>> Burnesha

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.

Image by Jill Peters, via PetaPixel

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.

To view the project in full, visit Jill Peters Photography, as well as Michael Zhang’s piece at PetaPixel.

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