A truly arresting project by Jill Peters, Sworn Virgins of Albania captures the women who have chosen at a young age to take on the male identity for life.
The centuries-old tradition of taking on the male identity is rooted in an act of empowerment that sought to elevate women to the higher social status occupied by men:
The Kanun states that women are the property of their husbands. The freedom to vote, drive, conduct business, earn money, drink, smoke, swear, own a gun or wear pants was traditionally the exclusive province of men. Young girls were commonly forced into arranged marriages, often with much older men in distant villages. A family suddenly without a patriarch or male heir would find themselves in jeopardy of losing everything.
As an alternative, becoming a Sworn Virgin, or ‘burnesha” elevated a woman to the status of a man and granted her all the rights and privileges of the male population. In order to manifest the transition such a woman cut her hair, donned male clothing and sometimes even changed her name. Male gestures and swaggers were practiced until they became second nature. Most importantly of all, she took a vow of celibacy to remain chaste for life. She became a “he”.
The project is not only a superb insight into an Albanian tradition, but also raises questions along lines of gender, identity, masculinity and femininity.