“The days in Bjeshket et Namuna, the Accursed Mountains, were trying. But everyone knew his place – the men out under the open sky, the women sheltered by the roofs of their huts”.
In Northern Albania, in the Cursed Mountains, said to have been created by the devil himself, to this day the tradition of the sworn virgins is still alive, the last man-women of Europe. The Kannun, a collection of laws from the Middle Ages, passed on for generations by word-of-mouth, permits families to replace the male head of the household with a woman in the case of the patriarch’s death, often brought about by clan-related blood feuds. Yet the woman’s new status requires her to make an irrevocable vow to preserve her virginity for the rest of her life.
Adult women may swear this oath to take the place of the deceased father or brother. But even newborn girls can be declared sons and raised as boys for the purpose of providing the family with a male heir. Occasionally, women also take the vow to escape a prearranged marriage. Filling the roles of men, these women can also expect to gain more recognition in the male-dominated society of Albania.
These so-called oath-virgins, or Burrnesha, not only receive the status but also the rights of men and are highly respected in the family. They do men’s work, and dress and behave like men. But they are men in a social, rather than in a sexual sense. The sworn virgins adapt their roles so perfectly that, over time, they are no longer recognized as women outside of their family. Over the years, the woman in them is lost.