The phenomena of “Sworn Virgins” (Burnesha), women forced to live their lives as men in confinement to their traditional society’s rules dates back to the 15th century Kanun – a set of laws and conduct practices codified by Leke Dukagjini, Albanian prince who fought the Ottoman Empire.
According to the Kanun, women are treated like family property, stripped of the majority of their human rights: they can’t vote in the local elections, can’t buy land and there is a number of jobs for which they’re not allowed to apply for as well as certain village premises where they’re banned from entering. Likewise, under the Kanun, women are not allowed to smoke, drink, drive or wear a watch.
If a woman wishes to be granted all the rights and privileges of the male population, she must effectively become a man, cropping her hair, wearing male clothes and adopting masculine gestures.
The practice of sworn virginhood was first reported by missionaries and anthropologists who travelled to Albanian mountains in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although very few Burnesha remain, the custom is still practiced in certain remote parts of Albania and Montenegro.