“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.