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Albania's Sworn Virgins

In Albania, a "sworn virgin" is a biological female who has chosen to take on the social identity of a man for life. It's a tradition dating back hundreds of years that still exists in the Albanian Alps, as well as to a lesser extent in other parts of the Western Balkans. The practice developed from the Kanun, an archaic patriarchal set of laws that began to be used mostly in southern Kosovo and northern Albania in the 15th century. This ancient codex states that women are the property of their husbands, which strips them of some basic rights and freedoms, such as being able to conduct business, earn money, smoke, wear a watch, or even swear out loud.

By taking an irrevocable oath to live as a sworn virgin ("burnesha" in Albanian) in front of village or tribal elders, a woman can be elevated to the status of a man, thereby becoming entitled to all the rights and privileges of the male population. Besides taking a vow of lifelong celibacy, Burnesha women usually don the trappings of masculinity to underline their transition from male to female -- cutting their hair, wearing male clothing, and sometimes even changing their names. They often adopt male mannerisms and gestures so thoroughly that they became second nature.

There are various reasons why these women would turn their backs on their birth gender. Some young women took the decision to avoid being forced into an arranged marriage, often with a much older man. In other instances, it was the only way in which a woman could inherit her family's wealth. This was particularly important in a society where blood feuds have frequently resulted in the deaths of many men, which can leave families at risk of losing all their assets with no male heir to inherit them. Some have said they became sworn virgins simply because they felt more male than female.

American photographer Jill Peters has traveled to northern Albania to meet and photograph some of these women who have spent most of their lives living as men. As modernity slowly creeps into Albania's remote rural regions, the tradition of sworn virgins appears to be in terminal decline. It is estimated that there are only a few dozen aging burnesha left in the country. Consequently, Peters' photos may well provide a valuable record of a cultural phenomenon that could soon become a thing of the past. Her "Sworn Virgins Of Albania" is an ongoing project and she is also working on a documentary film about this topic.