portraits of sworn virgins in order to document this dying phenomenon.

PHOTO GALLERY: Albania's Sworn Virgins (2013)

The custom survives in Albania but has already died out in Dalmatia and Bosnia and now it is in its final days in Montenegro.

The 2007 novel Sworn Virgin by Albanian novelist Elvira Dones traces the life of one such woman who, with the help of her sister, manages to reconnect with her female identity. Italian filmmaker Laura Bispuri made a movie based on that novel in 2015.

WATCH: The trailer for Sworn Virgin

Unlike the heroine of Dones’s novel, Stana seems to have no regrets. Her last wish, she says, is to be remembered in her family graveyard as her father’s only surviving son.

A Macedonian police officer tries to remove red paint from his helmet's visor after protesters threw balloons filled with colored paint during an antigovernment protest in Skopje on June 6.

This week is set to become a watershed for Macedonia's "Colorful Revolution." The political crisis that has gripped the country since last summer is coming to a head, and President Gjorge Ivanov has been forced into making a major concession to the antigovernment protesters.

In response to growing public pressure, Ivanov rescinded the controversial pardon issued to 56 government and party officials implicated in a corruption scandal -- but the Macedonian parliament rejected the protesters' demand for the president's resignation.

As RFE/RL's Macedonia unit chief, Zoran Kuka reported, the antigovernment protesters delivered an ultimatum on June 6 to the Macedonian authorities -- or the Skopje "regime," as they call the government of President Gjorge Ivanov. They demanded the unconditional repeal of the blanket amnesty issued for all those implicated in a wide-ranging investigation into corruption, electoral fraud, and illegal wiretapping. Most of those accused are government officials or their supporters. The pardon was widely denounced as an assault on the rule of law, and was the motive for the wave of protests.

The activists, or "colorful revolutionaries"-- referred to as such for their habit of spray painting government buildings and public monuments -- also demanded President Ivanov's resignation. They asked for an interim government to be appointed with the task of creating the conditions for a free and fair election.

For more than two months, thousands of citizens have taken to the streets every day in the capital, Skopje, and other major cities. The ultimatum was meant to "draw a red line," according to the message which the protesters delivered to the authorities on June 6. "This is a nonnegotiable deadline for the fulfillment of our demands, which are equally firm," the demonstrators said.

Swift Response

The response from the government has been swift. On the day of the ultimatum, the presidential pardon was revoked, although Ivanov will remain in charge.

The date itself is meaningful. Exactly five years ago, 22-year-old Martin Neskovski died after being beaten by a policeman at a political rally. The government was accused of trying to cover up this act of police brutality -- another example of its alleged disregard for citizens' rights, due process, and the workings of democracy. Five years later, the day has been chosen as the beginning of what government opponents hope will be a new era in Macedonia.

"Long live free and democratic Macedonia!" exclaimed one antigovernment protester, Demijan Hadzi Angelovski. Until now, the protesters have been gathering every day at 6 p.m. in front of the special prosecutor's offices in Skopje -- whose investigation was frustrated by the presidential pardon, leading to the popular outcry. Prior to the latest turn of events, the protesters had vowed to change tactics, calling for so-called guerrilla actions via social networks, the first of which was the blockade of major intersections in Skopje.

WATCH: Skopje Protesters Tangle With Police On June 6

Macedonian Protesters Keep Up Pressure, Despite Concessions
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It is unclear whether the revocation of the pardon will be enough to appease the opponents of the government gathered in the streets of Skopje. Moreover, if the investigation into corruption and wiretapping by state and party officials resumes, it will put more pressure on the government. In any case Macedonia is about to enter a period of political uncertainty, at least until a new election can take place. But this would be a welcome development, according to Stevo Pendarovski, a former adviser to the late Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski and an opposition candidate during the last election.

"If Macedonia could make it through ten years of soft dictatorship, there is no reason why it cannot hang on for another month or so, so that we can attain our freedom by peaceful means," Pendarovski told RFE/RL.

Whatever happens, the next few days and weeks will likely prove crucial to Macedonia's political future. The country will either begin to reclaim its status as a regional poster boy for political and economic reform, or it will slide further into thinly veiled authoritarianism-- and further popular unrest.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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