The saga of burrnesha or virgjinesha (Albanian sworn virgin) was so captivating for photographer Jill Peters that he travelled to the mountain villages of northern Albania to document it. He immortalised it in a series of incredible portraits that stand out as extrordinary anthropological, historical and philosophical testimonials.
About 6th centuries old, the tradition of burrnesha is now fading away, with very few new virgins sworn in and much less authentic stories.
Taking an irrevocable oath in front of twelve elders to remain forever virgins, women could become men, live as men, and be treated as men. In the northern parts of Albania and Kosovo, dominated by the patrilineal and patrilocal Kanun law from the 15th century to the 20th century, becoming a man was a woman’s unique chance of being treated as a human being, and not as property, and be given all the ensuing rights.
Sworn virgins could dress as men, take men’s names, carry a gun, wear a watch, smoke, drink, do male work, vote in elections, buy land, be the head of a household, inherit her family’s wealth, sign with men, talk with men.
Their deaths were counted as full lives in blood feuds, not as half-ones, as the deaths of the other females.
It was a choice of the proud ones, or an advice coming from the mothers. It was their ticket to liberty, and it is the liberty that counts for the strenght, the serenity and the happiness of these women. The assumed destiny. The ultimate identity. And Peters’ portraits capture nothing less than this: