From “Sworn Virgins of Albania,” Jill Peters (2011). Courtesy of Jill Peters and Unscripted Bal Harbour
From “Sworn Virgins of Albania,” Jill Peters (2013). Courtesy of Jill Peters and Unscripted Bal Harbour
Haki, a burnesha, grew up in a rural village in northern Albania.
Photographer Jill Peters traveled to the villages of northern Albania to document the last living followers of a dying tradition.
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’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.
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