The burrnesha are the third gender of Albania, and unlike my previous articles, are centered on the masculine woman as opposed to the feminine man. This is because the burrnesha (derived from burra, translated to man from Albanian) is inspired by the social climate of women centuries ago when society was organized by patriarchy and women had very few to no rights.
The aspect of sexuality comes into play with a vow that must be made to be accepted as a man in Albanian society. This vow is one of celibacy- a promise to remain a virgin for their entire lives-made in front of twelve community elders- in exchange for the freedoms of men. Once this vow was made then that person was allowed to live the life of a man and allotted the status of ‘the man of the household’ when their father passed on.
As I was conducting this research my mind focused on one question- why virginity? The symbolic and historical nature of the innocent woman is one most people are familiar with, so why to be deemed a man in society does a vow to remain a virgin need to be made? This is the aspect that truly makes the burrnesha a unique case of third genders. For the third genders I have studied previously, sexual partners were an option, often times a profession, for the individual. My personal analyses of this draws on the line between virginity, nature and superiority as well as the hypersexualization of women. It would seem rational that to be accepted as a man one must first make themselves perceived as the opposite of a woman. Hence if women are hypersexualized, to be accepted as a man you must completely desexualize yourself. Another analyses could draw on the strictly conservative social organization of Albania both 500 years ago and today. In Albania, sexualities deviant from that which supports the nuclear family (supportive being heterosexual and deviant being homosexual), is considered unnatural and is associated with a very intense stigma. Therefore, for this ‘cheat loop’ in society to be coded, a guarantee against ‘unnatural’ behavior must be made.
To give a full historical picture- This practice dates back to before 15th century and was officially coded into society with a set of rules called the Kanun, which set in print all of the freedoms born women could gain if they vowed to remain a virgin and live as a man, which included owning property and socializing with other men. This may seem ridiculous to some, however, in an era where women were not permitted to earn a living, if for some reason all of the men in the family died, there would be no one to provide for the other females in the household. Such instances required the eldest daughter to take the vow and become the man of the household.
The burrnesha of Albania is a very unusual instance where social climate has shaped third sex social organization, instead of the more common observation in history, where social organization shapes, and often time oppresses, the notion of a third gender. For the burrnesha the third gender gave them a way of escaping their born reality to be free. It was less about sexuality and more about the social construct and rights awarded to the masculine gender. For this reason, the choice of freedom at the price of chastity, was for many, an easy decision.
“It began hundreds of years ago, deep in the Albanian Alps—an unusual tradition where women, with limited options in life, took the oath of the burrnesha.”