“Burrnesha” Albania’s sworn virgins

When I asked my grandmother how she met my grandfather, she said to me “ it was an arranged marriage” and when I said to her what would happen if she refused him her answer surprised me. She said “ the only way I could avoid getting married would have been to become a burrnesha”.

Burrnesha Qamile Stema pictured here has lived almost all her life as a man 

As a young kid I thought she meant “man”, “if I was a man I could avoid getting married” but that was wrong and I found out the truth years later. The word “burrnesha” comes from the term “burra” which means “men” in Albanian.

This unusual tradition in northern Albanian society that “forces” young women to take a vow of virginity and chastity and wear male clothing.

Being intrigued by this exceptional tradition, I asked my mother if she ever met a burrnesha. She hadn’t but it was normal as this practice is now dying out. The tradition of the burrneshas, or sworn virgins, developed out of the “Kanun” (a medieval kanon of laws). 

The Kanun of “Lekë Dukagjini” was written in the 15th century in Albania, these traditional Albanian laws that survived until the 20th century and the fall of the communist regime in the early 90’s. 

A burrnesha, Hakiye mal Sehaj photographed by Jill Peters ©Jill Peters

Effectively, these laws do not exist now so it is very rare to find evidence of the existence of burrneshas. Thankfully, members of the older generation like my mother and my grandmother are very familiar with this concept.

When I asked them if the burrneshas are lesbians that just prefer this term to live a happy life outside of the strict patriarchal community their answers confused me even more.

Burrneshas are women that live outside of the society as men because their family decided upon this life for them. Living as Burrneshas, no one could approach them in the village, they preferred to live alone and at times, they would hang out with men smoking cigarettes, a habit forbidden for the women but the burrneshas were no longer women.

A Greek documentary about burrneshas ©War Zone

I suppose that my question was answered by a sociologist in a documentary that I watched on the burrnesshas. I quote “ In a way (the burrneshas) are neither a man or a woman, they are kind of in the middle, they are not bisexual, I would say more asexual, missing out the whole area of life”. 

At the beginning of the documentary, I was struck by Qamile Stema, a 90 year old woman that decided to be a man at the age of ten. When her parents realized that she was the 9th daughter and no son would be born in the family, they decided that she was going to be the “man” of the family.

I was the man of the family, my father died when I was 3 years old, all my sisters were married, if I had a brother I would not be like that, that’s how God wanted me to be

Qamile explained

After watching the documentary, I discovered a Yugoslavian movie “Virgina” that was produced in 1991, that explores the tradition of the burrneesha. The movie takes place in an isolated village near the Adriatic Sea and portrays an extremely patriarchal family. When the wife of the farmer gives birth to the 4th daughter, the father decides that the child will live as a man because it is considered as a curse for a family to be without a male heir. 

Virgina (1991) directed by Srdjan Karanovic ©Imdb

Currently, burrneshas are very hard to find as not many of them are left. Journalists from around the world are chasing them for interviews but they keep refusing to meet with them as they want to maintain their privacy. 

Another burrnesha Hakiye mal Sehaj mentioned in the documentary explains, “I’m being chased by so many journalists around the world, I would like to close this subject but my brother did not let me so that is why I am talking to you, they (journalists) were calling me names like lesbian and gay but these kind of terms do not exist here, it is a shame to be called like this, I am not like that”. Hakiye is a 70 year old woman that earlier on in life, had decided to become a burrnesha.

I live here alone, I decided to be a man because I did not want to get married. All my sisters and brothers got married but I did not follow them, I like living alone in the village

Hakiye explains
Hakiye mal Sehaj photographed by Jill Peters ©Jill Peters

To conclude, I will leave you with my mother’s words when I insisted that this is an unacceptable tradition. She said “Burrneshas are very strong women, they are women that are responsible for their homes, they are the heads of the family. They sacrificed themselves to protect the life of their family”. 

It is unclear if the tradition will continue in modern Albania but as long as the story of burneeshas continue to be told, people might be inspired to make equally unusual traditions that are adapted to the new circumstances. And as Rafiki tells Simba in the Lion King “ Oh yes, the past can hurt. But from the way I see it, you can either run from it, or learn from it.”

BEGKAI Entlira Aikaterini

2 comments

  1. That is certainly a practice that would be seen as cruel and undesirable by most westerners. I seem to recall that something similar takes place in Afghanistan. It’s a disgrace for a man to be without sons. So the youngest daughter has to live as a boy. Thanks for your post.

    Like

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