Only a dozen "sworn virgins" are left in the world, as an ancient Balkan tradition where women live as men dies out. "Albania was a man's world, the only way to survive was to become one," says Gjystina Grishaj.

As a 23-year-old woman living in the mountains of northern Albania, she made a decision that would change her life.

She swore a vow of celibacy and promised to live the rest of her life as a man.


Gjystina’s family has lived in the Malësi e Madhe region of Lëpushë for more than a century. A valley deeply nestled between craggy mountains, it is one of the few areas where the burrnesha tradition still exists: a centuries-old practice in which women swear an oath to village elders, and live as men.

These women are known as the burrneshat, or sworn virgins.


“There are many unmarried people in the world but they are not burrneshat. A burrnesha is dedicated only to her family, to work, to live, to preserve her purity,” says Gjystina, now aged 57.