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Balkan sworn virgins (Albanian: burrnesha) are a gender role in Albania and the Balkans. Sworn virgins are those assigned female at birth who take a vow of chastity in order to be allowed to dress and act in a traditionally masculine way.

Some sworn virgins may identify as trans men, but others identify as cis women and take on the role to gain more freedom, escape arranged marriages, or to be allowed to act as head of household for female relatives.

Other terms for the sworn virgin include vajzë e betuar (most common today, and used in situations in which the parents make the decision when the girl is a baby or child), mashkull (present-day, used around Shkodra), virgjineshë, virgjereshë, verginesa, virgjin, vergjinesha, Albanian virgin, avowed virgin, and sadik (Turkish: honest, just).

Overview

A woman becomes a sworn virgin by swearing an irrevocable oath, in front of twelve village or tribal elders, to practice celibacy. Then she is allowed to live as a man and may dress in male clothes, use a male name, carry a gun, smoke, drink alcohol, take on male work, act as the head of a household (for example, living with a sister or mother), play music and sing, and sit and talk socially with men.

A woman can become a sworn virgin at any age, either to satisfy her parents or herself.

The sworn virgin is believed to be the only formal, socially defined trans masculine transgender and cross-dressing role in Europe. Similar practices occurred in some societies of indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Breaking the vow was once punishable by death, but it is doubtful that this punishment is still carried out. Many sworn virgins today still refuse to go back on their oath because their community would reject them for breaking the vows. However, it is sometimes possible to take back the vows if the sworn virgin has finished her obligations to the family and the reasons or motivations which lead her to take the vow no longer exist.

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