In her photo series called Sworn Virgins of Albania, photographer Jill Peters captured images of women who have chosen to live as men.
A sworn virgin, also called a ‘burnesha’ or ‘virgjinesha,’ is a biological woman who takes a vow of celibacy and takes on the identity of a man. The practice dates back hundreds of years and has existed or still exists in remote parts of Albania and in some parts of the western Balkans. These areas had very patriarchal societies and culture and women didn’t have the same rights and privileges as men.
As a tradition dating back hundreds of years, this was sometimes necessary in a society that lived within tribal clans, followed the Kanun, an archaic code of law, and maintained an oppressive rule over the female gender. The Kanun states that women are the property of their husbands. The freedom to vote, drive, conduct business, earn money, drink, smoke, swear, own a gun or wear pants was traditionally the exclusive province of men. Young girls were commonly forced into arranged marriages, often with much older men in distant villages. A family suddenly without a patriarch or male heir would find themselves in jeopardy of losing everything.
Some women chose to become Sworn Virgins because of familial obligations or to escape an arranged marriage. These Sworn Virgins cut their hair, dressed like men, acted like men, and interacted with men. Because they were recognized as men, they gained the rights and privileges given to men. They became heads of their family and became responsible for the family’s property. They were able to do work that only men were allowed to do. They were able to carry weapons, drink, and conduct business.
The practice is slowly dying out and there are only a handful of Sworn Virgins left.
Click here to see more photos from the series.
Images by Jill Peters