Sworn Virgins
Albania 2008 and 2010

In Northern Albania, in the Cursed Mountains, said to have been created by the devil himself, to this day the tradition of the sworn virgins is still alive, the last man-women of Europe. The Kannun, a collection of laws from the Middle Ages, passed on for generations by word-of-mouth, permits families to replace the male head of the household with a woman in the case of the patriarch’s death, often brought about by clan-related blood feuds. Yet the woman’s new status requires her to make an irrevocable vow to preserve her virginity for the rest of her life.

Adult women may swear this oath to take the place of the deceased father or brother. But even newborn girls can be declared sons and raised as boys for the purpose of providing the family with a male heir. Occasionally, women also take the vow to escape a prearranged marriage. Filling the roles of men, these women can also expect to gain more recognition in the male-dominated society of Albania.

These so-called oath-virgins, or Burrnesha, not only receive the status but also the rights of men and are highly respected in the family. They do men’s work, and dress and behave like men. But they are men in a social, rather than in a sexual sense. The sworn virgins adapt their roles so perfectly that, over time, they are no longer recognized as women outside of their family. Over the years, the woman in them is lost.

DRANDE, 53, is a woman who chose to live the life of a man. She lost her hands as a child, playing with a hand grenade. After her father’s death, it was a point of honor for Drande to take care of her mother.

HAKI, 59, was raised as a boy by her parents from the time of her birth, because a dervish predicted that they would have a boy.

DIANA, 54, has been living as a man since she was 17 years old. She did not want to accept that men were allowed to do everything and women were not. She does not like to speak about her feelings – that would damage her reputation as a man.

ILMIJE, 30, has always wanted to be free and autonomous. In the northern part of the country, only boys have the privilege to leave the house. At the age of five, she went out to let the livestock graze without asking permission. After her mother’s death, when she had to take care of the household and her father, she finally decided to live as a man. She loves to ride out on her own horse to gather fire wood.

LULE, 56, has perceived herself as a boy for as long as she can remember. In Socialist times, she worked as a tractor driver and mechanic, being accepted and respected by her male peers. With only one boy and ten girls in the family, a provider was needed. Thus her parents decided to raise her as a boy. She is a free spirit and does not like to be told what to do.

OSMANI, 80, does not know when she became a man. Her father was disabled, her mother was ill, and she had to take care of both her parents. Born as a girl, brought up as a boy, men have always perceived her as a brother. Unable to read and write, she has always done men’s jobs and has no memories of women’s issues such as ever having had her menstruation. Even as a little boy, she was spending many months a year in the mountains with shepherds.

QJUSTE, 66, became a man after her divorce. Currently, she is running her own business for the repair of gears and road services. She built a house with her own money and has a good living standard. She would not have been able to achieve this as a woman.

SAMI, 84, was told at the age of seven, “you are Daddy’s boy,” and taken to the city to buy boys’ clothes. At the age of 18, she went through a time of regret for her fate. In her younger years, she was beautiful, but no one dared to seek a closer relationship with her, because of the gun she wore.

RAHIME, 66, vowed at the age of 25 to care for her family – and became a man after her brother’s death of cancer. It was a vow she was not permitted to break, but she never regretted her decision. She believes that “the man is the strongest member of a family, he has to behave like a pillar.” Younger family members call her “uncle.”

SHKURTAN, 76, decided to become a boy at six, in order to be able to care for the domestic animals. “I wanted to be free and to spend all my time with the stock,” she says. Having a twin-sister, two other sisters and a brother, Shkurtan has always wanted to be like her brother, and to be as free as he is.

SANIJE, 54. After the death of her father, Sanije, at the time 14 years of age, vowed to live the life of a man. A life with privileges and rights that women in Northern Albania do not otherwise have.

QAMILE, 84. After the death of her father, when Qamile was nine years old, her mother presented her to the local council of men. From that moment onward, she grew up as a son and has never regretted this fate.

HAVE, 67, decided at the age of 15 to live as a man, being unable to live as a woman. She decided to live with her parents and swore to virginity only towards her family and relatives, and ever since has always spent her time exclusively with men. Living as a man gives her inner strength and confidence.