E Burnesh - the sworn vergin
The Albanian society has always been highly patriarchal, but what many people do not know is that despite the strict conventions and the canonical laws of this society, many exceptional women have dominated the Albanian history. Almost every historical period has been marked by the name of a great woman warrior who showed great leadership, unimaginable bravery and extreme sacrifice. Exceptional women like Queen Teuta, MamicaKastrioti, Nora Kelmendi, LaskarinaBubulina, Tringa of Gruda and ShoteGalica led entire armies in times of war and took the fate of the nation in their hands against the enemies. Their bravery and self-sacrifice has been a source of inspiration not only to Albanian women, but also to European writers and historians of all times.
Nowadays, the scholarly attention is mostly focused on a particular Albanian female figure, the figure of Burrneshë. There is no English term that can completely translate and transmit appropriately the meaning of the Albanian term Burrneshë, but it is often referred to as Sworn Virgin.
The tradition of Sworn Virgins is a very old one and dates back to hundreds of years ago. It is typical of the isolated northern Albanian clan societies, which are guided by canonical laws known to be oppressive to women, where all women were considered as the property of men. Being constantly in times of war, the family was under the risk of losing every male member, be that the patriarch or the male heir of the family. According to the canonical law, a family without a male heir loses everything they own because women do not have any property rights and unmarried women in particular, do not have a social identity at all.
To preserve the family status and wealth, young women took a vow of celibacy to become Sworn Virgins, thus refusing their femininity by taking the social identity of a man. By taking this action, these extraordinary women were automatically accepted as men and as such, they were endowed with all the rights and attributes that men had. They even adopted the male looks and style, habits and swagger, changed their names, participated in council meetings, smoked and drank alcohol and within a short time they turned into real men.
Research on the field has shown that becoming a Sworn Virgin is not a free choice. A woman can become a Burrneshë only if she fulfils two major criteria: substituting the male figure of the household and getting divorced from an arranged marriage. The later criterion might be a cause of conflict and revenge from the side of the refused man, but this can be avoided only if the woman swears to become an eternal virgin. This vow of celibacy serves to assure the parties that the woman is going to be immaculate and pure.
Currently, there are only thirty Sworn Virgins in Albania and this phenomenon is decreasing since the modernization of social life is reaching the furthermost areas of northern Albania, women are already independent and have equal rights with men, thus there is no need to make this type of compromise any more.