Women who pledged celibacy to live as men

“I was totally free as a man because no one knew I was a woman,”

It began hundreds of years ago, deep in the Albanian Alps—an unusual tradition where women, with limited options in life, took the oath of the burrnesha. A pledge to live as a man. To dress like a man, to work like a man, to assume the burdens and the liberties of a man. But these freedoms came with a price: The burrneshas also made a pledge of lifelong celibacy. Today these sworn virgins live on, but their numbers have dwindled. Many Albanians don’t even know they exist. There were strict rules and reasons for this transformation, ones that had been established some 500 years earlier, as part of a medieval canon of laws known as the Kanun. Under the Kanun, the role of women is severely circumscribed: Take care of children and maintain the home. While a woman’s life is worth half that of a man, a virgin’s value is the same.

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They crop their hair, wear men’s clothes, roll their own cigarettes, drink brandy and carry guns. In short, their lives are much freer and less regimented than other members of their sex – but at a cost. These women must foreswear sexual relationships, marriage, and children. They have been dubbed ‘Sworn Virgins’.

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In the northern Albanian countryside, about 40 sworn virgins remain, according to researchers studying the custom.

 

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