‘Sworn virgins’ exchange limited rights of women for freedoms of men in patriarchal Albania, Montenegro and Kosovo.

By Jelena Prtoric, Emilienne Malfatto

The Italian border policeman seems puzzled. The Albanian passport he is holding belongs to a woman, but the hand that tendered it was that of an old man. An odd-looking fellow, with a deep voice, a weather-beaten face and silvery hair, topped by a beret worn in military fashion. Finally, the official said: "There's a problem; this is a woman's passport, whereas you're a man."

Diana (name changed) told us this story with a mixture of amusement and indignation. Who did the policeman think he was? She had been firm and answered: "Yes it is me." The official apologised, adding: "Carry on, madam ... Ahem, sir."

Burrnesha

His confusion is understandable. Diana is a burrnesha, one of Albania’s last sworn virgins, women who opted to live as men to escape the domination of a patriarchal system, at the cost of taking a vow of virginity and chastity. The motives for such a choice were exclusively social, not prompted by sexuality or any physical changes.
This practice, which is dying out, is still little understood. It mainly occurs in Albania but reaches north into Montenegro and Kosovo. The term is derived from burra, the Albanian for “man”.