Chastity vows in exchange for freedom
In northern Albania, many women in the rural areas still live today without the right to vote, barred from freely choosing their profession and subservient to their husbands. The Kanun dictates what women are allowed to do and what not, an archaic set of laws that govern life and conduct. In order to escape degrading gender roles, the only way out for women is to change their gender identity and live as so-called burrneshas. Less than a hundred, mostly older, burrneshas are said to still exist in Albania today, and in very conservative environments young women are still choosing to live as burrneshas.
“No one dared to arrange a wedding for me. My father ordered my mother to let me be what I wanted to be: a boy.”
“Feeling like a boy was natural and normal for me.”
“With the arrival of democracy, we began to breathe again here in Albania.”
“In prison I started writing books, seven in all. Writing poems was my medicine. For me, poetry is letting the soul speak.”
As early as the nineteenth century, travelers reported encountering burrneshas in northern Albania: women who had put aside their female identity to live like men. This traditional, passed-down reversal of roles gives these women the rights of men, and within a strictly patriarchal society the “man-women” are accorded a respected, privileged status. This step towards freedom has its price: burrneshas live celibately, without marriage or children. Anyone who doesn’t want to marry, because domestic violence against women is condoned as a husband’s right, for example, has no other choice. In archaic clan structures, remaining unmarried as a woman is regarded as a disgrace to the family. In some places, outside circumstances also play a role: if there is no father or male successor, only a burrnesha can claim the position of head of the family. Unique in Europe, burrneshas are officially accorded high social status.
Women who live as men
From Podgorica in Montenegro we set off to visit the women who live as burrneshas and speak of themselves in the masculine form. Contact is established through our guide; we visit the towns of Durrës, Lepushe, Shkodra, Tropoje and Gasturani. The hardship they have suffered in life is evident in their every word and gesture. They all sensed early on that they didn’t want to take on the role that was intended for them, which held many restrictions and few rights for women. Voting, expressing an opinion, pursuing any profession, smoking or leading a self-determined life is not an option for women in this society. As a burrnesha, it is possible to avoid these restrictions. Not only do burrneshas dress like men, they also act tough and masculine to underscore their choice.
On our way through the landscape I notice several strange buildings whose function is not obvious to me at first. The countless concrete domes that rise out of the ground in gardens, meadows and at every corner are a conspicuous relic of the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha and his megalomania: he built 750,000 bunkers throughout the countryside in order to prepare the nation for a potential invasion.
Djana, born 1954
In the port city Durrës, not far from Tirana, we meet Djana. She has the severity of a soldier. Her father was “in the service” and had a privileged position, and she had wanted to follow in his footsteps. She attended a military academy just as if she had been a man. “During communism, you had to line up for everything, women and men separately. When I joined the women, they would get angry because I looked like a man even back then.” The fact that she preferred to play football with the boys, have short hair and wear trousers – and above all, be free, was normal for her, because from early on she felt like a boy. Her parents, especially her mother, had the biggest problem with it. Since living as a burrnesha, Djana has enjoyed great respect. Above all, the determination with which she has stuck to her choice is praised as being decidedly “masculine”. Djana also sees the fact that burrneshas are permitted to carry weapons as a sign of particular respect.
Gjystine, born 1965
Gjystine lives far to the North, at the border to Montenegro. She lives with her elderly mother on a secluded mountain farm in Lëpushë. “We were very poor, eating mainly potatoes and onions. When I think of my childhood, it is the agonizing hunger that comes to mind.” She wanted to work in construction with big machines but Gjystine hasn’t left her village her whole life. Because her father was seriously ill, in addition to his work, she also took on the role of head of the family, helping her mother in the household and raising her younger siblings. Here girls are promised to marry even at an early age. There are other archaic laws in place: sometimes it‘s necessary to defend one’s property by force. Although blood feuds are officially outlawed, such acts of revenge are still committed, especially in rural areas. Gjystine never wanted to marry. That was no problem for her liberal father, but it devastated her more conservative mother. There were repeated attempts and marriage proposals, but she would hide and refuse all of the candidates. “I want to be free and have a quiet life by myself.” Gjystine grew some “thick skin” and became a burrnesha.
Lindita, born 1960
At great Lake Skadar in Shkodra, we have an appointment with Lindita. In her early years she suffered more than she lived, she says. Her father died when she was five and even before puberty she knew that she didn’t want to be a girl. She secretly slipped into the same pair of boy’s trousers every day on her way to school. Out of consideration for her daughter, her mother never married again, and together they worked hard to earn a living. Lindita worked in a factory, but was poorly compensated for her hard work. When, out of rage, she hurls a picture of Enver Hoxha on the floor in her mid-twenties during a salary negotiation, she is immediately sent to prison and sentenced to twelve years. As a man she would have faced the death penalty. Although Lindita doesn’t regret the crime and is proud of her courage, she is close to tears and scarred for life. She speaks openly about the brutality of everyday life in prison and what it’s like, surviving with seventeen inmates in a cell, and about power, violence and sexuality. Being a lesbian is no option, as burrneshas renounce the physical out of principle. Homosexuality has been officially permitted in Albania since 1995, but is still socially outlawed. “I am a man,” she says with conviction and uses the word “burr”, a derivation of the term burrnesha (little man).
Lindita was in prison for six and a half years. During that time she discovered a new voice within herself and wrote seven volumes of poetry which she was able to publish after her release. She was able to live from those earnings for ten years.
Bedri, born 1956
Bedri lives in Gasturani, but her bright yellow van is actually the taxi driver’s home. She used to work as a letter carrier, but in 2004 many people in public service were laid off. The burrnesha, who bears little trace of femininity, has endured many hard times. When communism came to an end in 1997, the country, fell into a civil war-like anarchy, “burning”. There was absolute lawlessness, with armed gangs robbing, without cause, anyone who crossed their path. People holed up in their houses out of fear of the armed thugs and their looting. It’s said that the rebels had 100,000 Kalashnikovs, eighty tanks and thirty fighter planes. The country lost its morale. With the depravation of society and in the psychotic atmosphere, smuggling and extortion thrived. No one could do anything about this terrorist activity, as a vacuum of power had been created when the government collapsed. The police no longer even existed. The West, too, preferred to stay out of this chaotic state of emergency.To live as a burrnesha, drive a car and be able to work as a self-employed taxi driver means freedom and independence for Bedri. In this country, she would never have been able to achieve that as a woman.
Hajdar, born 1931
It takes some time for us to find Hajdar, who lives with her sisters on a small farm in Tropojë. Proud, with her knees spread wide, she sits before us in white men’s attire. At over eighty years old, she has seen and experienced a lot, even if she has hardly left her village. Of all our interviewees, she cultivates old patriarchal customs the most. In her house there is still a room where the men meet and where women are forbidden. This is so as not to desecrate the room. Women are only allowed to bring the men‘s food to the threshold, a symbol of traditional and antiquated gender relations. Even as a young girl Hajda had threatened her parents with leaving if they wouldn’t let her lead her life as a man.
“I felt a deep respect for these women. They made such an immense decision for themselves and pursue it so consistently.”
“On this trip I encountered a harshness and austerity that is hardly imaginable from our Western world of well-being. But I also found a warmth and a particular hospitality as well as an irrepressible desire for freedom.”