The Sworn Virgins of Albania Live Celibate, Gender-Bending Lives

The “burneshas” live in the mountain villages in the hinterland of Albania — they’re women who’ve lived their entire lives as men, forgoing sex in the process.

They’re also the subject of photographer Jill Peters’ collection, The Sworn Virgins of Albania. The women choose to live as men for a number of reasons, many having to do with the strict societal restrictions put on women in traditional Albanian culture. As Peters explains it:

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. Young girls were commonly forced into arranged marriages, often with much older men in distant villages. 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. She became a “he.” This practice continues today but as modernization inches toward the small villages nestled in the Alps, this archaic tradition is increasingly seen as obsolete.

The Sworn Virgins of Albania

It’s a way for women to elevate themselves in society, to escape the scorn that’s associated with being a woman. Sworn virgins exist in pockets across the Balkans, and though its hard to tell just how many still remain, estimates hover between 40 and several hundred. While their numbers are dwindling, there are still some left — biological females who felt so oppressed within their cultures and communities that they felt switching genders was preferable to living with fewer rights and greater threats. It’s important that photographers like Peters document these women’s lives, and the very real sacrifices they’ve made to live and thrive in their communities.[Petapixel]