The Sworn Virgins of Albania
 Sworn Virgins are women who take a vow of chastity and wear male clothing so that they may live as men in patriarchal Albanian society. Photo by Adam Picaku
Sworn Virgins are Albanian women who take a vow of chastity and wear male clothing so that they may live as men in patriarchal Albanian society. Photo by Adam Picaku

Albanian Sworn Virgins

In the remote mountains of northern Albania, there are villages where women live and act like men. They have short hair, wear baggy pants, and have traditionally male names. They drink and smoke in the company of men, carry guns and take up manly livelihoods such as shepherds or truck drivers.

These women have chosen to lead a man’s life not to express their sexuality but to escape the oppressive dominance of the patriarchal system. They are called sworn virgins or burrnesha.

However, such a privilege comes at a cost. The Sworn Virgins of Albania have taken a vow of lifelong virginity and chastity, a sacrifice none of these women has ever regretted making.

The Kanun dictates that women are the property of their husbands. Marriages should be arranged and fixed at birth or in early childhood.

One of the Sworn Virgins in Albania. Photo by Adam Picaku
One of the Sworn Virgins in Albania. Photo by Adam Picaku

Traditional Life for Women

Once a woman is deemed eligible to marry, she moves out of her parents’ home and into that of her husband’s. Taking care of her husband and children, and maintaining her home, then become her only duties.

The first sworn virgin was born out of social necessity. If the patriarch of the family dies and there is no male heir, an unmarried woman in the family could take on the role of a man and head the family.

She takes an irrevocable oath, in front of 12 village or tribal elders, to practice celibacy, and from that day on she becomes a man. She can wear pants, own property, take on male work and is entitled to all the rights and privileges of the male population.

Living as a man provides more rights to the Sworn Virgins of Albania. Photo by Adam Picaku
Living as a man provides more rights to the Sworn Virgins of Albania. Photo by Adam Picaku

Reasons for Lifestyle

Over the years, women became sworn virgins for different reasons. Some swore to avoid an arranged marriage without disgracing the family of the selected groom. Others swore to express their defiance and desire for independence.

While sworn virgins may never experience the pleasures of womanhood, of having a lifelong partner or bearing children, the allure of freedom from oppression, from constant physical labor, from submission to men is enough for many women to take the oath.

“Stripping off their sexuality by pledging to remain virgins was a way for these women in a male-dominated, segregated society to engage in public life. It was about surviving in a world where men rule.”

The women of the remote mountains of Northern Albania have struggled with few rights. Photo by Adam Picaku
The women of the remote mountains of Northern Albania have struggled with few rights. Photo by Adam Picaku

Women’s Rights in Albania

In the past few decades, Albania has made considerable progress on the issue of women’s rights, but in many regions in the mountains in the north of the country, modernity has not been reached.

Throughout modern history, the women of the remote mountains of northern Albania, like anywhere else, have had very few rights. They can’t vote or hold certain kinds of jobs, and can’t buy land or enter many establishments.

They can’t inherit property, conduct business, earn money, smoke, wear a watch or even swear out loud. These ancient laws and social customs, called Kanun of Leke Dukagjini, have been passed on orally among the clans of northern Albania for more than five centuries.

Choosing the life they want by living as a Sworn Virgin. Photo by Adam Picaku
Choosing the life they want by living as a Sworn Virgin. Photo by Adam Picaku

Planning a trip to Albania? Then check out this article to explore Albania.

Author’s Bio: Adam Picaku is an Albanian and the co-owner (along with his wife) of ALBANIA EXPRESS TRAVEL, a Travel Agency and DMC Balkan Tour Operator with great experience in arranging group tours, individual tours, accommodation, transport, experienced guides in different languages, events and meeting, Trekking, hiking and walking tours, holidays to Albania and its neighboring countries such as Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo, Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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