“Sworn virgins” (burrneshas in Albanian) are Albanian women who decide to ignore their female identity and live as men in the Balkans. Photographer Jill Peters traveled to Northern Albania to meet and photograph these women. The decision to live as men is more related to gender roles in the Albanian culture rather than a statement of sexuality; these women live their lives appearing as men.
Sworn virgins have existed for centuries. According to tradition dating back to the 15th century developed out of the Kanun, a tribal code of law, tribal clans from the Balkans considered families without a male presence as pariahs. When blood feuds decimated all the men in a family, the only way to salvage their honor was for a woman to become the patriarch of the clan and start acting like a man.
“Becoming a sworn virgin or burrnesha elevated a woman to the status of a man and granted her all the rights and privileges of the male population,” Peters writes on her website. “In order to manifest the transition, such a woman cut her hair, donned male clothing and sometimes even changed her name. … Most importantly of all, she took a celibacy vow to remain chaste for life.”
Despite the fact that the sworn virgins never marry or have children, “None of them had regrets,” Peters said of the women she spoke to. “They’re very proud of their families, of their nephews and nieces.” And as long as they live an honorable life, they’re respected and treated as important members of society.
Albania has made some progress when it comes to women’s rights, but some small towns haven’t fully transitioned into modernity yet. In some villages, women still can’t drive or work and are expected to wear gender-specific attire. Their families choose men for them to marry and it is culturally appropriate that they care for their husband and children. For many years, the only way to escape the rigid structures of society was to choose not to live as a female.
While sworn virgins were a common fixture historically, in the current era, the population is dwindling. There could be as few as 30 burrneshas left in small villages, and younger ones are considered “less authentic” now that it’s easier for women to be independent.
Those who’ve already pledged to be sworn virgins won’t change their minds, however. “A woman could become the president of Albania and they would still remain living as men,” Peters said.
You can watch the trailer for Peters’ documentary on sworn virgins “He/She/He” here.