Allyson Cartwright, Contributing Journalist
Last Modified: 08:05 p.m. DST, 15 June 2014
KRUJE, Albania — In Albania, where culture is dictated by patriarchy, some women are taking vows of celibacy and living their lives as men.
These “sworn virgins”, or burrneshas in Albanian, save the honor of their families by becoming a proxy patriarch. As Albania modernizes and women’s rights improve, this dying custom is still being practiced by women in small villages.
The burrneshas, translated as “he-she”, custom is one that has existed historically in Albania, dating back to the fifteenth century. In the Balkan tribal communities, they followed a Kanun law, according to The Huffington Post. They also say, Kanun law is particularly restrictive towards women as it “prohibits women from voting, driving, earning money or wearing pants.”
This law also mandated that tribal clans had to outcast any families without a male figure. Because of internal tribal warfare, however, men in the families were often killed. Women in families then faced a dilemma, how they could maintain their family’s honor. If there was a virginal female in the family, though, they could to assume the role of patriarch and become a man to save the family.
Part of the burrneshas transition to becoming a man means taking an oath of virginity. A photographer who documented burrneshas, Jill Peters, wrote on her website about these women saying, “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.” She continued, “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.”
Even though these women are faced with the obligation of preserving their family’s honor by living a restricted life, unable to have a family of their own, they do not see it as a burden. Peters told Slate, “None of them had regrets. They’re very proud of their families, of their nephews and nieces.” Because of the sacrifice these women make, they are actually treated as respected individuals in their community.
In many cases, living as a burrnesha is liberating for Albanian women for whom marriages are arranged and lives restricted to the household. Pashe Keqi, a burrnesha, told The New York Times how she felt freer living as a man saying, “I was totally free as a man because no one knew I was a woman.” She continued, “I could go wherever I wanted to and no one would dare swear at me because I could beat them up. I was only with men. I don’t know how to do women’s talk. I am never scared.”
With modernization spreading in Albania, women are gaining more rights and with that the burrnesha tradition is diminishing. Thus, the older generations are believed to be the most authentic burrneshas because they were forced into the lifestyle—as opposed to women today that are not under as much pressure. Qamile Stema, the last burrnesha in her village told The New York Times, “We respect sworn virgins very much and consider them as men because of their great sacrifice. But there is no longer a stigma not to have a man of the house.”
Slate reports that actually only a few dozen burrneshas still practice, mostly in remote areas. As the country continues to modernize progress for women, the burrnesha tradition will become obsolete.
- Sworn Virgins: Men by Choice in the Balkans (slate.com)
- Portraits of Albanian Women Who Have Lived Their Lives As Men (petapixel.com)
- Deadly Protests Erupt as Socialists Slam Albanian Corruption (theblaze.com)
- Burrnesha (michelefischer.wordpress.com)
- The Oath of the Burrnesha | The Mountains Where Women Live as Men (joylita.com)