How far would you go to have the right to drive, smoke or earn money? To wear trousers or own a property, in a society that doesn’t allow you to?
In the fiercely patriarchal Northern Albania, where women had no standing for centuries, some have made an irrevocable vow: to remain chaste for life. By ignoring their female identity the “sworn virgins” have also renounced married life and parenthood. For their sacrifice they get the right to live as men. They’ve changed their names, cut their hair, and they dress and behave like the male population. In return they are granted the same rights, respect, and status in society as men.
For the sworn virgins the decision to lead the life of a man is not a statement of sexuality. It’s the result of the ultraconservative definition of gender roles by a medieval code of law known as “Kanun”.
The Kanun code of conduct has strictly governed social behavior in northern Albania for centuries, providing a moral and legal framework for everyday life. Although it’s not legal today, it is still respected and practiced in the rural parts of northern Albania.
Under the Kanun the role of a woman is severely circumscribed: she can’t choose her own husband and can’t inherit anything from their parents or husband. Her role is to take care of children and maintain the home. A woman’s life is valued as half that of a man.
A virgin’s however is worth the same, and the Kanun allows a woman to become a man if she takes the lifelong oath of virginity.
The tradition of the sworn virgin was initially born of a social necessity. Blood feuds, notorious in Northern Albania, could decimate all the men in a family, leaving the family without a male heir. A sworn virgin would then become the patriarch, taking on all the duties and responsibilities of a man.
For some women the choice was also a way to escape an arranged marriage or to avoid a life of subservience. In this 2014 short film directed by U.S. photographer Jill Peters, 42-year-old sworn virgin Lume explains she wanted freedom and independence.
Nowadays the Kanun’s influence on gender roles is disappearing, and with it the tradition of the sworn virgin.
Albania has made some progress when it comes to women’s rights: Albania’s new Constitution, which came into effect in 1998, guarantees equality before the law. It states that “all are equal before the law” as well as “No one may be unjustly discriminated against for reasons such as gender, race, religion, ethnicity, language, political, religious or philosophical beliefs, economic condition, education, social status, or ancestry.”
35% of Albanian ministers are women – which is seen as a steppingstone in the country’s efforts to empower women in the political sphere. And the gender gap in the public sector is almost insignificant.
But if it’s no longer considered necessary for women to become a sworn virgin to enjoy freedom, “gender equality” is still a relatively new notion in Albania.
In 2014 men employees have a gross average monthly wage 10% higher than women employees. In 2015, half of all crimes in Albania are due to domestic violence. And in remote areas, villages still haven’t transitioned into modernity.
For the last sworn virgins, however, gender equality or not, it doesn’t change anything. They have no regrets and wouldn’t go back at living like women.
“A woman could become the president of Albania and they would still remain living as men,” Jill Peters said.