A tradition unique to highland Albania in which women may take on male rights and duties, dress as men and are able to head a household as a man would do. Sworn virgins fired the imagination of Western travellers through the Balkans at the turn of the twentieth century, but the essentials of the tradition have even survived Albania's Communist era, and there are estimated to be around a hundred sworn virgins living in the north of the country today, in both rural and urban settings.

Since at least the fifteenth century, northern Albanian life has revolved around the prescriptions of the Kanun, twelve books of customary law which codified existing ways of life and placed a man's honour above all else. His behaviour in society is regulated by the oaths, or besas, he has sworn, which are to be treated as religious utterances and which, if broken, will curse his family unto the seventh generation.

Families, in the highlands, are extended, and up to a hundred men and women may come under the authority of a particularly vigorous patriarch. These customs are common not only to Albania proper, but in adjacent mountainous parts of Montenegro and Kosovo where ethnically Albanian highlanders also live.

Slights to family honour are avenged, in the last resort, with the opening of a blood feud, when any male of the offender's family may be killed in reprisal - and, for the sake of the avenger's own honour, has to be. Such feuds may be caused by any dispute from a disagreement over rights to a shared stream to - the most heinous offence of all - muscling in on another man's fiancée. The loss of male heirs in blood feuds is one reason why a daughter of the clan may become a sworn virgin.

Such women take part in the same heavy agricultural work as men, rather than in women's domestic work. Unlike other women, they smoke, socialise with men, and participate in the family decisions men make around the hearth. If they head the household, they are responsible for the well-being and safety of their guests, a particular preoccupation of the Kanun.

Apocryphally at least, one or two made their way into the Turkish army when Albania was a province under Ottoman rule, and one woman, brought up as a son in a Kosovar Albanian family, apparently took part in World War II until her 'real' gender was discovered.

A sworn virgin's vow of chastity has the force of a besa, and it is almost unthinkable that she would break it, having adopted her brothers' loyalty to their word. Many of them were nominated by their parents, at birth or shortly after, to avoid the clan disintegrating for want of a male heir.

Taking the vow is also the only way a girl can extricate herself from an unwanted betrothal without bringing a blood feud upon her family; other women became sworn virgins so that they could wage a blood feud that their family's own honour demanded. In the past, the few women who did break their besa were liable to be drowned or stoned, but such is no longer the case.

A plethora of words exist for sworn virgins, commonly burrneshë in Albanian and, in Serbian, tobelija or even the blunter momak-devojka - boy-girl. The women themselves, however, simply talk of themselves as prestigious men, and some have masculinised their given names to suit. They often refer to themselves using male forms of the language, and the Edwardian traveller Edith Durham found, as a woman, that a few would not even talk to her.

To denote that they are to be considered as men, sworn virgins crop their hair short and wear the same clothes as men; they are also entitled to carry weapons, essential should they become caught up in a blood feud. When Durham visited the uplands in 1908 for her travelogue High Albania and came across several sworn virgins, she found them wearing the traditional Ottoman-style male costume and, from time to time, the customary Albanian white qelesha, or skull cap.

The youngest sworn virgin encountered by the researcher Antonia Young in the 1990s was a 22-year-old from the small town of Bajram Curri. She was a trainee policewoman (something almost unheard of at the time) with a penchant for football (likewise) and, at their first meeting, wore a violet and emerald shell suit, the height of Albanian men's fashion.

Western writers have been wont to interpret the virgins' oaths as a personal sacrifice of their sexuality, and an article of Young's for Cosmopolitan was rather savagely re-edited in such terms. In fact, insofar as sacrifice underlies their vows, it is seen in northern Albania as a positive action, placing the happiness and honour of their families above their own.

Perhaps inevitably, sworn virgins are often thought to be transvestites or lesbians too, although the strength of their society's taboos make it unlikely that they would see themselves in such terms. (Unlike Norman Wisdom, Tatu are unlikely to make it very far in the Albanian hit parade.) Whether some of their number would be attracted to women rather than men is, perhaps, academic: the weight of the besa makes it unlikely that they would act on an attraction of either kind.

The great romanticisation of the sworn virgins has yet to be written, although Alice Munro came halfway there in her short story The Albanian Virgin, where a young American woman - a supposed contemporary of Durham's - gets lost in Montenegro, is rescued and adopted by a local family and takes the virgins' vow of chastity to avoid marriage to a Muslim villager.

The film Virdžina, which appeared during Yugoslavia's last days, told the story of a nineteenth-century Montenegrin girl brought up as a son (under the name of Stefan) because her family had none, and came complete with the regulation breast-binding scene worthy of Brandon Teena. Released in 1991, the film was the last to be made as a co-operation between Croatian and Serbian (and French) production companies.

The sworn virgins of Albania were once thought to be a relic of earlier civilisations: true-life Amazons, perhaps, like those supposed to have inhabited the steppes of Sarmatia; or a throwback to a matriarchy supposed to have once existed among the ancient Illyrians. Instead, the reality is more prosaic but no less fascinating, providing the only case in Europe (although the berdache in various native American tribes is analogous) where an individual may exchange their gender without the associated stigma; in fact, their standing in society seems to be almost the opposite.

Whether the tradition will survive the crumbling Albanian economy, garish Italian satellite TV and the large-scale migration of young Albanians to the West is, at best, uncertain; yet some Albanian women, as well as foreign ethnologists, might be upset to see it pass.

Read more:
Edith Durham, High Albania
Antonia Young, Women Who Become Men: Albanian Sworn Virgins
Thanks to DejaMorgana for the berdaches

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