Attention Deficit Disorder Prosthetic Memory Program

Balkan sworn virgins

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Balkan sworn virgins - © Attention Deficit Disorder Prosthetic Memory Program

Balkan sworn virgins (in Albanian: Burrnesha) are women who take a vow of chastity and wear male clothing in order to live as men in patriarchal northern Albanian society, Kosovo and Montenegro. To a lesser extent, the practice exists, or has existed, in other parts of the western Balkans, including Bosnia, Dalmatia (Croatia), Serbia and Northern Macedonia. National Geographic’s Taboo (2002) estimated that there were fewer than 102 Albanian sworn virgins left.

The tradition of sworn virgins in Albania 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 Albanian Orthodox, Catholics 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 rights. They cannot smoke, wear a watch, or vote in local elections. They cannot buy land, and there are many jobs they are not permitted to hold. There are also 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. Photography : Jill Peters.

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