With More Freedom, Young Women in Albania Shun Tradition of ‘Sworn Virgins’
A centuries-old tradition in which women declared themselves to be men in order to take advantage of male privileges is fading, as young women have more options available to them to live their own lives.
LEPUSHE, Albania – A teenager locked in a traditionally-bound, patriarchal mountain village in far northern Albania, Gjystina Grishaj made a drastic decision: she would live the rest of her life as a man.
She didn’t want to be married at a young age, nor did she like to cook, iron clothes or “do the things that women do”, so she joined an Albanian gender fraternity called ” burrneshat, ”or“ female-male. ”She adopted a male nickname – Duni.
“I made a personal decision and told them: I’m a man and I don’t want to get married,” Duni recalls, telling her family.
Few women today want to become what anthropologists call the “sworn virgins” of Albania, a tradition that dates back centuries. They take an oath of celibacy for life and enjoy male privileges, such as the right to make family decisions, smoke, drink and go out on their own.
Duni said her choice was widely accepted, although her mother continued to try to change her mind until the day she died in 2019. Like other burrneshat, Duni – who remains Gjystina Grishaj in the documents official – is still universally mentioned in a traditional way, with female pronouns and forms of address, and does not consider itself transgender.
The fraternity Duni joined almost 40 years ago is dying out as change comes to Albania and its paternalistic rural areas, giving young women more options. His village, which is Christian, like much of the north of the country, has in recent years begun to shed its claustrophobic isolation, thanks to the construction of a winding road through the mountains that attracts visitors, but offers also an outing for determined local women who want to live their own lives.
Many, like Duni, have taken an oath to escape forced marriages; some so that they could take on traditional male roles – like running a farm – in families where all the men had died in blood feuds raging in the area; and others because they felt more like men.
“Society is changing and the burrneshat are disappearing,” said Gjok Luli, an expert on traditions from northern Albania. There are no specific numbers on how many people are left, but of the dozen who do, most are seniors. Duni, at 56, may be the youngest, he said.
“It was an escape from the role given to women,” Mr. Luli said, “but there is no longer a desperate need to escape.”
Among those who can now choose different paths in life is Duni’s niece, Valerjana Grishaj, 20, who decided as a teenager to leave the mountains and move to Tirana, the relatively modern capital of Albania. The village, Ms. Grishaj explained over coffee at a cafe in Tirana, “is not a place for me”.
“All of my friends there have been married since they were 16,” she said.
But Ms Grishaj said she understood why her aunt made the decision she made. “There were no strong, independent women there,” she said. “To be one, you had to become a man. “
She praised her parents for letting her make her own choices. “I was very lucky, but parents like mine are rare,” said Ms Grishaj, noting that most still pressured their daughters to marry as teenagers.
Albania, isolated under a communist dictatorship until 1991, has seen its economy and customs develop rapidly in recent years, and the country has become increasingly connected to the rest of Europe. But Tirana, where Ms Grishaj moved at age 17 to study directing, can still be a difficult place for a young woman trying to find her way.
“The patriarchy still exists, even here in Tirana,” said Duni’s niece. Young women who live alone, she laments, arouse unpleasant gossip and “are often seen as whores.”
The difference now, she said, is that “women today have a lot more freedom than before, and you don’t have to be a man to live your own life.”
By declaring himself a man, Duni did not attack conventional gender norms, but submitted to them. She also shares the strongly transphobic and homophobic views prevalent in Albania.
Men, everyone in her remote Alpine hamlet of Lepushe thought, would always have more power and respect, so the best way for a woman to share her privilege was to join them, rather than trying to beat them.
“As a man you have a special status in society and in the family,” said Duni, recalling nearly four decades of dressing, behaving and being treated like a man. “I have never worn a skirt and I have never regretted my decision,” she said.
At the base of this tradition was the firm hold in northern Albania of “Kanoun”, a set of social rules and norms that classify women as goods whose purpose was to serve men.
The inferior status accorded to women gave them an advantage, however: it exempted them from the battles that for centuries decimated northern Albanian families as men from the warring clans died in a never-ending cycle of revenge killings. Parents whose sons had all been killed often encouraged a girl to adopt a male identity so that there would be a man to represent the family at village meetings and manage their property.
A woman who became a sworn virgin was not considered entirely male, did not count in blood feuds, and therefore escaped the target of murder by a rival clan.
Mr Luli, the expert on local traditions, said one of her cousins, who used the Cuban nickname instead of her original name, Tereza, was an only child and became a sworn virgin so that she can avoid being married and leaving their parents. fend for themselves. She died of old age in 1982.
He compared Cuba to a “woman who decides to become a nun”.
“It’s the same kind of devotion,” Mr. Luli said, “only to family instead of God.”
For those Albanians who campaign for gender equality, such devotion arouses mixed feelings. “To say that I will not take orders from a man is feminist,” said Rea Nepravishta, a women’s rights activist in Tirana. “To say that I own myself and that I will not be the property of a man is feminist.”
But, she added, “being forced to be a man instead of a woman is totally anti-feminist – it’s horrible.”
The inequalities enshrined in the Kanun, said Ms Nepravishta, gave women the choice “between living like a semi-animal or having some freedom by becoming a man.” Although still strong, patriarchy, she added, has lost power and no longer confronts women with such difficult choices.
Some burrneshat said they called themselves male just because they never felt like female. Diana Rakipi, 66, a burrnesha from the coastal town of Durres, said: “I always felt like a man, even when I was a boy.”
Aggressively masculine, Ms. Rakipi enjoys being bossy. On a walk near her tiny one-room apartment, she kept stopping passers-by who she said were acting inappropriately – like a boy she saw punching his brother – and pulled them over. reprimanded.
Ms Rakipi, who grew up in the north before moving south to Durres, said she took the oath of celibacy as a teenager in front of dozens of parents and pledged to serve the family as a man. Born after the death of her parents’ only son from illness, Ms Rakipi said she grew up being told that she had been sent by God to replace her deceased brother.
“I have always been considered the man of the family. They were all so upset over my brother’s death, ”she said, sitting in a cafe where all the other customers were men. She wore a black military beret, a red tie, men’s pants and a safari vest, her pockets filled with talismans of her eclectic beliefs, including a Christian cross and a medallion with the face of the former Albanian dictator, Enver Hoxha. .
Ms Rakipi snorted in contempt when asked about people undergoing transitional surgery. “It’s not normal,” she said. “If God made you a woman, you are a woman. “
Duni, from the village of Lepushe, also has strong views on the subject, saying that modifying the body is “against the will of God” and that people “should be put in jail” for it.
“I haven’t lived like a burrnesha because I want to be a man in any way. I did it because I want to take on the role played by men and get the respect of a man, ”she said. “I’m a man in my mind, but having male genitals isn’t what makes you a man.”
The people of Lepushe, including Manushaqe Shkoza, a waiter at a village cafe, said Duni’s decision to become a man was initially a surprise, but it was accepted long ago. “Everyone considers this to be normal,” Ms. Shkoza said.
Duni said she was sad that the tradition of sworn virgins will soon die out, but noted that her niece in Tirana has shown that there are now less drastic ways for a woman to live a full and respected life.
“Society is changing, but I think I made the right decision for my time,” Duni said. “I cannot resign from the role I have chosen. I took the oath to my family. It is a path on which we cannot go back.
Fatjona Mejdini contributed reporting.
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