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Sworn Virgins of Albania
Transcript of Sworn Virgins of Albania
By Shelby Brown
Kanun of Leke Dukagjini
Women's Place in the Household
Running the Household
What about Albanian society made it necessary that sworn virgins exist?
Albania is a small country in Southeast Europe, on the Mediterranean Sea. It is bordered by Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Kosovo. It is slightly smaller than Maryland. (Albania)
It is 70% Muslim, and 30% Christian (20% Orthodox, 10% Catholic) (Hasluck)
The Kanun of Leke Dukagjini is a oral code that has been passed down in Northern Albania for generations. It is very strict, covering many types of offenses- moral, civil, criminal, religious, social, and political. Rather than covering general rules, the laws cover specific situations and cases. (Vokopola)
Blood feuds were a very common practice in Northern Albania. To put it simply, it was a circle of revenge for murder. It often lead to entire clans being wiped out. It could be ended by a truce or an exchange of brides. (Whitaker)
In Albanian society, there was a way to become a man. An unmarried woman would take an oath of virginity and henceforth be known as a man. These individuals were known as burrnesha or virgjinesha (Caplan)
The existence of burrnesha in northern Albania was made necessary by the laws and rituals seen in Kanun of Leke Dukagjini, specifically the laws regarding women's rights, marriage, and blood feuds.
Women may become sworn virgins because of the disparity in the rights of men and women. The laws of the Kanun were very patriarchal.
As men, they were allowed to carry weapons, own and inherit property, and move freely. (Caplan)
In Albanian households, the majority of hard work was allotted to women. Women had to raise the children, and do all the hard work and farm labor, as such was viewed as below men. Also, women could go out during and active blood feud and not fear death, as opposed to men, who were often cowering in the house, because blood feuds were not allowed to damage or destroy property, which was what women were viewed as. (Whitaker)
Albanian society mandated that all women were completely subservient and obedient to all males, including their own children. Women couldn't even eat until all the men were done. Married women were not even viewed as fully human- the death of a man or virgin was worth twelve oxen, whereas the death of a married woman was worth six oxen, and wives were never full members of their husband's clan, despite only getting to visit her birth family once a year. (Whitaker)
In Albanian society, most marriages were arranged, and the only way to escape an arranged marriage was to swear virginity, so you could marry nobody.
A woman may want to escape an arranged marriage if her future husband was particularly cruel or abusive- she may fear for her life, and for her family. If a married women was killed, the responsibility for her death fell to her family of birth, and a death feud may be started, especially if her death was at the hands of her clan-by-marriage. (Crossing)
A women may become a sworn virgin to escape a marriage if the match was no longer proper. This may happen because of a large rise or drop in social status, or some other social event or scandal (Whitaker)
The final, and most common reason a women would swear virginity is because of a blood feud. Such feuds often wiped out all the males in a clan, and the arrangement of the laws made it impossible for a family to exist with no males. (Bilefsky)
Should this happen, a women would need to swear virginity so the family could continue. Women couldn't carry weapons, own or inherit property, or leave the house without a male relative. A sworn virgin would be needed to run the house, inherit things from the wills of their brother's, and simply for anyone to leave the house. (Crossing)
However, the amount of sworn virgins in Albania is rapidly declining- the estimate is less than 100, and none under forty are left in the whole country. (Caplan)
It is possible that, with the introduction of the west, the idea was just discarded, seen as unnecessary. It was built on the ideas of many old ideas that were likely discarded as the country moved farther from the old ways, such as traditional gender roles, arranged marriage, male dominance, and country life. Western society also isn't very accepting of trans people, which is what the sworn virgins were likely labeled as, so they may have been ostracized.
The decline may be because of the break down of gender roles in Albanian society. Between the 1940s and the 1990s, the Albanian government was communist, and communist philosophies very much weakened the gender roles in Albania, negating the need for sworn virgins. (Whitaker)
Albanian women may swear their virginity to become men because of how patriarchal Albanian society is, specifically in relation to rights, marriage, and blood feuds and families
The idea of sworn virgins is particularly fascinating because of the idea that a woman can overnight transform herself into a man, and he will be treated as completely male, and not ridiculed or mocked at all. The fact that somebody could change their gender at this time is also a ray of hope for transgendered people who hope for acceptance.
The death of all males necessitated a sworn virgin so the blood feud could be carried on, and to take revenge for the death of their brothers. (Whitaker)