POV

Sworn Virgins

Living in remote villages, Sworn Virgins are believed to be the only formal, socially defined female-to-male cross-gender and cross-dressing role in Europe. Roughly 30 of these fascinating women are left. Photographer Jill Peters beautifully captures the fortitude and stoicism of a group of women who chose to take a radical stand against the gender role they were born into.

Interview by Lora Wiley - lora@citizenbrooklyn.com Photos by Jill Peters Video by Rachel Morrison

Sworn Virgins of Albania from T.Poppy on Vimeo.

Interview with Jill Peters

Citizen Brooklyn: How did you stumble upon this culture?
I was reading a book about gender diversity by the anthropologist Serena Nanda and there was a chapter about this incredible tradition. I had never heard of it before so I just started to look around online and found a few newspaper articles and a great book by Antonia Young called “Women who Become Men”. That started me on my journey to photograph them, which soon turned into a film project as well.

CBK: Tell us briefly about the tradition of Sworn Virgins (or “Burrnesha” in Albanian.)
A Sworn Virgin is a biological woman in Albania (or some parts of Kosovo and Montenegro) who, in exchange for the same rights as men in a patriarchal society, would take a vow of celibacy and became a man socially within that society. It is a very old and complex tradition, dating back hundreds of years.

Photo ©2012 Jill Peters

Photo ©2012 Jill Peters

CBK: Is there a specific age they have to be before they make this decision?
No, some women take the vow very young and others, though it’s rare, have been known to convert later. For example I heard of one late Burnesha who took the vow after being prematurely widowed in order to circumvent the conservative restrictions placed on women. Some restrictions were the inability to earn money, travel to and from without male accompaniment, etc. There are no set rules though most do make the decision at a young age, hence the name Sworn Virgin.

CBK: Describe the ceremony in which they take the oath.
I have read about the ceremony being conducted in front of a group of town elders, but none of the Burneshas I interviewed ever had a specific ceremony. They all announced it to their family and took a private vow. Perhaps the ceremony was a formality of the past.

Photo ©2012 Jill Peters

Photo ©2012 Jill Peters

CBK: How is living like men separate from the individual’s sexuality?
This tradition is a very old social construct created to benefit a family within a certain situation… such as providing a patriarch after the loss of all the male heirs in a family, or in order to maintain peace between two families when a daughter refuses an arranged marriage. It is therefore outside of and separate from issues of gender or sexual identity.

CBK:Why celibacy?
I have questioned that myself. Celibacy is common within religious contexts, but in this case the tradition is completely secular. Burneshas can be Christian or Muslim. I am not a sociologist, so this is simply my opinion. The Kanun, a set of tribal codes that at one time heavily influenced the people living in this area, states that women are worth half as much as men, but a virgin’s worth is equal to a man’s. A higher value was placed on a woman’s worth if she remained celibate so stripping themselves of their sexuality was a way to reclaim their power.

Photo ©2012 Jill Peters

Photo ©2012 Jill Peters

CBK:What specifically, are the opportunities available to these women as men that they wouldn’t have living their lives as women?
Remember, they have been men for decades. Women’s rights have come far in the past 50 years in Albania. In the past, however, there was plenty a woman was not permitted to do that a Sworn Virgin was able to do… i.e. own property, vote, have a job and earn money, travel freely, carry a gun, practice free will. There were also a number of things that women were expected to do that a sworn virgin was excused from doing…. i.e. submit to her husband, stay home, devote her life to the care of the home and children, etc.

CBK: Are Sworn Virgins expected to go to war?
No. And if they go to prison they go to a woman’s prison.

Photo ©2012 Jill Peters

Photo ©2012 Jill Peters

CBK: Are they treated as males by everyone or do some people, maybe family members, treat them as women?
To the people where this is common, it isn’t an issue. The villagers I met were mystified as to why we found this so interesting. The Sworn Virgins are treated as men by everyone and affectionately called “uncle” by their members of their own family. It is a matter of respect and honor.

CBK: Have you met any Sworn Virgins who have regretted their choice and why?
No, I did not meet any who regretted their decision. They all were content with their decision and believed they had made the right decision given the time they lived. Some said they would not recommend it now because times have changed and women are equal, so it is not necessary.

Photo ©2012 Jill Peters

Photo ©2012 Jill Peters

CBK:What was the one thing that surprised you most about these women?
Well, immediately I was struck by the fact that no one seemed to have any regrets. None felt that they had missed out on anything in life. The opposite was true actually; they all felt that the life they chose had afforded them the ability to live as they wanted to live.

CBK:What were the youngest and oldest ages you encountered among these women and how different are they generationally?
The youngest is Lumia, who was 38 when I first met him. The oldest was Qamille, who was 92. He passed away at 93 and as a Muslim was given a man’s funeral. I was told that over 250 people attended.

Photo ©2012 Jill Peters

Photo ©2012 Jill Peters

CBK: What was your experience in creating these incredible portraits? How were you received as a photographer?
The first portraits were done at the time I was working on the documentary. I took them off to the side after shooting was finished, so it was just a very private exchange between my subject and I. When I returned two years later and photographed them all again, is when I really felt that a friendship had developed. We got to another level of trust. It meant a lot to them all that I came back and continued the project.

CBK: The numbers of Sworn Virgins are dwindling. How many are left now and where are they located?
Some estimates say as many as 200 or as few as 50. It’s hard to say because they mostly live in very remote, rural villages in Albania and Kosovo.

Photo ©2012 Jill Peters

Photo ©2012 Jill Peters

CBK: Are you surprised with the attention this project has received?
Yes, completely shocked. But then again, I had the same reaction when I first heard of them.

CBK: Tell us a bit about the documentary you are working on.
When I decided to actually go to Albania and try to find the sworn virgins, it became clear that this would make an amazing film. So I put together a very small but incredible film crew, bought all the plane tickets, hired a car and translator, before actually locating even the first subject. It was a little stressful to have so much riding on an idea, but it was also a great adventure. The footage is absolutely stunning. The DP is Rachel Morrison who just did an amazing job of shooting Fruitvale Station. Currently, the film is ongoing and still in production but I hope to have it finished within the next year.

Photo ©2012 Jill Peters

Photo ©2012 Jill Peters

See more of Jill Peters work at www.jillpetersphotography.com

One Response to “Sworn Virgins”

  1. Debbie Mitchell says:

    Lora,
    This is an amazing story! I’m looking forward to seeing the documentary.
    Thanks for sharing.