Society 16 December 2016 12 6135
For centuries, a very unusual tradition has been practiced in Albania; women who choose to become burrneshas, or sworn virgins. They become men virtual to represent their families in this deeply patriarchal society. The ancient practice was established under a medieval code of laws known as the ‘Kanun’, which among other things set out the legal framework of everyday life, such as the rules for conducting a blood feud and the roles and responsibilities of men and women.
By becoming a burrnesha, a woman gains rights normally reserved only for men, such as the ability to trade and manage property. She would undertake a man’s work and be expected to take part in blood feuds when needed. To complete the transformation, a woman had to be a virgin and take an oath of celibacy, making her head of the family but at the same time depriving her of the chance to marry and have her own children. The oath was considered irreversible and breaking it was punishable by death.
The tradition is fading away these days, with only a few dozen burrneshas remaining in Albania, predominantly in the remote highlands. Each one has a similar story: most had no option but to take the oath at a young age following the death of their brothers. They rejected femininity with their dress and how they presented themselves and were, in return, granted the social status of men. RT Doc travelled to remote Albanian villages to meet the last of burrneshas and ask how living someone else’s life worked out but finding sworn virgins willing to talk became an adventure in itself.
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