Burrnesha (Albania)

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Burrnesha 🇦🇱
Albania map.png
Location: Albania
Definition: Women who adopt masculine appearance and behaviour to preserve the honour of their birth families
Keywords: Albania Balkans Gender Kinship Tradition Transvestitism Cross-gender Household
Author: Ellen Robertson
Affiliation: Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge, UK
Website: Profile page at UC

By Ellen Robertson, Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge, UK

Burrnesha, Albanian sworn virgins, are physiological women, primarily from rural regions of northern Albania, who live as men and refrain from marriage or sexual activity. They adopt masculine dress, hairstyle, work roles, mannerisms, and speech. They may even adopt behaviours that are typically only acceptable for men to practice in their communities, such as smoking, cursing, carrying arms, and drinking liquor. They are sometimes visually indistinguishable from men. However, it is not socially acceptable for them to get married or to have sexual relations of any kind. There are some reports of sworn virgins having made a formal oath of virginity, however this seems more common in theory than in practice (Young 2001).

It is difficult to pinpoint with certainty the origin of this practice due to the lack of records. However, it was described in the kanun, an informal compilation of social rules passed down orally for centuries in these communities. This dates the custom from at least as early as the fifteen century (Gjecovi 2010, Ilia 1993).

Sworn virgin, taken in 2016. Source: Photo by author. © Ellen Robertson.

The kanun states that it is acceptable for women to live as men if their family has no or few males, if they wish to honourably reject an arranged marriage, or if they simply desire to do so (Gjecovi 2010, Ilia 1993). In practice women may choose to live as men for multiple other reasons, including to inherit their family’s property or to fight in war. Overall, becoming a burrneshe is particularly instrumental in allowing women to live with their birth families; under typical circumstances they would move in with their husbands as soon as they married. By living with their birth families sworn virgins are able to offer them various types of support. Firstly, they provide practical support such as labour. Secondly, a family’s status increases with the number of its male members. In this way sworn virgins contribute to the symbolic wellbeing of the family, which can have material consequences such as greater leverage in inheritance disputes (Durham 1910, Young 2001).

Sworn virgins not only live as men, they are also treated and respected as men. They are included in spaces typically reserved only for men, such as village meetings and the home’s oda (the sitting/dining room). Under typical circumstances women have much lower status than men and are excluded from many spaces and activities, so this shift is significant (Durham 1910, Young 2001). It is also considered safe for sworn virgins to walk alone far from home, for example to travel between villages or to herd goats. This increase in status is often justified as having been earned by the ‘sacrifice’ that they made in order to support their family as men.

Sworn virgin, taken in 2016. Source: Photo by author. © Ellen Robertson.

There are several different terms used for these women in Albanian. The original term used in the kanun is virgjineshe, meaning virgin (Gjecovi 2010, Ilia 1993). However, today the word burrneshe (plural: burrnesha) is more commonly used. Burrneshe literally means man (burre) followed by a feminine ending (-eshe). There are other terms used less frequently, such as sokoleshe. Sokol literally means falcon but is used to denote a man of especially admirable and stereotypically masculine traits. As with the word burrneshe, the ending –eshe makes this semantically hyper-masculine word grammatically feminine. As such, these terms are simultaneously masculine and feminine, as opposed to representing a third gender category.

In Serbo-Croatian-speaking Balkan countries where this custom exists these women are often referred to as tobelija (Horváth 2003, Horváth 2011). Meanwhile, in other languages the term for these women is usually a local equivalent of ‘sworn virgin’ (e.g., vergine giurata in Italian) due to the understanding that they sometimes take an oath of virginity.

The words burrneshe and sokoleshe are titles that convey great respect and admiration. They convey bravery, wisdom, and strength of character. Excluding sworn virgins’ northern Albanian communities, the rest of the Albanian-speaking world usually uses these titles for women living as typical women who have earned the respect of the speaker. For example, a woman who has confronted considerable hardship in responsible and honorable ways may be called a burrneshe.

The practice of sworn virgins has been reported in several Balkan nations. The highest number of them has been reported among ethnic Albanian communities of northern Albania and Kosovo. However, there have also been reports of ethnic Slavic sworn virgins in Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia (Šarčević 2004, Young 2001, Young and Twigg 2009). The actual numbers of sworn virgins in existence is difficult to measure, however Albanologist and sworn virgin expert Antonia Young (2001) estimates the number to be around 100 at present.

There are other cultures of the world where it is socially acceptable for people to assume lifestyle of another gender for reasons other than gender identity. One particular example of this is an Afghan practice called bacha posh whereby young girls may be dressed as boys. This satisfies the family’s son preference while affording the girls more freedom and safety. However, unlike Albanian sworn virgins this practice ends at puberty, after which point it is considered socially unacceptable (Bacha Posh n.d., Strochlic 2018).

Antonia Young’s Women Who Become Men: Albanian Sworn Virgins (2001) is the most thorough modern account of Albanian sworn virgins, highlighting the ambivalence of tradition that in this case makes a complete turnaround of customary gender divisions. Edith Durham’s High Albania (1910), a detailed account of the author’s travels through Northern Albania at the turn of the twentieth century, included frequent mention of sworn virgins. Several academic works tackled more specific questions provoked by this custom. Dickerson (in press) used sociolinguistic analysis to explore sworn virgins’ social gender identity, while Horvath’s (2003, 2011) anthropological works interrogated the Western gaze in its portrayals of sworn virgins and the Balkans.


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