Women who become men: Northern Albania’s Sworn Virgins (Burrnesha)

Wikipedia: “Sworn Virgin….women in northern Albania who swear perpetual chastity in their teenage years and become men in their society —not women acting like men or women who have gender reassignment, but simply women who are now men.”

First, let’s be clear that Albanians (and Kosovars), though speaking roughly the same language, have for centuries been subject to competing, and usually more powerful outside influences, resulting in a split of the language into northern Gheg (Italian & Catholic cultural influence) and southern Tosk (Greek & Orthodox cultural influence) dialects. Culturally, Ghegs are more conservative, due in part to their more isolating Alpine landscape. During the 450 years of Ottoman occupation of Albania, these highlands were never subjugated, leaving the Ghegs to their own customs – frozen in time.

For more on Albanians, click https://folkdancefootnotes.org/culture/ethnicity-history-geography/albanians/

Cem River. Typical North Albanian landscape.

The burrnesha (Sworn Virgin) phenomenon applies mostly to Northern Albania and parts of Kosovo, Montenegro & North Macedonia; the area inside the dotted line in the map below.

Source: the book Women Who Become Men by Antonia Young

My information sources for this posting, [beyond the YouTubes] are the books Women Who Become Men by Antonia Young, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1866273.Women_Who_Become_Men, and High Albania by Edith Durham https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/253459.High_Albania?ac=1&from_search=true&qid=Q3nTK7D08F&rank=1 I highly recommend them both.

Family (Tribal) Organization

Antonia Young writes: “In anthropological terms, rural society in northern Albania is strictly patrilocal, exogamous, and patrilineal. This means that society is male dominated, normally men bring their wives from other villages into their own childhood home, and inheritance follows the male line….The Albanian tribal society is usually described as one of the most patriarchal in the world…they have a common kinship system involving very large extended families sharing one house (shpi). In this unique preserve of Europe, people lived and held land communally long before the theory of Communism was developed. However, ownership was held by men, women being considered merely a part of their property….it is always the son who…inherits the property, goes to war, defends you, and also avenges you. …For life after death…he is the one who will take care of your soul; “

“In these families, the larger the size, the greater the family’s strength. B. Backer [author of Behind the Stone Walls, 1979], claims to have visited ‘the largest family in Europe’, residing in a village some 20 miles outside the town of Dečani in Kosovo. Backer gives an insight into the working of the shpie;

“I felt it was an organization quite different from the nuclear family I was used to. For one thing you don’t get to know the family – but representatives of it selected according to age, sex, and status. Their roles are not presented as ‘dad’, or ‘son’, but rather something that could be translated into ‘prime minister’ or ‘foreign minister’…etc. The position of women was also dealt with…his wife and some of the 23 married women of the family were present during the meal, although they did not eat with us. Organizing the members for daily routines like meals was not done by subdividing the group into nuclear units, but arranging them into groups according to the simple and practical principals of sex and age. Elder men ate on their own.”

The heirarchy is headed by the zot i shtëpies (head), who holds total control of all aspects of life concerning the family…

Courtship and dating are still unknown concepts in rural Albania among young people who have always been kept segregated from an early age. According to tradition it is expected that a couple should not meet before their marriage…

Shyqyri, an older woman interviewed in the late 1990’s recounted her personal experience: “a marriage was arranged for me when I was thirteen years of age to a man who was twenty-two years older than I…I had not yet reached puberty and could not sleep with my husband…for two years…My husband helped me grow up, but he beat me when I played with other girls my own age…He told me not to raise my head up while walking to the field or going to the mountains to cut wood. I had to look down and fix my gaze on the tips of my shoes…Ours was a typical patriarchal family. We (the women of the family) never had the right to speak to our husbands in front of others. It was considered to be shameful to do that. The women of our house never entered a room where the men were gathered to talk, drink coffee, or eat lunch. It was the duty of the women to prepare and bring coffee, food, etc to the room – to the door of the room. We had to work and bear children.

