Last of the burrnesha: Balkan women who pledged celibacy to live as men
The Italian border policeman seems puzzled. The Albanian passport he is holding belongs to a woman, but the hand that tendered it was that of an old man. An odd-looking fellow, with a deep voice, a weather-beaten face and silvery hair, topped by a beret worn in military fashion. Finally, the official said: „There’s a problem; this is a woman’s passport, whereas you’re a man.“
Diana (name changed) told us this story with a mixture of amusement and indignation. Who did the policeman think he was? She had been firm and answered: „Yes it is me.“ The official apologised, adding: „Carry on, madam … Ahem, sir.“
His confusion is understandable. Diana is a burrnesha, one of Albania’s last sworn virgins, women who opted to live as men to escape the domination of a patriarchal system, at the cost of taking a vow of virginity and chastity. The motives for such a choice were exclusively social, not prompted by sexuality or any physical changes.
„I know of a sad case,“ Diana recalls, „a young woman who fell in love with a man, but her family had promised her to someone else. The only way she could avoid getting married was to become a burrnesha.“ Several decades ago arranged marriages were usual in Albania, though this is no longer true. Sometimes family ties were decided before a child was even born.
Refusing such a union could be taken as an insult, leading to a spiral of violence between families and endless feuding, subject to the 15th-century Kanun code of honour. The promise of marriage could be undone without dishonour by taking a vow of chastity.
„Personally, I made this choice to have more freedom,“ Diana says. A spoonful of pink ice cream stops in mid-air. At the mention of choice, which merits special emphasis, she becomes more animated, or perhaps we should say „he“; Diana uses the masculine to refer to himself. His military background is written all over him, with a red cravat, a black beret and a tough look. He rarely smiles, but when he does it is quite openly.
Diana was 17 when he decided to become a burrnesha. Now aged 60 he swims regularly in the cold, grey Adriatic, visible from the window of the cafe at the port of Durrës where we met him. He is on home ground, embracing the waiter, placing his cigarette packet on the yellow table cloth like all the regular customers and lighting up.
„I was born in the mountains in the north, after my brother died,“ he explains. His mother was from Kosovo, his father an officer in the Albanian army, stationed at Tropojë when Diana was born. The little girl spent the first nine years of her life in this small town on the border with what is now Kosovo.
Even then she was a tomboy. „My father always treated me as a boy. To some extent I took the place of my elder brother who died before I was born. And in myself, I felt like a boy,“ Diana says.
At school, flouting hostile opinion, she wore trousers, played football and got involved in fights. Her only concession to her gender was her long hair, until she cut it, aged 17. She told her father, she wanted to be a sworn virgin and that her mind was made up. She would not take no for an answer.
Recalling his oath, Diana strikes the table. Then takes another drag on his cigarette. Even as a young girl, aged seven, he had started smoking the lula, the long Albanian pipe. In those days smoking was a man’s privilege.
„A privilege for men … and women like myself,“ Stana Cerovic says. Bent double, she struggles to roll a cigarette, starting again several times because her hands shake so much. It is cold and she is old, though she has forgotten exactly how old. „Maybe 72 or 75, I don’t know,“ she says. But she remembers her first puff of smoke, aged five. Sitting in the only room in her home with any heating, she looks more like 100…………………
His life suits him. He has retired, after a career as a customs officer on the port in Durrës. He passes the time painting, taking photographs and cycling around the town. As a man, he is entitled to play a part in the reconciliation groups set up for families embroiled in blood feuds. He enjoys a certain prestige too, with family and friends. „I’m the man of the family,“ he brags, though in fact he has two brothers. When one of his sisters wanted to marry an Italian, Diana crossed the Adriatic to check up on her fiance and his family, before giving his assent.