‘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. Dating back hundreds of years, this was necessary in societies that lived within tribal clans, followed the Kanun, an archaic code of law, and maintained an oppressive rule over the female gender. The Kanun states that women are considered to be the property of their husbands. The freedom to vote, drive, conduct business, earn money, drink, smoke, swear, own a gun or wear pants was traditionally the exclusive province of men.
As an alternative, becoming a Sworn Virgin, or ‘burnesha’, elevated a woman to the status of a man and granted her all the rights and privileges of the male population. In order to manifest the transition such a woman cut her hair, donned male clothing and sometimes even changed her name. Male gestures and swaggers were practiced until they became second nature. Most importantly of all, she took a vow of celibacy to remain chaste for life. This practice continues today but as modernization inches toward the small villages nestled in the Albanian Alps, this archaic tradition is increasingly seen as obsolete. Only a few Sworn Virgins remain.—Jill Peters
Over the past decade, trans sexuality and gender dysphoria have been much discussed in the western world, but what few westerners realize is that in some countries, a woman living as a man or a man living as a woman isn't boundary busting - it's tradition.
As a portrait photographer with an interest in subjects that innately speak to the diversity of the human experience, I set out to explore how different cultures have recognized and observed gender variance within their society as a whole. Part photography, part anthropology, my interests have combined to form a project that presents the gray areas of gender. Can a woman become a man because she proclaims it? Does a boy cease to be a boy when he feels completely female inside? Our culture has always taught us that the issue is black and white… we are either male or female, gay or straight. What we fail to recognize is that around the world, many cultures throughout history have accepted, even celebrated those who do not fit into this strict perception of gender identity. My intent is to open a dialogue that challenges our long held beliefs about gender norms by looking outside our own culture. By doing this, maybe we can come to recognize that we are all living within the same spectrum of natural human variance, whether we find ourselves planted firmly in the black and white or a gray area somewhere in between.
As an editorial photographer with an eye for portraiture, Jill's work has appeared in Harper's Bazaar, Details, Elle, LIFE, Interview and others. She studied Narrative/Documentary photography at Rochester Institute of Technology. In addition to her gender variance project, she is also producing her first documentary film, about the Sworn Virgins of Albania. She splits her time between Miami Beach and Southampton, New York.
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