"Sworn Virgin" is the term given to a biological female in the Balkans who has chosen to take on the social identity of a man for life. As a tradition dating back hundreds of years, this was sometimes necessary in a society that lived within tribal clans, followed the Kanun, an archaic code of law, and maintained an oppressive rule over the female gender. Young girls were commonly forced into arranged marriages with much older men in distant villages. The freedom to vote, drive, earn money or own property was traditionally the exclusive province of men. A family suddenly without a patriarch or male heir would find themselves in jeopardy of losing everything.
As an alternative, a daughter could become a Sworn Virgin, or 'burnesha", elevating her to the status of a man and granting her all the rights and privileges of any man. In order to manifest the transition such a woman cut her hair, donned male clothing and sometimes even changed her name. Most importantly of all, she took a vow of celibacy to remain chaste for life.
As modernization inches towards the small villages nestled in the Albanian Alps, this archaic tradition is increasingly seen as obsolete. Only a handful of Sworn Virgins remain.
As a portrait photographer with an interest in subjects that innately speak to the diversity of the human experience, I was fascinated with this story. This is historically one of the few examples of socially accepted gender change and it is rapidly disappearing. My desire to record the sacrifice, context and experience of these women/men set me on course to seek out some of the last burnesha. I was rewarded with a small collection of people who possess an indescribable amount of strength and pride, value their family honor above all else, and have few regrets for all they have sacrificed. Furthermore, their absolute transition is accepted, posited and taken without question by the people among whom they live. Photographing them was my greatest privilege.