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Choosing to wear the pants: the Sworn Virgins of Albania

Posted in Life & Love

swornv-2

I have never considered myself to be anyone’s property. All of the (sometimes) uncounted blessings of growing up educated, enabled, financially stable, white, with good parents, protected by law and human right charters; have given me a life that is as free as it can be. I have run up against gender bias in my life – sure – especially when it came to salary or advancement. But for the most part no one has ever said to me: you can’t do that because your are a girl. No-one has been able to enforce their opinions on me.

So – I have the freedom to vote, drive, conduct business, earn money, drink, smoke, swear, travel, date who I choose, own a gun or wear trousers if I want to. All things that were once considered the exclusive province of men.

But not all women are as lucky – and rigid gender roles have often inspired creative solutions. Families in Afghanistan, for example, when they have all girls, often pick a daughter to pretend to be a boy until puberty.  The child is then allowed to run errands, get a job, and chaperone “his” sisters in public (all things girls aren’t allowed to do). The transition is sudden and doesn’t involve relocation, so the entire community knows that the child is a girl. In the Polynesian islands the fa’fafine are boys (not necessarily effeminate) who are pressed into service as ‘the youngest daughter’. Living out their lives as helpers and home-makers for their parents and extended families.

All of the members of this ‘third sex’ are respected and accepted by their communities. There is no strangeness or stigma.

A similar phenomenon emerged in Albania in the 1400s. Tribal warfare had left a dearth of men in many communities. Since rights and responsibilities were strongly gender-specific, families needed a ‘man’ to accomplish certain things like buy land and pass down wealth. And so the tradition of “burnesha” came into being.  A practical solution for a family with a shortage of men.

Transitioning into a “burnesha” elevated the woman to the status of a man and granted her all the rights and privileges of the male population. So many girls took the oath after their father died. This secured a family farm, ensured a young girl wasn’t sent to a distant village to be married off – and opened the way for the woman to work in public. Pashe Keqi, 78, known in her household as ” The Pasha,” told photographer Jill Peters she decided to become the man of the house at age 20, when her father was murdered in a blood feud: “I was totally free as a man because no one knew I was a woman.”


But there was a personal price to pay. The woman had to fully embrace the part: cutting her hair, adopting male clothing and sometimes even changing her name. Any trappings of her previous ‘female’ life were let go – no make-up or feminine possessions were allowed. She practiced male swaggers and gestures until they were second nature. But more importantly – the woman had to swear an oath of Chastity.  Allowed to live as a socially-recognized man for the rest of “his” life, providing he never had sex.

Qamile Stema (80) planned to die a virgin. “I guess you could say I was partly a woman and partly a man, but of course I never did everything a man does,” she told Peters.”I liked my life as a man. I have no regrets.”


The “Burnesha” still exist today, there are about forty sworn virgins living in Alpine Albania.  But as modernization inches into isolated tribal villages and women are granted more and more rights, fewer and fewer girls feel the need to adopt a male identity for themselves or their families.

(Jill Peters took these incredible photographs. See her work here)

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6 Comments

  1. Very interesting. A few weeks ago, I read about girls passing themselves off as boys in Afghanistan in the Daily Telegraph. Apparently she is allowed to do this for a few years only, until puberty, then she has to put on her hajib and marry. But everybody knows what’s going on – how can they not within a small community?

    November 3, 2014
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  2. Very well written. It also came as a surprise to me and to many Albanians when I saw a documentary about “burrneshat” some time ago. I didn’t not know they were basically real, you learn about them when you’re little in school books as myths from the past Albanian traditions. What I find very interesting is how did they survive in the men’ role during communism decades of 45 years, since there was huge propaganda back then fighting gender inequality, where wery women had same rights as men. Definitely an interesting topic for anthropologists to reaseach.

    September 21, 2013
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  3. I love these stories. I played with the idea of being tomboyish when I was younger because I thought George from The Famous Five was way cool. But I was too lazy to actually do anything tomboyish. I can’t imagine what it’s like to do it to the extent you talk about here. Very interesting post.

    September 18, 2013
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  4. silvia
    silvia

    Amazing….thanks for sharing this. I think that anthropologists and sociologists, but also women studies departments would have a lot to say about it. And I’d be curious to read what the experts say on this heritage from the past.
    That’s a very creative way for a woman to find the space she deserves in a community that doesn’t take advantage of female gender.
    But I wonder, deep inside, how it might cost a woman sacrificing her female instinct. Sometimes very little compared to what they get and sometimes too much.
    Maybe we should all ask the expert of experts on human nature, needs and sensibility now that we have been so lucky to know about her existence through your words sofagirl. And it’s a woman! Let’s ask Miss Kansas the meaning of it all.

    September 11, 2013
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    • Thanks for the laugh – I would LOVE to ask her. Hah!

      September 11, 2013
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