The natives inhabiting obscure villages in the Albanian Alps have, for the longest time, been governed by a set of codes and laws called Kanun, which dictates that families must be patrilineal and patrilocal. Under these laws, women are to be treated like the family's property and cannot enjoy basic rights like possessing their own land, or opting for certain occupations. 

In northern Albania, the only way a woman can have the rights of a man is to take an oath of celibacy and become a sworn virgin. 

Under the very set of the Kanun laws, however, women can choose to set themselves free from the clutches of patriarchy, at a certain cost, of course. A woman can choose to become a sworn virgin by swearing an irrevocable oath, in front of 12 village or tribal elders, to practice celibacy.

A woman can choose to become a sworn virgin at any age, and only then is she allowed the same rights as a man.

Burneshas are Albanian women who have lived their lives as men, donning their clothes and their mannerisms to avoid the old codes that governed the tribal clans. She then lives as a man, uses a male name and is allowed to carry a gun, smoke, drink alcohol, take on male work, and also act as the head of a household.  

Along with the burdens of being a man, come the liberties, and that is what drove most women in the past to opt for this lifestyle.

Many women chose to become sworn virgins simply because it afforded them much more freedom than would otherwise have been available in a patrilineal culture, in which women were secluded, sex-segregated, required to be virgins before marriage and faithful afterwards, betrothed as children and married by sale without their consent.

However, they would also have to be sworn to celibacy for the rest of their lives. This was a sacrifice many women were willing to make at the time to escape the societal structure that treated women as property.

While this tradition held it's stronghold from the 15th to the 20th century, it is now fading away, slowly but steadily. Photographer Jill Peters captured the lives of the remaining Burneshas, in soul stirring portraits. The youngest Burnesha in the Albanian society is reported to be 42.

The sworn virgin is believed to be the only formal, socially defined female-to-male cross-gender and cross-dressing role in Europe.

This GQ video titled The Sworn Virgins of Albania, captures the lives of the Burneshas, quickly dwindling in numbers.

The fact that the sworn virgins are a dying tradition is proof that the country has come a long way in terms of women’s rights in the past 50 years.

All images are property of photographer Jill Peters.