These photos, taken in remote villages in rural Albania, appear to be portraits of elderly and middle-aged men. But the subjects are in fact women, women known as ‘sworn virgins’, females who have chosen - in the absence of any suitable male heir within their family - to renounce their femininity, cut off their hair and live in celibacy as ‘honorary’ men for the rest of their lives.
The rigid patriarchy of remote Albania refuses to allow a woman to take over the family estate once all men have died so when only women remain within a family, one will decide to become a ‘man’, swearing to remain an unmarried virgin forever and become the new head of the family. Or else, as is the case when girls are very young, her parents will decide for her.
The sworn-in girl will be brought up and dressed as a boy, forced to act as a male and to socialise with other boys and men, shall organise the farmland and the work done on it, and even be permitted to carry a weapon. The ‘sworn virgin’ will never be allowed to revert back to being a woman. It is thought that breaking the vow was once punishable by death.
The ancient custom, which is now dying out, has lasted for some 200 years. It remained a strong tradition in Albania until the fall of communism in 1991, but sworn virgins are now a rarity. The practice was born from traditional, northern Albanian law, which believed that women belonged to their fathers until marriage, and then became the property of their husbands. Becoming a ‘sworn virgin’ did allow women to escape from unwanted arranged marriages. The custom not only gave women independence, ‘but also a right to head a family, and retain property which otherwise would be taken over by the closest male relative’. Most ‘sworn virgins’ confess to feeling proud of their fate, and say they gained status they would not otherwise have had in such a patriarchal society.