Photographer Jill Peters has dedicated her career to exploring the intersections of sexuality, gender identity, and culture — and it has taken her to some very interesting places. When she first read about a dwindling group of people in a remote part of the world who live their lives as “sworn virgins,” she pretty much knew where her next trip would be.
Armed with her camera, Peters traveled to some of the most remote villages in the Albanian Alps, where arranged marriages were once common and wealth was handed down from father to son. Entire communities there lived by the Kanun, a traditional 15th-century code of honor that reserves most social privileges for men only. “The freedom to vote, drive, conduct business, earn money, drink, smoke, swear, own a gun, or wear pants was traditionally the exclusive province of men,” Peters writes on her website.
Under the system, a family with no sons risked losing its land and livelihood. There was one way out of this predicament, though: Families in this predominantly farming region of the Balkans could designate one of their young daughters to live a life of celibacy as a burrnesha, or sworn virgin. “Becoming a burrnesha elevated a woman to the status of a man and granted her all of the rights and privileges of the male population,” Peters reports.
Albania’s sworn virgins have gone on to become military commanders, mechanics, and other professions that were otherwise unthinkable for women. “People who chose to take on this role cut their hair and assumed male identities, changing their names, their dress, and their behavior,” Peters writes. Today, local laws allow both men and women to hold property, and the need for “sworn virgins” has died out. Yet for the surviving octagenarians and nonagenarians who have lived as men for most of their lives, there’s little reason to change now.
Determined to capture the compelling experiences of surviving burrneshas before they are all gone, Peters has traveled to Albania multiple times. Ahead, she shares some of her stunning portraits and the intriguing stories behind them with Refinery29.
How did you first learn about the sworn virgins of Albania?
“I was reading a book on gender diversity, and I came across a chapter about the sworn virgins. I was fascinated. I looked into it further and saw that there was very little written about them. The fact that there were not many sworn virgins left motivated me to act,” said Peters.
What are their lives like? Do they identify as men or as women?
“One is a farmer. One is a car mechanic. One is retired military. Some sworn virgins are very lonely because the custom doesn’t allow them to have partners or children of their own. Others have big extended families of great-nieces and -nephews who adore them. They have been living as men for decades, so that is how they identify,” said Peters.
Mark is a shopkeeper and a very devout Catholic.
What was it like to shoot their portraits and hear their stories?
“It has been a privilege to get to know them. I have been back to Albania several times over the years to continue the project. Every time I return, I gain a little more of their trust and hear more about their incredible lives,” said Peters.
Shkurtan is retired member of the Communist military. He said he was feared and respected by the many men under his command.
Hajdari is a farmer and has a large extended family.
For many people, gender identity seems like something we just know is part of who we are. What was it like for these women to transition like this?
“This custom was started centuries ago as a social construct to benefit the family. It is unique as it enables a woman to gain all the rights of a man in a strident patriarchal culture. It was not intended as a means to transition from one gender to another due to personal feelings of gender identity or sexual orientation,” said Peters.
The northern region of Albania is agricultural, so most people, including Hajdari, worked as farmers or harvesters for the Communist collective.
What do you want the world to know about these people and their stories?
“The surprising part of this is that they don’t seem to have any regrets. Given the era in which they lived and the circumstances that led to their decision, all said they would do the same again. They would not recommend it in this day and age because the sacrifice is too great, and fortunately the reasons for choosing to live that way are now obsolete,” said Peters.
Qamille did agricultural work during the Communist era but retired long ago. He passed away in 2010 at the age of 91.
Lume raises horses.
Lume lives with his mother.
What is your advice for young women around the world who want to make an impact through photography, as you have?
“I have been contacted by many young people asking me for advice, and I always say, ‘Don’t be a taker.’ Remember that these are people who are letting you into their precious lives. It is a privilege you have to earn, so be kind, honest, and respectful. Reciprocate when you can,” said Peters.