Photographer Jill Peters has travelled to the remote mountain villages of Albania to capture the extraordinary lives of “Burnesha” – women forced to live their entire lives as men. The result is a fascinating series of portraits of some of the last remaining protagonists of this centuries-old custom
The phenomena of “Sworn Virgins” (Burnesha), women forced to live their lives as men in confinement to their traditional society’s rules dates back to the 15th century Kanun – a set of laws and conduct practices codified by Leke Dukagjini, Albanian prince who fought the Ottoman Empire.
According to the Kanun, women are treated like family property, stripped of the majority of their human rights: they can’t vote in the local elections, can’t buy land and there is a number of jobs for which they’re not allowed to apply for as well as certain village premises where they’re banned from entering. Likewise, under the Kanun, women are not allowed to smoke, drink, drive or wear a watch.
If a woman wishes to be granted all the rights and privileges of the male population, she must effectively become a man, cropping her hair, wearing male clothes and adopting masculine gestures.
The practice of sworn virginhood was first reported by missionaries and anthropologists who travelled to Albanian mountains in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although very few Burnesha remain, the custom is still practiced in certain remote parts of Albania and Montenegro. According to some reports, Stana Cerovic is the last remaining Sworn Virgin in Montenegro:
For a fictional account of this phenomena, check out Srdjan Karanovic’s Virgina (1991), taking place in an isolated Balkan village by the Adriatic sea:
The photographer Jill Peters explains the motives behind her fascinating project The Sworn Virgins of Albania:
“As a photographer with an interest in subjects that innately speak to the diversity of the human experience I was fascinated with this story. I wanted to capture their portraits before they were gone forever. I travelled to the mountain villages of northern Albania and what I found was a small collection of extraordinary people. I learned that the Burnesha are well respected within their communities. They possess an indescribable amount of strength and pride, and value their family honor above all else. Their absolute transition is wholly accepted, posited and taken without question by the people among whom they live. But most surprising, is they have very few regrets for the great deal they have sacrificed.”