Fascinating Portraits of Women Living as Men to Escape Oppression in the Balkans

Jill Peters

‘Sworn Virgin’ is the term given to a biological female in the Balkans who is chosen to take on the social identity of a man for life. Dating back hundreds of years, this was necessary in societies that lived within tribal clans, followed the Kanun, an archaic code of law, and maintained an oppressive rule over the female gender. The Kanun states that women are considered to be the property of their husbands. The freedom to vote, drive, conduct business, earn money, drink, smoke, swear, own a gun or wear pants was traditionally the exclusive province of men.

As an alternative, becoming a  Sworn Virgin, or ‘burnesha’, elevated a woman to the status of a man and granted her all the rights and privileges of the male population. In order to manifest the transition such a woman cut her hair, donned male clothing and sometimes even changed her name. Male gestures and swaggers were practiced until they became second nature. Most importantly of all, she took a vow of celibacy to remain chaste for life. This practice continues today but as modernization inches toward the small villages nestled in the Alps, this archaic tradition is increasingly seen as obsolete. Only a few aging Sworn Virgins remain.—Jill Peters

Photographer Jill Peters splits her time between Miami and New York. Sworn Virgins of Albania is an ongoing project and she is currently working on a documentary film based on the subject.

Jill Peters

Jill Peters

Jill Peters

Jill Peters

Jill Peters

Jill Peters

This post was written by contributing editor Amanda Gorence.

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  • Steven Silverleaf

    “is’ chosen or did you mean “has” chosen in the first paragraph…I am guessing you meant “has” but it changes the narative and one wonders. Society “chose” these individuals or the individuals “chose” for themselves……

  • Ana King

    hello, just wanted to let you know that there is another name, ‘Virgina’ that comes from Montenegro, also there was a movie mada about it,

  • Fascinating! I’d be most interested to see a documentary about this.

  • it sure is interesting that it would be less oppressive for a woman to live as a transvestite than as a “regular” woman.

    Unfortunately I didn’t find the portraits as strong, as the subject matter interesting, and wish the photographer had made a decision on either color or black & white

  • Sko

    Agree with above commenter! Please start a Kickstarter to creatively share this cultural phenomenon and the women who choose these lives. Perhaps a picture book with quotes and stories? A documentary film? Something.

  • Katha

    I don’t think you mean the Alps.

    Great photos.

  • val

    Hi,i am from Albania,a few years ago,i read a book about these girls that choose to became men,but this was not a common thing,in the big cities we have never see anyone…
    Anyway there are aspects like kissing in public,being gay,or being diferent that are still a taboo in albanian society,but times changes and we hope our society could change.

  • Martina

    Considering the description of “sworn virgins”, I think that title of the article is not accurate. They weren’t living as men to escape oppression, but they were raised as men due to lack of male born children. I don’t think it was much of their own choice.

  • Roberto Solone

    @Steven Silverleaf: “is” chosenn, not “has”. Because they are not empowered women who decide to be transgender. They are victims, or at least passive subjects, of a patriarchal ideology in which is simply unacceptable that a family had no male born children. When this happened, a female should be converted into a male. I don’t think this would bring any joy in their life. They were basically condemned to live alone, in a gender they didn’t choose.

  • Mary

    Most of these don’t even look like women.

  • lory

    see also the work of this italian photographer

  • Tod

    Not in the Ballans, don’t defamate the entire regiot – in the still tribal Albania!

  • I like the strength of the portraits, but please… Do not say it’s about escaping oppression. I have a feeling this view has been formed by gay activism of the photographer, which brutally ignores the strong tradition and a whole lot of culture behind this phenomenon.Would be good to hear from a local expert on the matter.

  • Tomtomson

    Tod, i agree. I find a sentence about the villages in the Alps(?!?) even more unbelievable! Alps are 100s of miles away from Albania! Talking about geographical inaccuracies…

  • JLo

    Albanian Alps do exist, so the only geographical inaccuracy is yours

  • Etain

    I don’t think they are transgender as I don’t think they feel born in the wrong body rather to protect their families, they had to develop a persona from the ‘stronger’ ‘superior’ ‘dominant’ gender which on some level most will not admit no, we deep down admire, what they did was very selfless, in a misguided attempt to protect the wider community.

  • Etain

    I agree

  • shahnyboy

    That’s the point, dear.

  • andreasok

    Are you aware there’s a book called “Sworn Virgins” by Hamburg based photographer Pepa Hristova, published 2013 by Kehrer Verlag – – same story, yet much better execution – honi soit qui mal y pense …

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