Child Marriage and the Sworn Virgins of Northern Albania

11855390_10153673429421812_840513935_n© Blerina Karagjozi

Recently journalists have been wandering around the Albanian Alps in the northeastern part of the country. It is a curious fact for many to meet old looking men – whose real identity is the opposite. They’re women, who have taken an oath of virginity.

If you do a simple search online, numerous articles on the “sworn virgin” concept, way of life, social position, and much more will be listed. A few photos, although not many, will show you the faces of people hiding stories of human rights abuse.

The Albanian word for sworn virgin is burrneshe – a derivat of burre / man.

It looks as if these women decided to give up on their feminine body, face, look, clothes, and physical distinctions – which easily translate into lack of rights and power in their rural society – to embrace the face, clothes, and short hairstyle of a man and thus embody their rights.

By becoming sworn virgins, they take an oath of celibacy, they never get married nor have children. They do this voluntarily, placing their family and their honor above all.

Some refer to this phenomenon as a social role, a position that these women take as a result of a bigger sacrifice they do for the benefit of their family. This is especially true after the father (or the man of the family) dies and is no longer able to provide.

I wish things were as simple as they appear. To me, people who write these kinds of stories are at the very least naïve, and unfortunately I also was one of them for a long time.

These stories are not new, sworn virgins have existed in the Balkan region for many centuries also in neighboring countries with Albania. According to Kanun, a local code of law dating back to the 15th century, which still is in force in some very remote areas in the North Albania, families without a male presence were considered as pariahs, therefore were excluded from being equal and part of the decisions taken in the community. When as a result of blood feuds all the men in a family were decimated, the only way to save their honor was for a woman to become the patriarch of the family and start acting like a man.

In addition, many ethnologists visiting Albania in the XIX and XX century have written books where the “sworn virgins” were described in detail. They were the protagonists; the only means of  supporting the family in need. They forsook their female life, with all of its limitations, and assumed all the responsibilities of a man’s life.

I have also read those books, as much as I could, and as many others did, I found myself surprised by their choice. I have closed those books and continued my normal life, completely different from theirs, and never turned my thoughts to what their reality was and the reasons behind such decisions.

I was born in the capital city, and come from a family who loved and valued education and books. They believed that the real strength of a girl was in her knowledge and independence. I educate my daughter based on the same principles, and I wish to see her environment embrace these values as well.

Trying to keep up with the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, somehow also by avoiding disturbing pictures of desperate human loss, I was scrolling my homepage this afternoon. My eyes stopped on an article written about the story of a teen girl in Bangladesh. I read the full article, obviously carefully written, which described a very sad reality for one third of the girls there. This phenomena is called child marriage and it affects the social well-being of teen girls, stops them from continuing their education, from pursuing a career, and forces them into marriages with much older men. They have no choice in the matter.

While reading that article, I had a mental picture of a ‘sworn virgin’ of Albania. All of a sudden, I realized how stupid I had been to believe all of the ‘romanticized’ stories published in books and newspapers. Sworn virgins are not about limited social rights of females, which they are liberated from by assuming the identity and role of a man. Sworn virgins are, first of all, potential victims of abuse from child marriage.

These were the courageous women who dared to say no, and accepted losing their identity under a man’s vest to escape an involuntary, unwanted arranged marriage. One case, documented in The Guardian, can be read here:

“I know of a sad case,” Diana recalls, “a young woman who fell in love with a man, but her family had promised her to someone else. The only way she could avoid getting married was to become a burrnesha.” Several decades ago arranged marriages were usual in Albania, though this is no longer true. Sometimes family ties were decided before a child was even born.”

As I read in another article, the number of Albanian ‘sworn virgins’ has declined lately, which initially was great news to me – but now I am not that excited about it. Maybe they are still forced into child marriage and they simply can’t find the necessary force to say no and stand against their fate.

I have still not met any of them, but now I honor them greatly.



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