“When I joined the family there were twenty people in the house….I gave birth to a total of eleven children…the first eight were born one and a half years apart….When I was pregnant I had to keep my pregnancy secret from the people in the house and from my husband…It was considered shameful to be pregnant. I…returned to work just three days after giving birth to each child. When our daughters grew up and the time to marry them came, only my husband had the right to decide on such a problem. I was not asked at all to give my opinion about my daughter’s marriage.”

Caption: A multiple household might contain as many as twenty persons, a goodly number but only a pale reflection of past glories. All over north Albania it used to be the custom for brothers, first and even second cousins to live with their wives and children, and probably several aged uncles and aunts and young sisters, under the same roof. Enormous households sometimes resulted. For instance there were sixty-four people in Macaj’s house in Perlat about 1900, ninety-five in Isuf Isaku’s in Zdrajshë in 1923, and seventy in Lushan Sadrija’s in Shalë even more recently’ [Hasluk (1954) The unwritten Law of Albania, p. 29]. Ann Christine Eek (Samfoto, Norway: Golaj, 1994

Division of Labour

Again quoting Young: “The Kanun [see below – DB] gives a detailed description of the rigidly gendered division of labour by which people live in the northern Albanian Alps. Traditional men’s work….includes all heavy manual work: ploughing, hoeing, harrowing, manure spreading, chopping wood, scything, mowing, harvesting, watering, and maintaining irrigation systems, protecting animals and property; it also includes being a host, talking to visitors, drinking and smoking with them, and avenging family honour (this task is of extreme importance, taking precedence above all others…). All men are included in the negotiations upon which the head will make the final decision. Women on the other hand are privy to none of them, and will only know of changed plans, even ones which affect their whole lives, once the decision has been made.

“Women’s tasks include conceiving, bearing, and rearing children, baking bread, cooking, house cleaning, tending the outside earth closets, serving the men and guests (including washing their feet), carrying water and firewood, tending fires and poultry, attending to dairy production and taking it to market, storing and processing food, processing and weaving wool, washing and mending clothes, manufacturing and mending garments for the family, for trousseaux and for sale, embroidering garments and linen. All these tasks are performed without running water. Additionally, they must assist at times of particular harvesting, collecting, and transporting the produce, and at times the older women may be expected to help milk the sheep in the summer pastures. Women may also be seen spinning and knitting at the same time as performing several of the above tasks.

“Backer calculates that women provide as much as 60 per cent of the work of men in agricultural primary production, besides performing all the domestic and childcare work within the house, but the household chores of women are not really considered as work. Furthermore, women may be called upon to take over completely the men’s outdoor tasks in times of war, or feud when it is unsafe for the men to venture out of the house.”

Mountain men – hand-tinted photo pre-1905

Kanun & Bloodfeud

Kanun [derived from the Greek word canon – ‘rule’ or ‘pole’] is the collection of customs, many of them dating back hundreds, even thousands of years, that govern the daily lives of northern Albanian mountain tribes. Although Greeks, Romans, Serbs, Italians, Austrians, and occaionally even Albanians have been nominal rulers of this land, the remote, nearly barren mountains have in fact been self-ruled by local tribes fiercely loyal to their chieftans, who are regulated only by the Kanun.

Wikipedia says: “The Kanun is based on four pillars:

On the positive side, the Kanun’s four pillars, based on tribal custom whereby the actions of any member of a family reflects on the honour of all, results in a completely internalized, standardized code of conduct in the region. In terms of hospitality, for instance, Albanians are famous for their lavish generosity to strangers. Women are protected more thoroughly than in surrounding cultures, though they are also among the most exploited.

However, some outcomes of adherence to the Kanun can be baffling to outsiders – none more so than the Bloodfeud – gjakmarrje.

To oversimplify, a very large category of offences in the Kanun are considered Blood offences – offences against the honour of the entire family – the bloodline. Since Honour is one of the Four Pillars, and Kin Loyalty is another, a family is not held in respect by the outside community if it does not uphold it’s reputation – it’s honour. Therefore it is of paramount importance to the entire family that someone in the family performs a public act that redeems the family honour from perceived offences. If someone in a family is killed, the killer’s entire family is held responsible for dishonouring the deceased’s family. The Kanun, as the only respected legal or police system in the region, specifies that any male of the offended family [in practice, any male over 8 yeas old] may honourably kill any male member of the offending family. Several rules restrict the conditions in which an honourable revenge killing may take place. For instance, killing is not honourable if a woman is present, not if the offender is in his own home, not if the offender is a guest in another’s home, and not when a general cease-fire has been declared.

