Documentary: The sworn virgins from Albania

Balkan sworn virgins are women who take a vow of chastity and wear male clothing in order to live as men in patriarchal northern Albanian society, Kosovo and Montenegro.

medieval Albanian, Documentary: The sworn virgins from Albania

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – There is a medieval Albanian tradition that allows women to live as men. If there were no more male heirs in a family, women could take on the role of patriarch. They are called burrneshas, or sworn virgins. A burrnesha gains men’s rights rejects femininity and takes an oath of celibacy.

The custom is rare these days, with women enjoying more freedom. Only a few dozen burrneshas remain in the remote highlands of Albania, and it’s a real challenge to find them.

Read also: Check out our coverage on curated alternative narratives

Balkan sworn virgins are women who take a vow of chastity and wear male clothing in order to live as men in patriarchal northern Albanian society, Kosovo and Montenegro. To a lesser extent, the practice exists or has existed, in other parts of the western Balkans, including Bosnia, Dalmatia (Croatia), Serbia, and North Macedonia.

The tradition of sworn virgins in Albania developed out of the Kanun, a set of codes called and laws developed by Lekë Dukagjini, and used mostly in northern Albania and Kosovo from the 15th century until the 20th century.

The Kanun is not a religious document – many groups follow it, including Albanian Orthodox, Catholics, and Muslims.

The Kanun dictates that families must be patrilineal (meaning wealth is inherited through a family’s men) and patrilocal (upon marriage, a woman moves into the household of her husband’s family). Women are treated like property of the family. Under the Kanun, women are stripped of many rights.

They cannot smoke, wear a watch, or vote in local elections. They cannot buy land, and there are many jobs they are not permitted to hold. There are also establishments that they cannot enter.

The practice of sworn virginhood was first reported by missionaries, travelers, geographers, and anthropologists, who visited the mountains of northern Albania in the 19th and early 20th centuries.