Balkan sworn virgins
Balkan sworn virgins (Albanian: burrnesha or Albanian: virgjinesha) are women who take a vow of chastity and wear male clothing in order to live as men in the patriarchal northern Albanian society. To a lesser extent, the practice exists, or has existed, in other parts of the western Balkans, including Kosovo, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Dalmatian hinterland (Croatia) and Bosnia. National Geographic's Taboo estimated that there are fewer than 102 sworn virgins in the world.
Other terms for the sworn virgin include vajzë e betuar (most common today, and used in situations in which the parents make the decision when the girl is a baby or child), mashkull (present-day, used around Shkodra), virgjineshë, virgjereshë, verginesa, virgjin, vergjinesha, Albanian virgin, avowed virgin, мушкобања (muškobanja), мушкара (muškara) (Serbian: man-woman or manlike), остајница (ostajnica) (Serbian: she who stays), tombelija, basa, harambasa (Montenegrin), tobelija (Bosnian: bound by a vow), zavjetovana djevojka (Croatian), sadik (Turkish: honest, just).
The tradition of sworn virgins developed out of the Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit (English: The Code of Lekë Dukagjini, or simply the Kanun), a set of codes and laws developed by Lekë Dukagjini and used mostly in northern Albania and Kosovo from the 15th century until the 20th century. The Kanun is not a religious document – many groups follow it, including Roman Catholics, the Albanian Orthodox, and Muslims.
The Kanun dictates that families must be patrilineal (meaning wealth is inherited through a family's men) and patrilocal (upon marriage, a woman moves into the household of her husband's family). Women are treated like property of the family. Under the Kanun women are stripped of many human rights. They cannot smoke, wear a watch, or vote in their local elections. They cannot buy land, and there are many jobs they are not permitted to hold. There are even establishments that they cannot enter.
The practice of sworn virginhood was first reported by missionaries, travelers, geographers and anthropologists who visited the mountains of northern Albania in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
A woman becomes a sworn virgin by swearing an irrevocable oath, in front of 12 village or tribal elders, to practice celibacy. Then she is allowed to live as a man and may dress in male clothes, use a male name, carry a gun, smoke, drink alcohol, take on male work, act as the head of a household (for example, living with a sister or mother), play music and sing, and sit and talk socially with men.
A woman can become a sworn virgin at any age, either to satisfy her parents or herself.
The sworn virgin is believed to be the only formal, socially defined female-to-male cross-gender and cross-dressing role in Europe. Similar practices occurred in some native American tribes in North America.
Breaking the vow was once punishable by death, but it is doubtful that this punishment is still carried out now. Many sworn virgins today still refuse to go back on their oath because their community would reject them for breaking the vows. However it is sometimes possible to take back the vows if the sworn virgin has finished her obligations to the family and the reasons or motivations (see below) which enabled her to take the vows are no longer current.
There are many reasons why a woman would have wanted to take this vow, and observers have recorded a variety of motivations. One woman said she became a sworn virgin in order to not be separated from her father, and another in order to live and work with her sister. Several were recorded as saying they always felt more male than female. Some hoped to avoid a specific unwanted marriage, and others hoped to avoid marriage in general.
Becoming a sworn virgin was the only way for women whose families had committed them as children to an arranged marriage to refuse to fulfil it, without dishonouring the groom's family and risking a blood feud. It was the only way a woman could inherit her family's wealth, which was particularly important in a society in which blood feuds resulted in the deaths of many male Albanians, leaving many families without male heirs. (However, anthropologist Mildred Dickemann suggests this motive may be "over-pat", pointing out that a non-child-bearing woman would have no heirs to inherit after her, and also that in some families not one but several daughters became sworn virgins, and in others the later birth of a brother did not end the sworn virgin's masculine role.) It is also likely that many women chose to become sworn virgins simply because it afforded them much more freedom than would otherwise have been available in a patrilineal culture in which women were secluded, sex-segregated, required to be virgins before marriage and faithful afterwards, betrothed as children and married by sale without their consent, continually bearing and raising children, constantly physically labouring, and always required to defer to men, particularly their husbands and fathers, and submit to being beaten.
Sworn virgins could also participate in blood feuds. If a sworn virgin was killed in a blood feud her death counted as a full life for the purposes of calculating blood money, rather than the half a life ordinarily accorded for a female death.
Dickemann suggests their mothers may have played an important role in persuading women to become sworn virgins. A widow without sons has traditionally had few options in Albania: she could return to her birth family, stay on as a servant in the family of her deceased husband, or remarry. With a son or surrogate son, she could live out her life in the home of her adulthood, in the company of her child. Murray quotes testimony recorded by René Gremaux: "Because if you get married I'll be left alone, but if you stay with me, I'll have a son." On hearing those words Djurdja [the daughter] "threw down her embroidery" and became a man.
The practice has died out in Dalmatia and Bosnia, but is still carried out in northern Albania and to a lesser extent in Macedonia.
The Socialist People's Republic of Albania did not encourage women to become sworn virgins. Women started gaining legal rights, coming closer to equaling men in social status. By the time the communist government fell in Albania, women had as many legal rights as men, especially in the central and southern regions. It is only in the northern region that many families still live within the traditional patriarchal way. Currently there are between forty and several hundred sworn virgins left in Albania, and a few in neighboring countries. Most are over fifty years old. It used to be believed that the sworn virgins had all but died out after 50 years of communism in Albania, but recent research suggests that may not be the case, instead suggesting that the current increase in feuding following the collapse of the communist regime could encourage a resurgence of the practice.
Italian director Laura Bispuri's first feature film, Sworn Virgin, released in 2015, depicts the life of Hana, played by Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Albanian writer Elvira Dones.
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- From Turkish Kanun, which means law. It is originally derived from the Greek kanôn / κανών as in Canon Law
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- Photographs by Jill Peters, 2012
- Photographs by Johan Spanner, New York Times, 2008
- Photographs by Pepa Hristova, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Photographie, 2009
- BBC radio show on sworn virgins
- Sworn Virgins - National Geographic Film (approx. 4 min.)
- BBC From Our Own Correspondent 02/09