Deep in the secluded villages of the Albanian Alps, women and girls have long had to make an extreme choice if they wanted to receive the same privileges as men.
It comes in the form of a binding pledge; a lifelong vow to live as a man, to work as a man, to socialize among men, and thereby to receive power as men do in their patriarchal society. But the oath only allows women to assume the roles reserved for men in northern Albania under one condition: To become a burnesha, one must take a lifelong vow of celibacy, typically in front of village elders (and at a young age). This tradition was born out of a set of restrictive 15th-century laws known as the Kanun, which stated that a woman’s role was to take care of her children and home, and that her life was worth half that of a man’s—unless she was celibate.
Today, the observance of this more than 500-year-old practice is dying out as previously sequestered sections of the Balkan country become better connected to the modernizing world. But in northern Albania, even reaching parts of Montenegro and Kosovo, a small number of burneshas—an estimated 30 or fewer—still exist.
Photographer Jill Peters has devoted her career to exploring the way sexuality, identity, and culture intersect, and in 2009 she turned her lens toward Albania’s burneshas. Beginning that year until 2013, Peters made three trips to the country’s remote northern villages in search of this dwindling population. The resulting photo project, Sworn Virgins of Albania, documents the living members of a dying tradition.
Peters wanted to understand, or attempt to understand, the lasting implications of this tribal code that was once so deeply ingrained in northern Albanian society before the last burneshas disappeared forever. “When I began planning this project in 2008, what interested me was the anthropological context,” Peters says. “At that time, the Western perspective regarding gender was so black and white—there was very little to be understood between male or female.”
When Peters first arrived to Albania in 2009, she was surprised to learn that in the capital, Tirana, many people didn’t know of burneshas at all, and even those who were aware of the tradition thought it to be more folklore than fact. “Northern Albania was so geographically isolated from the rest of the country—and the world—until quite recently,” Peters says. “Now, there’s a tunnel, but at that time, to access the Albanian Alps from Tirana, we had to actually leave Albania, cross to Kosovo, and then come back down. That distance created a time warp in the area where this tribal code continued regardless of the advancements for women in the rest of the country.”
From “Sworn Virgins of Albania,” Jill Peters (2009). Courtesy of Jill Peters and Unscripted Bal Harbour
Haki believed his destiny as a burnesha was prophesized. He lived as a reclusive farmer before passing away in 2017.
Over the course of several years, Peters gained the trust of seven burneshas who allowed her to photograph them in their respective villages. During that time, she learned the range of reasons each decided to take the lifetime oath.
For some, the pledge offered a way to avoid arranged marriage, a practice still alive in various parts of rural Albania. For others, taking the pledge was the only way to secure family heritage and property. (The Kanun commands that all inheritance must be patrilineal, so when a man only has female children, the code dictates that his life earnings will not be passed to his family after his death—unless he assigns one of the daughters to become a “sworn virgin.”)
Peters’s compelling project reveals one of the ways in which oppressive societies can foster harmful ideologies that linger even as those societies progress.
Some burneshas explained to Peters that taking the oath was simply the most, if not only viable way to live freely in northern Albanian society. For all of them, however, becoming a burnesha was a means of survival.
In discussions with Peters, each burnesha made clear that sexual orientation and gender identity were not motives behind their decisions to take the vow. In Albania’s rural villages, the women who opted to live as men did so as a response to the gender roles that confined them. Rather than being a statement of sexuality or fluidity, the choice was a way to escape from—or cope with—the patriarchal system into which they were born.
“Becoming a burnesha elevated a woman to the status of a man, with all of the rights and privileges of the male population,” Peters says. An interesting by-product of this transfer, the photographer notes, was that some of the burneshas with whom Peters spoke had grown to adopt what she describes as “a male perspective toward women within their culture.” At times, Peters recalls, some of the burneshas she photographed verbalized the patriarchal attitudes (about, say, how women should behave) that denied their freedom as females in the first place. Peters’s compelling project reveals one of the ways in which oppressive societies can foster harmful ideologies that linger even as those societies progress.
“There was an overwhelming feeling amongst the burneshas I met that the price that they had to pay—to live as men and in celibacy—was worth the benefits they gained from fulfilling male roles within their society,” Peters says. “At its core, this tradition calls for a woman to suppress her sexuality and identity in exchange for a shot at the same opportunities a man is given at birth. I think we can all see the injustice in that.”