Burneshas: Women who choose to live as a man
Övgü Pınar - 07/03/2014
In the rural parts of northern Albania some women take a vow to become a man. After taking a vow of chastity, they dress male clothes, change their name, work in “men’s jobs” and thus attain the respect and power reserved for men.
The tradition of “burnesha” (sworn virgin) has its roots in the “Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit” (The Code of Lekë Dukagjini), simply known as the “Kanun”. Used mostly in northern Albania between the 15-20th centuries, the Kanun says that family wealth must be inherited through men and that a woman should move into the household of her husband's family. Moreover, with the Kanun, women are deprived of most of the rights that are seen as “worthy” of men, like smoking, voting, buying lands and working in certain jobs. Women are practically reduced to a status of “family property”. However, by “becoming a man”, these women can earn respect of their community, have right to the family property and fight for defending the family in blood feuds.
To become a sworn virgin, a woman has to take an oath in front of 12 tribal elders. Although the breaking of the vow once meant death sentence, it’s thought that this punishment is not carried out any more. Still, burneshas of today fear the rejection by the community in case they go back on their oath.
“Burneshas” were first reported in the 19th century by missionaries, geographers and anthropologists. The practice was believed to be dead after almost 50 years of communism in Albania, but instead some researchers suggest that following the fall of the communism an increase is seen in feuding, which could in turn resurrect the tradition. Although currently the tradition is much less practiced than before, it’s thought that there are still between 50 and 400 women who chose to live as a man to be treated like a respectable human-being.
There are various motivations that still keep this tradition alive. Some women say they always felt more male than female while others wanted to avoid an unwanted marriage, not to be separated from their family, to escape blood feuds or inherit family wealth. It is also likely that many women chose to become sworn virgins simply because it provided them with freedom.
Photographer Jill Peters, after visiting the northern villages of Albania wrote that “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. As an alternative, becoming a Sworn Virgin, or “burnesha”, elevated a woman to the status of a man and granted her all the rights and privileges of the male population. In order to manifest the transition such a woman cut her hair, donned male clothing and sometimes even changed her name. Male gestures and swaggers were practiced until they became second nature. Most importantly of all, she took a vow of celibacy to remain chaste for life. She became a “he”. This practice continues today but as modernization inches toward the small villages nestled in the Alps, this archaic tradition is increasingly seen as obsolete. Only a few aging Sworn Virgins remain.”
Anthropologist Antonia Young’s book “Women Who Become Men: Albanian Sworn Virgins” (2001) underlines that “… in this region of the Balkans, simply to dress as a man and to behave as a man will earn these women the same respect accorded a man. This is no mean advantage in an area known for sexual inequality and where so many men have suffered violent, premature deaths, thereby heightening the need for more household heads. Traditionally as heads of household, men are revered and the women who attend them utterly subservient. But unlike 'normal' women, Sworn Virgins can inherit and manage property, and, in fact, may even be raised to assume the male role by parents who have no male heirs.”
87 year old burnesha Qamile Stema is an example to this case, being a daughter of a “sonless” family she had to turn into the “missing son”. She once told her story saying “I was a very normal girl. I became a man just to please my father. He was expecting a son, but I was born as the ninth daughter after eight girls. I had no other choice.”