Photographer Jill Peters traveled to the villages of northern Albania to document the last living followers of a dying tradition.
By Sarah Buder
Deep in the secluded villages of the Albanian Alps, women and girls have long had to make an extreme choice if they wanted to receive the same privileges as men.
It comes in the form of a binding pledge; a lifelong vow to live as a man, to dress as a man, to work as a man, to socialize among men, and thereby to receive power as men do in their patriarchal society. But the oath only allows women to assume the roles reserved for men in northern Albania under one condition: To become a burnesha, one must take a lifelong vow of celibacy, typically in front of village elders (and at a young age). This tradition was born out of a set of restrictive 15th-century laws known as the Kanun, which stated that a woman’s role was to take care of her children and home, and that her life was worth half that of a man’s—unless she was celibate.
Today, the observance of this more than 500-year-old practice is dying out as previously sequestered sections of the Balkan country become better connected to the modernizing world. But in northern Albania, even reaching parts of Montenegro and Kosovo, a small number of burneshas—an estimated 30 or fewer—still exist.
Photographer Jill Peters has devoted her career to exploring the way sexuality, identity, and culture intersect, and in 2009 she turned her lens toward Albania’s burneshas. Beginning that year until 2013, Peters made three trips to the country’s remote northern villages in search of this dwindling population. The resulting photo project, Sworn Virgins of Albania, documents the living members of a dying tradition.
Hajdari became a burnesha to look after his deceased brother’s family. He chose for Peters to photograph him outside of his house to convey his honor and success.
Peters wanted to understand, or attempt to understand, the lasting implications of this tribal code that was once so deeply ingrained in northern Albanian society before the last burneshas disappeared forever. “When I began planning this project in 2008, what interested me was the anthropological context,” Peters says. “At that time, the Western perspective regarding gender was so black and white—there was very little to be understood between male or female.” 

When Peters first arrived to Albania in 2009, she was surprised to learn that in the capital, Tirana, many people didn’t know of burneshas at all, and even those who were aware of the tradition thought it to be more folklore than fact. “Northern Albania was so geographically isolated from the rest of the country—and the world—until quite recently,” Peters says. “Now, there’s a tunnel, but at that time, to access the Albanian Alps from Tirana, we had to actually leave Albania, cross to Kosovo, and then come back down. That distance created a time warp in the area where this tribal code continued regardless of the advancements for women in the rest of the country.”

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