Unfortunately, the redemption of one family’s honour (revenge killing) results in the dis-honouring of another family. At that point, the newly offended family has the option to consider the two families ‘even’, or to claim the stain on their honour more important; which can lead to bloodfeuds extending over several generations.

What is more ‘Blood’ offences are not confined to murder. A woman/girl can initiate a bloodfeud simply by refusing to live with the man her male guardian has agreed to marry her off to (typically, without consulting her). If her relatives cannot persuade her to change her mind, or the offended family does nor accept the woman/girl’s family’s ‘compensations’, the families are ‘In Blood’. Even if she runs away to another country, the honour of the jilted ‘husband’ still needs to be restored. The only other honourable way out of this dilemma, is for the woman/girl to take an oath of celibacy, become a ‘sworn virgin’ and become a man. The Kanun allows such an oath, and the woman/girl who takes it is thenceforth considered a man, with all the privelages and responsibilities that entails, including the obligations of a bloodfeud.

Poverty and unsanitary conditions contribute to an unususlly high death rate among the mountain tribes, compounded by very young brides dying in childbirth, and even more so, by long-running bloodfeuds. “Until the 1920’s, up to 30 percent of the male population died violent deaths as a result of bloodfeuds”…. By the early 1900’s, many families were running out of men. If there is no male in the family to take over leadership, the entire family loses its land and home….”It is this situation which gives such importance to the remarkable, but valid option for a woman to become a man…a ‘sworn virgin’.”

For more on Kanun & bloodfeuds, click: https://folkdancefootnotes.org/culture/ethnicity-history-geography/kanun-and-bloodfeud-north-albania/

Meet The Burrnesha – “Sworn Virgins”

The story of Pashke, revealed by Antonia Young.

Antonia Young: “There is a real danger of projecting the sexual perspectives of leisured Western societies on a culture such as this. The phenomenon of ‘sworn virgins’ sparks little interest within Albania itself. Most Albanians are eager to see ‘progress’ towards Western lifestyles which they seek to emulate. When I first began my research, few outside northern Albania had ever heard of the ‘sworn virgin’ tradition, those who had heard of it believed it no longer existed, many vehemently denied the possibility.”

“Sworn Virgins may be identified according to three types: Firstly those whose choice was made in childhood, at or even before birth by parents; secondly, those whose choice came after puberty. A third variation of ‘sworn virgin’ , believed no longer in existence, is the semi-religious one. ‘Sworn Virgins of the first category seem to be the most common today.”

” It may be felt that there is some ambiguity when it comes to the sexuality of these ‘sworn virgins’. Quite apart from its being hard to initiate a discussion of what is considered a very intimate topic, there is the added fact that their vow of celibacy makes it dificult, and in many cases inappropriate to pry too far into the private lives of these women.”

“It is even hard to get a clear sense of any kind of underlying sexuality among the ‘sworn virgins’ due to the unspoken and taboo nature of the subject of sex in rural Albanian society. As Tom Parfitt* writes: “You swallow hard before you mention sex in this ultraconservative area. It is completely taboo. ‘Why should I miss having sex when my family is already so large?’ says Lule. [Photo above, DB] ‘Work is the most important thing in my life.’ Like the other avowed virgins she looks utterly uncomprehending when asked about lesbianism; she had difficulty in comprehending the concept of female homosexuality. Procreation is the only reason for sex, and then only within wedlock.” * ‘Land Beyond Time’, 1997, Spectrum.

Young: “My own interperetation is that the concept of lesbianism itself is an alien one to all the ‘sworn virgins’ I met, [in her book she reports on 16 – DB] and even to some interpreters. It is cretainly my understanding that the actual occurrence of a sexual relationship between a ‘sworn virgin’ and another person – given both the vow, and the proximity of others in their lives – is rare, and probably non-existent.”

