14 Stunning Portraits Of Albania's Few Remaining Sworn Virgins

Photo: Jill Peters.
This story was originally published on December 14, 2015.

Photographer Jill Peters has dedicated her career to exploring the intersections of sexuality, gender identity, and culture — and it has taken her to some very interesting places. When she first read about a dwindling group of people in a remote part of the world who live their lives as "sworn virgins," she pretty much knew where her next trip would be.

Armed with her camera, Peters traveled to some of the most remote villages in the Albanian Alps, where arranged marriages were once common and wealth was handed down from father to son. Entire communities there lived by the Kanun, a traditional 15th-century code of honor that reserves most social privileges for men only. "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," Peters writes on her website.

Under the system, a family with no sons risked losing its land and livelihood. There was one way out of this predicament, though: Families in this predominantly farming region of the Balkans could designate one of their young daughters to live a life of celibacy as a burrnesha, or sworn virgin. "Becoming a burrnesha elevated a woman to the status of a man and granted her all of the rights and privileges of the male population," Peters reports.

Albania's sworn virgins have gone on to become military commanders, mechanics, and other professions that were otherwise unthinkable for women. "People who chose to take on this role cut their hair and assumed male identities, changing their names, their dress, and their behavior," Peters writes. Today, local laws allow both men and women to hold property, and the need for "sworn virgins" has died out. Yet for the surviving octagenarians and nonagenarians who have lived as men for most of their lives, there's little reason to change now.

Determined to capture the compelling experiences of surviving burrneshas before they are all gone, Peters has traveled to Albania multiple times. Ahead, she shares some of her stunning portraits and the intriguing stories behind them with Refinery29.

Photo caption: Haki in 2009. Haki is a farmer and is very happy living alone.