Balkan sworn virgins (in Albanian: burrnesha) are women who take a vow of chastity and wear male clothing in order to live as men in patriarchal northern Albanian society, Kosovo and Montenegro. To a lesser extent, the practice exists, or has existed, in other parts of the western Balkans, including Bosnia, Dalmatia (Croatia), Serbia and North Macedonia. National Geographic's Taboo (2002) estimated that there were fewer than 102 Albanian sworn virgins left.
|History of Albania|
Other terms for a sworn virgin include, in English, Albanian virgin or avowed virgin; in Serbo-Croatian: Virdžina, in Albanian: burrnesha, vajzë e betuar (most common today, and used in situations in which the parents make the decision when the person is a baby or child), and various words cognate with "virgin" – virgjineshë, virgjereshë, verginesa, virgjin, vergjinesha; in Turkish, sadik, meaning "honest, just", in Serbian, ostajnica (she who stays), in Bosnian, tobelija (bound by a vow).
The tradition of sworn virgins in Albania developed out of the Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit (English: The Code of Lekë Dukagjini, or simply the Kanun), a set of codes and laws developed by Lekë Dukagjini and used mostly in northern Albania and Kosovo from the 15th century until the 20th century. The Kanun is not a religious document – many groups follow it, including Albanian Orthodox, Catholics and Muslims.
The Kanun dictates that families must be patrilineal (meaning wealth is inherited through a family's men) and patrilocal (upon marriage, a woman moves into the household of her husband's family). Women are treated like property of the family. Under the Kanun, women are stripped of many rights. They cannot smoke, wear a watch, or vote in local elections. They cannot buy land, and there are many jobs they are not permitted to hold. There are also establishments that they cannot enter.
The practice of sworn virginhood was first reported by missionaries, travelers, geographers and anthropologists, who visited the mountains of northern Albania in the 19th and early 20th centuries. One of them was Edith Durham, who took the photograph above.
A person can become a sworn virgin at any age, out of personal desire or to satisfy parents. One becomes a sworn virgin by swearing an irrevocable oath, in front of twelve village or tribal elders, to adopt the role and practice celibacy. After this, sworn virgins live as men and others relate to them as such, usually though not always using masculine pronouns to address them or speak about them to other people.  They may dress in male clothing, use a male name, carry a gun, smoke, drink alcohol, take on male work, act as the head of a household (for example, living with a sister or mother), play music, sing, and sit and talk socially with men.
According to Marina Warner, the sworn virgin's "true sex will never again, on pain of death, be alluded to either in her presence or out of it." Similar practices occurred in some societies of indigenous peoples of the Americas.
Breaking the vow was once punishable by death, but it is doubtful that this punishment is still carried out. Many sworn virgins today still refuse to go back on their oath because their community would reject them for breaking the vows. However, it is sometimes possible to take back the vows if the reasons or motivations or obligations to family which lead to taking the vow no longer exist.
There are many reasons why someone might take this vow, and observers recorded a variety of motivations. One person spoke of becoming a sworn virgin in order to not be separated from his father, and another in order to live and work with a sister. Some hoped to avoid a specific unwanted marriage, and others hoped to avoid marriage in general; becoming a sworn virgin was also the only way for families who had committed children to an arranged marriage to refuse to fulfil it, without dishonouring the groom's family and risking a blood feud.
It was the only way a woman could inherit her family's wealth, which was particularly important in a society in which blood feuds (gjakmarrja) resulted in the deaths of many male Albanians, leaving many families without male heirs. (However, anthropologist Mildred Dickemann suggests this motive may be "over-pat", pointing out that a non-child-bearing woman would have no heirs to inherit after her, and also that in some families not one but several daughters became sworn virgins, and in others the later birth of a brother did not end the sworn virgin's masculine role.)
Moreover, a child may have been desired to "carry on" an existing feud, according to Marina Warner. The sworn virgin became "a warrior in disguise to defend her family like a man." If a sworn virgin was killed in a blood feud, the death counted as a full life for the purposes of calculating blood money, rather than the half-life a woman was counted as.
It is also likely that many women chose to become sworn virgins simply because it afforded them much more freedom than would otherwise have been available in a patrilineal culture in which women were secluded, sex-segregated, required to be virgins before marriage and faithful afterwards, betrothed as children and married by sale without their consent, continually bearing and raising children, constantly physically labouring, and always required to defer to men, particularly their husbands and fathers, and submit to being beaten.
Dickemann suggests mothers may have played an important role in persuading children to become sworn virgins. A widow without sons traditionally had few options in Albania: she could return to her birth family, stay on as a servant in the family of her deceased husband, or remarry. With a son or surrogate son, she could live out her life in the home of her adulthood, in the company of her child. Murray quotes testimony recorded by René Gremaux: "Because if you get married I'll be left alone, but if you stay with me, I'll have a son." On hearing those words Djurdja [the daughter] "threw down her embroidery" and became a man.
The practice has died out in Dalmatia and Bosnia, but is still carried out in northern Albania and to a lesser extent in North Macedonia.
The Socialist People's Republic of Albania did not encourage women to become sworn virgins. Women started gaining legal rights and came closer to having equal social status, especially in the central and southern regions. It is only in the northern region that many families are still traditionally patriarchal. Currently there are between forty and several hundred sworn virgins left in Albania, and a few in neighboring countries. Most are over fifty years old. It used to be believed that the sworn virgins had all but died out after 50 years of communism in Albania, but recent research suggests that may not be the case; instead, the increase in feuding following the collapse of the communist regime could encourage a resurgence of the practice.