“Backer comments on the fact that love was seen as a weakness of women and this is the justification for the need of their protection. On the other hand, although it was assumed that men naturally had sexual desires, they were not considered real men if they demonstrated interest in women: ‘A man who was either very attractive to women and a flirt, or who fell in love, was more or less considered a weak man. He was not really reliable, often called a “fool” and considered a vain person not being able to control himself properly.’ for ‘love was the unfortunate inclination of the young and inexperienced and was definitely not expected to decide the future of a household….love and marriage existed apart from each other.’ This point was confirmed to me in all my interviews with ‘sworn virgins’, less by what they said than by their very disinterest in the matter.”

Seman Nilcaj Click this site https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aanptRhaV3w and the lengthy text below will explain her situation.

Good article in the Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/05/women-celibacy-oath-men-rights-albania


When Edith Durham wrote her book High Albania, published in 1909, Albania was not a country, but a cultural region within the Ottoman Empire. She traveled extensively in areas that just three years later won independence from the Ottomans, becoming Independent Albania. Power politics in the region being what they were (and are), a major area containing an Albanian majority was excluded from Albaninan territory – Kosovo. 750 years earlier the region now called Kosovo (or Kosova, or Kosov@) was the heartland of the Kingdom of Serbia. [Even though Albanians had been living there for hundreds of years before the Serbs arrived]. On June 15, 1389 the Serbs were defeated by the Ottomans. That date is considered one of the most important in Serbian history, and though Ottomans maintained control of the territory until 1913, Serbs have always considered it Serbian. In 1912, Serbia was much more powerful than Albania, and managed to prevent Kosovo from becoming part of Albania. A year later, having been part of a coalition that captured most remaining Ottoman territory in Europe, Serbia claimed Kosovo as a prize.

Fast-forward to the 1990’s and the break-up of former Yugoslavia. Kosovo, with a majority Gheg Albanian population, was still under the influence of the Kanun, and a few Burrnesha were living there. The powerful Serbian minority persecuted Albanians, hoping to drive them out. A vicious war was fought in which Kosovo eventually became independent, but at the cost of much of the male population. Many Kosovar families were left without male heads. Hundreds of thousands flooded into Albania proper – the poorest state in Europe.

“The massive and sudden arrival of so many people in chronic need has impacted strongly on the very fabric of Albanian society….A possible outcome of the tragedy could be for some women to assume the role of ‘sworn virgin’ in order to compensate for the loss of male lives.”

Cultural Misunderstanding

Antonia Young writes: “Since the topics of gender change and sexuality are of considerable interest to the general reader, they are often sensationalized. An example of this was an article which I wrote for Cosmopolitan. (1994 – DB). The article was unfortunately considerably altered when edited, a fact of which I only became aware after its publication...The editorial changes added specific words which are inappropriate when discussing the phenomenon. In particular I had already clarified to the editors that I wanted to avoid words like ‘bizarre’, and ‘sacrifice’. Both these terms were inserted by them making it an ethnocentric report with cultural assumptions about gender roles in that community….Sex sells in the 1990’s, and the notion that these women had to give up their sexuality was interpereted by them as a great personal sacrifice.

“In fact the taking of a male role by women in these specifically defined situations in their own country is not only acceptable and highly commendable, but is a choice for a better life — often actively made by these women themselves. Although in some cases swearing the oath was seen as a sacrifice, the connotation of the word is very different in a society where offering one’s services for the good of the society is considered a positive action, hence if there was sacrifice involved for the woman to become a man, this in itself would enhance her self-esteem. This point is brought out particularly by the Russian ethnologist M. Bajraktarović, who himself came from a Communist background, where individual sacrifice for the common good would not be considered a sacrefice as we know it: ‘In traditional tribal society, to sacrifice oneself is not only considered a necessity, but honorable and humane.’ He therefore emphasizes that ‘sworn virgins’ in taking the vow of celibacy make a positive sacrifice of their own happiness for that of their families and clans.”


“Anonymous” said “See the film “Enemy Mine: Albania -White Faces” for an example of a blood feud Kanun mediator and a living sworn virgin.” I looked up the film – it’s a 55-minute documentary made in 1995, by Gil Rossellini as part of a Mystic Fire six-part series called Enemy Mine.

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