I'm reposting this because the topic has been in the news lately, along with an amazing slide show of images by photographer Jill Peters (one photo above, the rest here) who writes:
For sacrificing their innate natures, they are afforded considerable masculine privileges. Skirts and blouses are traded for trousers and button downs, long hair cropped to a manly stubble. They smoke, work and swagger about town with the other men. They are referred to as "he" and "uncle." Their absolute transition is accepted, posited and taken without question by the people among whom they live.
Here's the original post from 2008: The NY Times has a fascinating story about a 500-year old Albanian custom that's now dying out in the wake of stronger women's rights.
The sworn virgin was born of social necessity in an agrarian region plagued by war and death. If the family patriarch died with no male heirs, unmarried women in the family could find themselves alone and powerless. By taking an oath of virginity, women could take on the role of men as head of the family, carry a weapon, own property and move freely.
They dressed like men and spent their lives in the company of other men, even though most kept their female given names. They were not ridiculed, but accepted in public life, even adulated. For some the choice was a way for a woman to assert her autonomy or to avoid an arranged marriage.
“Stripping off their sexuality by pledging to remain virgins was a way for these women in a male-dominated, segregated society to engage in public life,” said Linda Gusia, a professor of gender studies at the University of Pristina, in Kosovo. “It was about surviving in a world where men rule."
Throughout history women have sworn virginity for greater autonomy. The Vestal Virgins had both great responsibility and great wealth, as long as they never became involved with a man - an act that automatically lost them their autonomy. The downside: breaking your vows got you buried alive. Nuns also enjoyed special privileges with their vows of chastity, like literacy and not dying in childbirth.