BURNESHA: CODE OF CONDUCT
Oath of Virginity
In the modern nightclubs of Tirana, Albania’s capitol and largest city, it’s a common sight to see young women in short dresses dancing, drinking cocktails, and losing themselves in the pulsating rhythms and flashing lights. Besides the fact that Albania has seen the rise and fall of communism in recent history, urbanization and an ever-growing mass media presence in the country have resulted in the shift away from previously upheld moral values that were in a word – strict.
In the past, Albania had strong codes of morality, especially in regards to marriage and sexual activity. Perhaps compared to the rest of Europe, they still do, but it’s becoming extremely rare that Albanian citizens follow the countries ancient laws of the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini. The laws, which were born out of the notorious Albanian Blood Feuds – feuds between families over land in which a male member of the offending party was allowed to be killed – included a code that outlined the practice of making the eldest daughter the head of the family when there were no males left to take on the role. From a young age, the girl was forced by the family to take a vow of chastity – for life. From the perspective of traditional Albanian society, this effectively turned her into a man, a sworn virgin – a burnesha.
Of course, becoming a burnesha and being groomed to take over the household meant far more than just abstaining from sexual activity.
Stripped of Sexuality
In order to fully take on the role of a man and become a burnesha, a woman would have to go beyond promises and oaths. She would have to strip herself of her womanhood and embrace masculinity.
To fully swap one gender for another meant chopping off long hair and in the process, parting with a feminine vanity that women have enjoyed since the dawn of civilization. It meant getting rid of dresses and adopting a wardrobe, usually handed down from the father, which included trousers. It meant acquiring a hunting rifle, a symbol of male authority, and adopting a masculine swagger. If a burnesha’s father had been murdered, it most certainly meant avenging his death. Most of all, becoming a burnesha meant forsaking marriage and children – for life. Back then such a scenario was often more desirable for a woman, than actually being a woman, as women were treated as second-class citizens. To become a man, or at least a burnesha, meant not having to cook, clean or iron – all women’s responsibilities. It also meant acquiring a degree of authority and respect that would never have been possible otherwise. Of course, getting back to the issue of virginity, it was a tall order to commit to maintaining it for life. Even for women who were not burnesha, the ideals of virginity were held in such high regard and the consequences of having sex before marriage were grave.
In some parts of Albania, old notions in regards to the sanctity of virginity are still held in high regard.
Consequences of Pleasure
In the rural and often mountainous regions of northern Albania, the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini continues to heavily influence the way people live. In fact, they live in such a way that is all but cut off from the modern world.
Closely following ancient codes of conduct, the people of these rural mountain regions maintain that the loss of a woman’s virginity to anyone other than her husband is sinful. The complex set of rules the Kanun imposes includes a framework of communal regulations as well as consequences for certain types of offences. In the cases of breaches to the sexual code – like giving away virginity before marriage – the old rules of the Kanun implicitly stated that the death penalty was in order. Of course, such a harsh penalty would not be doled out today and even in the past, death was usually reserved for cases of sexual activity between blood relatives. However, in cases where a supposedly virgin bride was married off and then found to have been previously “deflowered,” she would most often be returned to her family and forced to live at home for the rest of her life. In parts of Albanian society of today, such scenarios still exist, proving that a country that goes through extensive political and social reform can still hold on to its age-old values.
It is such adherence to values that have allowed one last generation of burnesha to exist in Albania.
The Last Virgins
In a way, they are essentially relics of a disappearing society, but they do still exist. The few burnesha who are still alive and living in Albania are for the most part in their 70’s and 80’s now and their recollections of their lives are interesting, to say the least.
“I’ve dressed like a man, lived in the company of men, and quite enjoyed it for the better part of my life,” said Pashe Quil, an old-school burnesha now in her 80’s. “I played the part so convincingly that nobody ever knew I was a woman.” During her time, Quil had the opportunity to avenge her father’s death; it was always a dream of hers to attain justice for him and she did exactly that. Other living burnesha talk about the incredible odds they faced trying to survive in a testosterone-fueled man’s world and how the fact they got to where they are is not only a testament to their own strength, but also an indicator of the level of acceptance burnesha once had in Albanian society. Still, others talk about the disgraceful young women of modern day Albania, with their indecent clothes and their wooing of men. Of course, they all talk about the necessary sacrifices they made to honor their families and become patriarchs and breadwinners. Albania’s surviving burnesha are part of a unique subculture that will disappear forever in a short number of years.
Of course, old Albanian traditions are so deeply rooted that they won’t disappear altogether, at least for now.
Not Without Consent
Albania may be at the very end of an era in regards to upholding moral codes, but that doesn’t mean that ways of the past don’t continue to have an influence on the present. “Albania has changed in front of my eyes and I have watched new values replace old ones,” said Avni Bajram, a 60 year-old father of five living in Shkoder. “But that doesn’t mean I let my sons and daughters get married without my active participation in finding suitors. They not only had my consent, but in fact, I was the one who made the final decision.”
With a recent resurgence in Albania’s Blood Feuds, the country’s desire to join the EU, and the country’s youth itching to find greater freedoms, all indicators suggest that citizens like Bajram will have far more social changes to swallow in the near future. Only time will tell how easily such a meal will be for them to digest.