There are only a dozen “sworn virgins” left in the world, an ancient Balkan tradition in which women live like men.
“Albania was a man’s world, the only way to survive was to become one,” explains Gjystina Grishaj.
When she was 23 years old and living in the mountains of northern Albania, she made a decision that would change her life.
He took a vow of celibacy and vowed to live the rest of his life as a man.
Gjystina’s family has lived in the Malesi e Madhe region of Lepushe in northern Albania for more than a century.
This valley nestled between steep mountains is one of the few areas where the tradition burrnesha: a centuries-old practice in which women swear an oath to the village elders and live like men.
These women are known as burrneshat (the plural form of burrnesha is made by adding a t) or “sworn virgins”.
“There are many single people in the world, but they are not burrneshat. A burrnesha only dedicates herself to her family, to work, to live, to preserve her purity,” says Gjystina, now 57.
For many women born in earlier times, exchanging their sexual, reproductive, and social identities was a way to enjoy freedoms that only men could experience at that time.
Becoming a burrnesha allowed women to dress like men, act as head of the household, move freely in society, and take on jobs traditionally available only to men.
help your family
As an active and sporty young woman, Gjystina – or Duni, as she is called by those close to her – was determined to be independent. She never imagined a traditional life of marriage, housework, dresses…
Instead, after the death of his father, decided to become a “sworn virgin” to be the head of the family and be able to work to help them financially.
“We were extremely poor… my father died, and my mother had six children, so to make it easier for her I decided to become a burrnesha and work hard,” she says.
Gjystina lives in a remote village where mobile phone reception is poor at best and the harsh winters mean that the road to Lepushe is often blocked by snow and electricity is cut off.
He runs a boarding house, works the land and takes care of his animals.
As a burrnesha and head of the family, she also practices the art of herbal medicine to make healing teas and oils, a skill inherited from her father.
“He cared a lot about medicinal herbs and passed on his knowledge to me. And I would like my niece Valerjana to inherit this practice, even if she chose another path,” says Duni.
“Today, no one tries to become a ‘sworn virgin,'” says Valerjana Grishaj. “Young girls don’t even think about becoming sworn virgins. I am a true example of that.”
Growing up with her aunt in Lepushe, Valerjana discovered that options for women in the area were minimalwith the expectation of marrying young.
“I always remember a moment when I was in sixth grade. A friend of mine was in ninth grade and she was going to get engaged. She was only 14 years old,” she recalls.
“She told me that her husband did not allow her to continue studying and that she had to listen to her husband, stay with him and obey him.”
Rather than marry young or become a “sworn virgin”, Valerjana left the family home at the age of 16 to study theater directing and photography in Tirana, the capital of Albania.
“In Tirana, girls and women have more advantages and are more emancipated. While in the village the situation, even now, is still a disaster,” she says.
Although there are no exact figures, only 12 burrneshat are estimated to remain in northern Albania and Kosovo. Since the fall of communism in the 1990s, Albania has undergone social changes that offer more rights for women.
Valerjana finds it positive that the burneshat tradition is dying out.
“Today we girls don’t have to fight to become men,” she says. “We have to fight for equal rights, but not by becoming men.”
In 2019, women’s rights activist Rea Nepravishta protested at International Women’s Day events in Tirana.
She came out into the street holding a large banner with the word “burrnesha” pierced by a large red cross and the words “strong women” written below.
“In Albanian, when we want to describe a woman as a strong woman, we use the term ‘burrnesha’,” she explains.
“It’s a two-part word, ‘Burre’ means man… We shouldn’t refer to men to show the strength of women.”
Despite everything, Rea believes that the country is opening up, and that it has given “many steps forward in a short time“.
According to UN Women, the participation of women in political and economic decision-making in Albania has recently progressed thanks to improvements in electoral codes and processes, although it remains limited, and the pay gap has not been adequately addressed. In 2017, women represented 23% of members of Parliament and 35% of local councillors.
But women’s rights still have a ways to go.
“Sexism, gender stereotypes… and gender-based violence are unfortunately still widespread in Albania,” Rea says.
Data from UN Women indicates that almost 60% of Albanian women between the ages of 15 and 49 have experienced domestic violence.
And according to the data compiled by the committees of independent experts in charge of supervising the application of the main international human rights treaties (UN Treaty Body Database) only 8% of women own land and remain marginalized in matters of inheritance.
special social status
The roots of the Burrnesha tradition go back to the Kanun, an ancient constitution used in Kosovo and northern Albania in the 15th century, upon which Albanian society was organized. According to these patriarchal laws, women were considered property of their husbands.
