Text by Andrew Higgings
Gjystina Grishaj, known by her male nickname, Duni, declared herself a man nearly 40 years ago in order to avoid a forced marriage at a young age.
A centuries-old tradition in which women declared themselves men so they could enjoy male privilege is dying out as young women have more options available to them to live their own lives.
Photographs by Laura Boushnak
LEPUSHE, Albania — As a teenager locked in a patriarchal and tradition-bound mountain village in the far north of Albania, Gjystina Grishaj made a drastic decision: She would live the rest of her life as a man.
She did not want to be married off at a young age, nor did she like cooking, ironing clothes or “doing any of the things that women do,” so she joined a gender-bending Albanian fraternity of what are known as “burrneshat,” or “female-men.” She adopted a male nickname — Duni.
“I took a personal decision and told them: I am a man and don’t want to get married,” Duni recalled telling her family.
Few women today want to become what anthropologists call Albania’s “sworn virgins,” a tradition that goes back centuries. They take an oath of lifelong celibacy and enjoy male privileges, like the right to make family decisions, smoke, drink and go out alone.
Duni said her choice was widely accepted, though her mother kept trying to get her to change her mind until the day she died in 2019. Like other burrneshat, Duni — who remains Gjystina Grishaj in official documents — is still universally referred to in a traditional way, with female pronouns and forms of address, and does not consider herself transgender.
The fraternity that Duni joined nearly 40 years ago is dying out as change comes to Albania and its paternalistic rural areas, allowing younger women more options. Her village, which is Christian, like much of the northern part of the country, has in recent years started to shed its claustrophobic isolation, thanks to the construction of a winding road through the mountains that attracts visitors, but that also provides a way out for strong-willed local women who want to live their own lives.
Many, like Duni, took the oath so that they could escape forced marriages; some so that they could take on traditional male roles — like running a farm — in families where all of the men had died in blood feuds that plagued the region; and others because they just felt more like men.
“Society is changing, and burrneshat are dying out,” said Gjok Luli, an expert on the traditions of northern Albania. There are no precise figures for how many remain, but of the dozen or so who do, most are elderly. Duni, at 56, is perhaps the youngest, he said.
“It was an escape from the role given to women,” Mr. Luli said, “but there is no desperate need to escape anymore.”
Among those now able to choose different paths in life is Duni’s niece, Valerjana Grishaj, 20, who decided as a teenager to leave the mountains and move to Tirana, Albania’s relatively modern-minded capital. The village, Ms. Grishaj explained over coffee in a Tirana cafe, “is not a place for me.”
“All my friends there have been married since they were 16,” she said.
But Ms. Grishaj said she understood why her aunt made the decision she did. “There were no strong, independent women up there,” she said. “To be one, you had to become a man.”
She praised her parents for letting her make her own choices. “I was very lucky, but parents like mine are rare,” Ms. Grishaj said, noting that most still pressure their daughters to marry as teenagers.
Albania, which was isolated under a communist dictatorship until 1991, has seen its economy and social mores develop rapidly in recent years, and the country has become increasingly connected to the rest of Europe. But Tirana, to which Ms. Grishaj moved at 17 to study theater directing, can still be a difficult place for a young woman trying to make her own way.
“The patriarchy still exists, even here in Tirana,” Duni’s niece said. Young women who live alone, she lamented, stir nasty gossip and “are often seen as whores.”
The difference now though, she said, is that “women today have much more freedom than before, and you don’t need to become a man to live your own life.”
By declaring herself a man, Duni was not striking at conventional gender norms, but submitting to them. She also shares the strongly transphobic and homophobic views that are prevalent in Albania.
Men, everyone in her remote alpine hamlet of Lepushe believed, would always have more power and respect, so the best way for a woman to share their privilege was to join them, rather than trying to beat them.
“As a man, you get a special status in society and in the family,” Duni said, looking back on nearly four decades of dressing, behaving and being treated like a man. “I have never worn a skirt and never had any regrets about my decision,” she said.
Underpinning this tradition was the firm grip in northern Albania of “the Kanun,” a set of rules and social norms that classify women as chattel whose purpose was to serve men.
The low status afforded women did give them one advantage, though: It exempted them from the battles that for centuries decimated northern Albanian families as men from feuding clans died in a never-ending cycle of vengeance killings. Parents whose sons had all been killed often urged a daughter to take on a male identity so there would be a man to represent the family at village meetings and to manage its property.
A woman who became a sworn virgin was viewed as not entirely male, did not count in blood feuds and therefore escaped being targeted for murder by a rival clan.
Mr. Luli, the expert on local traditions, said one of his cousins, who went by the nickname Cuba instead of her original name, Tereza, was an only child and became a sworn virgin so she could avoid being married off and leaving her parents to fend for themselves. She died of old age in 1982.
He compared Cuba with a “woman who decides to become a nun.”
“It is the same kind of devotion,” Mr. Luli said, “only to the family instead of God.”
For Albanians pushing for gender equality, such devotion stirs mixed feelings. “Saying I will not take orders from a man is feminist,” said Rea Nepravishta, a women’s rights activist in Tirana. “Saying I own myself and will not be owned by a man is feminist.”
But, she added, “being forced to be a man instead of a woman is totally anti-feminist — it is horrible.”
Inequalities enshrined by the Kanun, Ms. Nepravishta said, gave women a choice “between either living like a semi-animal or having some freedom by becoming a man.” While still strong, patriarchy, she added, has lost some power and no longer confronts women with such stark choices.
Some burrneshat said they declared themselves men simply because they never felt like women. Diana Rakipi, 66, a burrnesha in the coastal city of Durres, said, “I always felt like a man, even as a boy.”
Aggressively masculine in manner, Ms. Rakipi delights in being bossy. On a stroll near her tiny one-room apartment, she kept stopping passers-by who she thought were acting improperly — like a boy she saw hitting his brother — and berated them.
Ms. Rakipi, who was raised in the north before moving south to Durres, said she took an oath of celibacy as a teenager in front of dozens of relatives and vowed to serve the family as a man. Born after her parents’ only son died from illness, Ms. Rakipi said she had grown up being told she had been sent by God to replace her dead brother.
“I was always considered the male of the family. They were all so upset by the death of my brother,” she said, sitting in a cafe where all of the other customers were men. She wore a black military beret, a red tie, men’s trousers and a safari vest, its pockets stuffed with talismans of her eclectic beliefs, including a Christian cross and a medallion with the face of Albania’s onetime dictator, Enver Hoxha.
Ms. Rakipi snorted with contempt when asked about people who undergo transition surgery. “It is not normal,” she said. “If God made you a woman, you are a woman.”
Duni, from Lepushe village, also has strong views on the subject, saying that altering the body goes “against God’s will,” and that people “should be put in jail” for doing so.
“I have not lived as a burrnesha because I want to be a man in any physical way. I have done this because I want to take on the role played by men and to get the respect of a man,” she said. “I am a man in my spirit, but having male genitals is not what makes you a man.”
Locals in Lepushe, including Manushaqe Shkoza, a server at a cafe in the village, said Duni’s decision to become a man initially came as a surprise, but it was accepted long ago. “Everyone sees it as normal,” Ms. Shkoza said.
Duni said she was sad that the tradition of sworn virgins would soon die out, but noted that her niece in Tirana had shown that there were now less drastic ways for a woman to live a full and respected life.
“Society is changing, but I think I made the right decision for my time,” Duni said. “I can’t resign from the role I have chosen. I took an oath to my family. This is a path you cannot go back on.”
Fatjona Mejdini contributed reporting.