Burrneshas, better known as Sworn Virgins, are Albanian women who, often at a young age, have made the “choice” to go through life as a man. Sometimes it was a free choice, driven by the desire of independence or to avoid an arranged marriage, but often it was a necessary choice to save the family honour when a man was missing in the family. The women swear a celibate life and dress and behave like a man. In return, they get the right of a man and they receive much respect of society. They live mainly in the North of Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia. How many Burrneshas there are left is not exactly known, it would be a couple of dozen. It is a dying phenomenon.
For my portrait series I have photographed nine Burrneshas, eight from Albania and one from Kosovo.
43 years, Jaho Salihi Cerrnice Tropoj, Albania
Due to family issues she decided to become a burrnesha when she was 20 years old. Although she had 6 brothers (and 3 sisters) it was necessary for her to make this choice.
Actually she would have studied and finished the police academy, but things turned another way. What she loves most in life is the devotion towards her mother and the infinite love for her.
39 years, Burrel, Gurre e Madne, Albania
She was 10 years when she decided to become a burrnesha and took the oath by herself. She liked to live her life as a boy and ride horses and overnight in the mountains. Women were not allowed to do that. She has no regrets, this was really a personal choice.
She loves working in the forest, cutting wood and loading the horses. And of course riding horses.
61 Years, Kovac, Tropoje, Albania
Since the age of 14 he officially is a burrnesha. There is no reason for that choice. God made her like this and she is grateful. Because she became a burrnesha, she feels a lot of freedom. Especially when she became a driver. At this time there is no reason to become a burrnesha. Everyone is allowed to do what he wants.
There is not much contact with other burrneshas, because they live not close to each other. The message she has for the world: “Love each other. Life is too short to live with hate and regrets.”
80 years, Vicidol, Tropoj, Albania
Became a burrnesha when she was 6 years old and took the oath by herself. For her females are below males and she hates females. That is why she wanted to be a man. She changed her name from Fatime to Hajdar.
She loves her life as it is now. She rides horses and stay overnight in the mountains. Things she could not do as a woman.
75 years, Rugova, Rej, Kosovo
As long as she remembers she is a burrnesha. She took the oath by herself, because she would like to be a man. As a child she had a nickname, Kajtaz. She lives a happy life and has no regrets of being a burrnesha. She loves her life in the mountains and hearing the bells of the sheep. Also she is a pastor and that is something she loves to do.
Burrneshas are highly respected in the society. All the attention from all over the world for the burrneshas is a good thing, so everyone will know. She hopes the youth will work to build their life and take care of their country and each other.
52 years, Lepush Malsia e Madhe, Koplik, Kelmend, Albania
When she was 25 she took the oath of celibacy. From a young age she felt like a boy. Then the village bestowed her with the name burrnesha. She didn’t change her name, but she has a nickname which is Duni. She finds that the ancient tradition of burrnesha in Albania has to be taught and preserved in the memory of people. So it will not be forgotten but remembered.
64 years, Durres, Albania
At the age of 17 Diana took the oath of celibacy and became a burrnesha. She never changed her name. She doesn’t have any regrets about her decision and is happy with her life as it is now. She is thankful for the great interest shown towards the national heritage. Burrneshas are a unique value to the world. She is in contact with other burrneshas. They are all very proud to have Albanian blood running through their veins.
79 years, Tuc, Fush Arrez, Albania
Decided to live as a burrnesha at the age of 24. To protect herself she used to carry a weapon all the time. As a man she used to have responsible leading positions she couldn’t have as a woman. She is very happy with her way of life, but wouldn’t recommend it to the girls nowadays. But it isn’t necessary to make that kind of choice anymore, times are changed.
40 years, Fushe Kruje, Albania
Fatbardha felt like a boy already and needed to support her parents. That is why she became a burrnesha when she was 14 years old.
Before there were a lot of differences between men and women, today there aren’t anymore. So she won’t recommend this lifestyle to the girls right now.
She loves to work and see people happy. She hates to see the bad economical conditions of Albania. Therefor she hopes that the young generation will walk tall with their heads up high, live a good life and keep a high moral.
Leander Fotografie - Rotterdam