Saturday 30 September 2023

The last of the sworn virgins - Stories from Albania

Gjyustina Grishaj was taking the washing in when I saw her. It had not been possible to contact her in advance and so, together with my guide and interpreter, Saimir, I'd taken the risk of just turning up. This involved balancing on narrow logs to cross streams, climbing boundary fences and taking at least one wrong turn before we reached her home, amongst the Albanian Alps in remote Lepushe. 

She wasn't expecting us and there was no guarantee that she'd be willing to talk. I needn't have worried as she welcomed us with smiles and waves, invited us onto the porch and offered water, blueberry juice and raki. It was a little odd meeting Gjyustina in person as I'd seen her a few months earlier in a short BBC documentary, The sworn virgins of Albania. The programme, made by Gjyustina's film-maker niece focused on the almost extinct practice in northern Albania, of women taking a vow of chastity and living as men. Only a handful of Burrnesha  (the Albanian name for this phenomenon) are still alive.

The tradition originates from the Kanun, a set of social codes and laws developed during the Ottoman period and used mostly in northern Albania and Kosovo well into the 20th century. It dictates the strict patriarchal nature of society, with all wealth inherited by men and asserts that women are part of a family's property. It also placed many other restrictions on women including being forbidden to smoke or wear a watch, vote, buy land, socialise with men or do certain jobs. 

These rules did not apply to the Burrnesha once they'd taken an irrevocable oath of celibacy in front of village or tribal elders. They were considered male, with the same privileges as men and could take the role of head of a household. Most would wear men's clothes and some would take a male name. They would also be required to do hard physical labour normally undertaken by men. Breaking the vow was punishable by death. However, there were some circumstances that allowed a change of heart if the reasons for taking the vow no longer existed.

Motivations for becoming Burrnesha varied. In families without a surviving male child, it would allow a woman to inherit the family's wealth. It was also a way to avoid an arranged marriage without dishonouring the groom's family, or for a women to avoid marriage more generally should she wish to remain single. In extreme circumstances, a daughter may be required to become Burrnesha in order to continue a blood feud with another family if all the male members had already been killed.  

"I decided to become the man of the family"

Gjyustina explained how she came to the decision to become a Burrnesha. She said, "I was the third of six children, two boys and four girls. When my father died of a heart attack, the oldest boy and the oldest girl had already married and left. Someone needed to step up and take responsibility. I decided to become the man of the family, to make sure that my siblings would be well educated and to support my mother." She knew about the tradition of the sworn virgin from books in her father's personal library. She said, "My father was a teacher. I liked reading and he had a lot of books, including the Kanun." 

I wondered how her family, friends and the other villagers had reacted to this decision. She said, "I made my vow in front of my family rather than the villagers, but they knew and they respected me for it. My mother and my older, married brother tried to dissuade me. Mother was particularly opposed to my decision and said 'No, you cannot do this, you must marry, otherwise you will be alone.' They also tried to get  my younger brother to make me re-think my decision. The older one told him to make my life as hard as possible so that I would give in, but I'd decided what to do and to accept whatever my destiny would be." 

I asked her about the consequences of taking the vow, other than from being forbidden marriage and children. She said, "Our family was very poor. I did agricultural work, chopping wood, anything. I devoted my life to hard work for the good of the family." She added, "I earned very little and we had to stand in long queues to get food and other things. There was never enough." For most people, queueing for basic items, sometimes for hours, was a significant part of life during the communist period. In her book Free, Lea Ypi writes about the practice of leaving a stone to mark one's place if another queue was forming for some other item. A whole etiquette of queueing was developed to manage such occurrences.

"Once I'd taken the decision I knew there was no way to turn back"

It has been suggested that becoming a sworn virgin was a way of women obtaining greater freedom and escaping restrictions, especially in remote rural communities. Gjyustina dismissed this saying, "I knew another Burrnesha who said that we have to work much harder than the men to be accepted. Yes, we are considered to be like men, but everyone knows we are women." The Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare was even more direct in his introduction to Elvira Dones novel Sworn Virgin, where he wrote, "This...custom...presents a loss as a privilege, and offers subjection in the guise of freedom." Dones' book tells the story of a young woman trying to revert to her previous life after taking the oath. 

Gjyustina, was quiet for a moment and seemed to be considering whether or not to speak, and then said, "Despite the hardships, I've never regretted my decision. I am happy." She continued, "There are many unmarried people but being Burrnesha is different. It's a gift from God. Once I'd taken the decision I knew there was no way to turn back." She added, "But sometimes I get lonely. It's very quiet here when I don't see other people. Without the chance to talk it's like being in prison." 

She still has relatives living nearby. She said, "They come to see me and are happy to help but I never require anything from them in return for what I did." Like many Albanians, she also has relatives living abroad. "I have a sister in Italy," she said, "I spend a few weeks with her every year. I can speak Italian. I also have a brother in America. He sometimes comes to see me. I wanted to visit him in New York but my visa application was refused." 

"No-one else will do this, I will be the last one"

In the BBC documentary, she spoke to her niece about plants with medicinal properties, gathered from the surrounding area. I asked about this and she led us to a large shed at the side of her property. She explained that she'd used it as a small shop when running a guest house from her home. Unfortunately the guest house and the shop are now closed as since covid the number of visitors has decreased. Inside the shed she had several kinds of wild flower for making tea, as well as medicinal plants and mushrooms, all gathered locally. There were also maps showing hiking routes and bottles of different-flavoured homemade raki. "My father knew a lot about plants, flowers, herbs and mushrooms," she said, "When I was small I would go into the mountains with him to collect them and he would explain their uses. He had books about these things too. Of course, I was little and I wouldn't remember what he'd said, and once I lost the plants he'd asked me to look after when he went further up the mountain.  We had to go and look for them again." 