“They had no right to decide their fate or choose their life,” says Aferdita Onuzi, an ethnographer who has studied the Burrneshat.
“If a girl was going to get engaged, that was decided without ever asking the girl, nor was she asked about the age at which she would get engaged or the person she would do it with,” explains the expert.
There are still many misconceptions surrounding this tradition. Commonly, becoming a “sworn virgin” was not a decision based on sexuality or gender identity, but rather on a special social status it granted to those who took the oath.
“A girl’s choice to become a ‘sworn virgin’ has nothing to do with sexuality, it’s just a choice to have another role, another position in the family,” says Onuzi.
But becoming a burrnesha was also a way of escaping an arranged marriage, without dishonoring the groom’s family.
“This decision allowed them to avoid a blood feud between two families,” explains the expert.
The rules governing blood feuds have long been codified in the Kanun, which helped bring order to the life of northern Albanian tribes, especially during its incorporation into the Ottoman Empire.
According to the Kanun law, blood feuds were a social obligation to safeguard honor. They could start with as little an action as a threat or insult, but could sometimes escalate to murder, after which the victim’s family was expected to seek their own justice by killing the murderer, or another male member of the culprit’s family. .
For many young women at the time, the oath of celibacy exempted them from blood feuds.
“It was a way to escape,” says Onuzi.
The tradition has evolved over time, moving from forced decisions to active choices. “The difference between the classic burrnesha, in the ethnographic sense, and the current burrnesha is very important … Today it is a completely personal decision,” he adds.
Gjystina was not forced to become a burrnesha, but chose that life herself. Growing up in communist Albania, she felt that men back then had much more freedom.
“There were a lot of moments where you were considered unequal,” he says. “Women were very isolated, limited to housework and had no right to speak.”
Her family – especially her mother – disapproved of her choice, worried that she would sacrifice her chance to be a mother and have a family of her own.
For Gjystina, the sacrifice paid off.
“When I decided to become a burrnesha, I earned more respect for myself,” she says.
Freedoms only for men
But others chose to become burrneshats because they felt more like men than women.
“I have never associated with women, but always with men. In bars, smoking…”, says Drande, a Burrnesha who lives in the coastal city of Shengjin and refers to herself in the masculine.
“I’ve always felt like a man.”
For Drande, adopting this practice was a way of enjoy the liberties of mensuch as smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol, elements rooted in the Burrnesha tradition.
This included drinking the traditional Albanian spirit, rakia, historically reserved for men. Now, Drande not only drinks it, but makes his own. When we arrive to interview him, he proudly displays a fresh batch preserved in a plastic water bottle.
“This will make you stronger,” he tells us.
Drande says that her choice to become a burrnesha gave her more acceptance in society.
“Wherever I went, I received special respect and I felt good. They respected me as a man and not as a woman… That way I felt freer,” she says.
Although Drande is proud of the sacrifices he made to become a burrnesha, he also admits to feelings of loneliness, acknowledging that he has had doubts.
“I thought for a moment what it would be like to have a child who could take care of me… I was very sick and there was no one around to help me. But it was only for a moment, a split second.”
At that time, faced with a society with limited options for women, those who became burrneshat saw their choice as a form of empowerment. It was “a kind of protest turned into sacrifice,” Onuzi explains.
However, by choosing to be men, inadvertently reinforced gender norms by accepting the role of women as inferior.
Even in the capital, life for young women today can be difficult. Valerjana was present on the internet through social networks, to help promote women’s rights. But sending positive messages attracted hateful ones.
“I received many messages from men, even messages that threatened my life…questioning why he was talking about women’s rights,” she says.
He has been photographing his aunt and other burrneshats, as a way of documenting a declining tradition.
“I hope that future generations will be interested in this topic, because it is part of our history as a tradition,” says Valerjana.
“Now you don’t have to be a burrnesha to enjoy freedoms. As a modern woman there is no need to take an oath“.
Gjystina does not focus on the price she paid for respect, the sacrifice of her feminine identity, but on the freedom that her decision gave her.
“There will be no more burrneshat, I will be the last,” she says.
He admits that although he would not make the same decision today, if he could go back in time he would do it all over again.
“I am proud to be a Burrnesha. I have no regrets.”
This note is part of the BBC special with the 100 most inspiring and influential women in the world in 2022.
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BBC-NEWS-SRC: https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-internacional-63943672, IMPORTING DATE: 2022-12-17 04:40:05
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