‘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.