A wooden crucifix hung over the shop doorway and another one on one of the walls. There were also a few family photographs, one of which particularly caught my attention. It showed a woman wearing traditional clothing, including the loose white headscarf still worn by many older Albanian women. She is surrounded by two men and a small boy. Gjyustina noticed my interest and said "That's my mother and father and my two brothers."

Gjyustina Grishaj is 58, the youngest and possibly the last sworn virgin of Albania. She knows of two others, older than her and who prefer to live privately. I asked her if she thought that in the future other women would take the vow. Her response was clear. She said, "No-one else will do this, I will be the last one. Many Burrnesha did this to keep their families from poverty but things are easier here now. Also, people's attitudes about helping others and about family responsibility have changed. I felt I had to do it. Today people feel differently." We left her waving at the front of her house. I looked back several times and she was still there, waving each time I turned.

You might also like You had to be careful about everything or The Hijras of Shyampur

Tuesday 19 September 2023

"You had to be careful about everything" - Stories from Albania

There are many empty homes in Valbone, northern Albania. Some are occupied for a short period each year when the owners return from working overseas, while others, seemingly abandoned, have begun to crumble. While photographing what I thought to be an abandoned house, two women emerged and came towards my guide, Saimir and I. The younger of the two greeted us and indicating the slightly stooped woman at her side, said, "Zoja would like to invite you into her house." Zoja, a tiny woman who wore the loosely tied white headscarf, typical of many older Albanian women, smiled generously and gestured for us to follow her. 

The austere-looking house was set back from the road, overlooking an almost dry river bed and under the shadow of the mountains. Saimir and I, removed our shoes and went inside. The younger woman gave her name as Zarya and explained that the house had been built for military personnel during Albania's 45 years long communist period. When the regime collapsed in 1991 the place was left empty. Inside I immediately noticed and commented on how cool and comfortable the temperature was compared to the rising mid-morning heat. "The walls are very thick" said Zarya, "they keep the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter. But they are sometimes damp because of the condensation." 

We were shown into a simple, but charming living room, furnished with a heavy 1970's style suite and coffee table and a few small kilims (traditional rugs). The dark brown and orange furniture contrasted sharply with the clean, whitewashed walls. A piece of hand-made lace lay on a small set of drawers, and herbs and berries collected from the mountains, had been placed on top of it. A larger piece of lace that my grandmother would have called an antimacassar lay over the back of one of the chairs. "My friend made some of these pieces," said Zoja as she led us into the kitchen where two other women were sitting and who greeted us with smiles and "hello" in English. The room was filled with the buttery aroma of byrekas being prepared on the stove. 

"My family owned the land but it was confiscated by the communists"

I asked Zoja how long she'd lived there. She said "I've been here for the last twenty years. My family owned the land but it was confiscated by the communists who built soldiers' houses on it. After they left, I came back and moved in. I am 80 now and a widow. I have six children. Two live abroad. Another son disappeared somewhere in Greece. He might be dead. I don't know what happened to him." Zarya added "Her other children live close by and see her regularly."

Zoja continued, "My husband died eleven years ago. He spent time in prison during the communist period. He was sent to Spaç, where he was tortured and lost an eye. I had to do hard agricultural work to feed the family." The telling of the story was clearly affecting her and she paused, trying to compose herself. Spaç, in a remote part of the Mirdita region, was the most notorious of the network of isolated prisons and forced labour camps established under the old regime. Prisoners were subject to hard physical labour and torture, including mock executions, sleep and food deprivation, being fed very salty food and then denied water as well as being beaten and then having salt poured into the wounds afterwards. Sentences of ten or even twenty years were not unusual and people were often re-arrested immediately after their release.

Perhaps to divert Zoja a little, Zarya asked if we had other questions. All of the women present were wearing different levels of Islamic clothing. I asked how people had managed to maintain religious practise under the old regime, as in 1967, communist leader, Enver Hoxha, declared Albania an atheist state. Most mosques and churches were demolished and anyone discovered or reported to be practising religion was imprisoned. "It was very difficult" she said. "It wasn't possible to dress like this then. Everything had to be hidden. We even changed the way we spoke. After someone died instead of expressing hope that the dead person would go to heaven, people spoke about the health of their relatives. It was a very dangerous time."

"You had to be careful about everything"

I asked Zoja if there had been anything good about the old regime. She said "Everyone had a job and agriculture and industry operated well. But behind it all, there was something very bad. You had to be careful about everything. There were many spies who would listen to and report conversations. Sometimes people who had a quarrel with their neighbour would take revenge by making up stories about them and reporting them to the police." 

As well as people who voluntarily reported their friends, neighbours and even family members, the regime had a huge network of spies. Even very small infringements could get you sent to prison and your family ostracised. Ways of dealing with this included being creative with language. In her autobiography  "Free: Coming of Age at the End of History," Albanian professor of Political Theory, Lea Ypi, remembers her parents talking about an uncle taking 20 years to graduate from university and eventually realising that "university" meant prison and the 20 years of study was his period of incarceration. This level of fear and suspicion must have a lasting impact on society and despite the seeming openness of most Albanians, there are still hints of the old fears. I asked a local why so many Albanian cafes and restaurants play deafeningly loud music. "It is to prevent us hearing the conversations of others," he said.

In Albanian culture guests are treated with high regard and are considered to be under the protection of the house. Despite our entreaties for her to sit, Zoja remained standing for the duration of our visit. "I must stand to give respect to my guests," she said. Before leaving, I asked if she would let me photograph her. She agreed and I took a number of shots, both inside and outside the house. As we left, she asked us to return, blessed our families and stood waving from the step.

Photographs of Zoja and external scenery by the author, internal details by Studio SB