His confusion is understandable. Diana is a burrnesha, one of Albania’s last sworn virgins, women who opted to live as men to escape the domination of a patriarchal system, at the cost of taking a vow of virginity and chastity. The motives for such a choice were exclusively social, not prompted by sexuality or any physical changes.
This practice, which is dying out, is still little understood. It mainly occurs in Albania but reaches north into Montenegro and Kosovo. The term is derived from burra, the Albanian for “man”.
“I know of a sad case,” Diana recalls, “a young woman who fell in love with a man, but her family had promised her to someone else. The only way she could avoid getting married was to become a burrnesha.” Several decades ago arranged marriages were usual in Albania, though this is no longer true. Sometimes family ties were decided before a child was even born.
Refusing such a union could be taken as an insult, leading to a spiral of violence between families and endless feuding, subject to the 15th-century Kanun code of honour. The promise of marriage could be undone without dishonour by taking a vow of chastity.
“Personally, I made this choice to have more freedom,” Diana says. A spoonful of pink ice cream stops in mid-air. At the mention of choice, which merits special emphasis, she becomes more animated, or perhaps we should say “he”; Diana uses the masculine to refer to himself. His military background is written all over him, with a red cravat, a black beret and a tough look. He rarely smiles, but when he does it is quite openly.
Diana was 17 when he decided to become a burrnesha. Now aged 60 he swims regularly in the cold, grey Adriatic, visible from the window of the cafe at the port of Durrës where we met him. He is on home ground, embracing the waiter, placing his cigarette packet on the yellow table cloth like all the regular customers and lighting up.
“I was born in the mountains in the north, after my brother died,” he explains. His mother was from Kosovo, his father an officer in the Albanian army, stationed at Tropojë when Diana was born. The little girl spent the first nine years of her life in this small town on the border with what is now Kosovo.
Even then she was a tomboy. “My father always treated me as a boy. To some extent I took the place of my elder brother who died before I was born. And in myself, I felt like a boy,” Diana says.
At school, flouting hostile opinion, she wore trousers, played football and got involved in fights. Her only concession to her gender was her long hair, until she cut it, aged 17. She told her father, she wanted to be a sworn virgin and that her mind was made up. She would not take no for an answer.
Recalling his oath, Diana strikes the table. Then takes another drag on his cigarette. Even as a young girl, aged seven, he had started smoking the lula, the long Albanian pipe. In those days smoking was a man’s privilege.
“A privilege for men … and women like myself,” Stana Cerovic says. Bent double, she struggles to roll a cigarette, starting again several times because her hands shake so much. It is cold and she is old, though she has forgotten exactly how old. “Maybe 72 or 75, I don’t know,” she says. But she remembers her first puff of smoke, aged five. Sitting in the only room in her home with any heating, she looks more like 100.
She lives in the house where she was born, on the edge of the village of Tusina, in northern Montenegro. In the highlands having a boy child has always been seen as a blessing, and the fact that Cerovic was not a boy was taken as a misfortune, she explains. Unlike Diana, she always refers to herself as a woman.
A black and white cat picks its way through the room, mewing. A wood stove is burning in the corner. Cerovic strikes a match. There is an image of the Madonna on the table and an apple core. On the floor are logs, pans and buckets of dirty water. A narrow bed, unmade, is set against one wall. On the opposite side of the room is another bed, all neat and tidy, on which a blue umbrella stands open. The walls are decorated with photographs. The place is stuffy and cold. “I wasn’t expecting visitors,” she says apologetically.
The ticking of the clock marks the passing of time. She lives very much on her own, but despite her trembling hands, aching back and tired legs, she still keeps a cow. Her nephew helps her with the firewood. He has cut enough to see her through the winter.
“They’re good to me, my nephews,” Cerovic says. They are her sisters’ sons. “I had four sisters and two brothers, but the boys died when they were very little. Rotten luck!” A girl is not worth as much as a boy, she asserts. “A girl is for someone else’s house. When she marries, she goes off with a stranger,” she adds. She points to the framed portraits on the wall. Between her mother and one of her sisters, those who brought honour to the family name: an ancestor who was a judge, another who was a local hero under the Ottoman occupation, and her father.
“I loved my father a lot, really a lot,” she says, gesturing to represent a small child. “When I was very little, when he came back from the fields or the market, I would take a chair and sit next to him.” Her sisters married, but she would not leave her father and his house. She did not want to take orders from another man nor some sour mother-in-law. So she chose celibacy and became a virdzina (virgin in the Montenegrin dialect of Serbo-Croat). Everyone was surprised, because she was a pretty woman.
So she stayed in the house beside the road, which is trapped in the winter snow drifts. She led the life of a man, outdoors in the fields, with the livestock, scornful of women’s work indoors. None of the young men she met appealed to her. “No regrets,” she asserts haughtily, knocking back a glass of rakija, the local tipple. “But everyone else has someone at home, and I’ve no one.” Her sisters have died and the world has changed.
Like Cerovic, Diana has no children. Like her, he never married and stayed a virgin. “Who would have dared touch me? I would have cut off his …,” he quips. He too says he never regretted his choice, which was the only way to find freedom. Had he been born in another country, at another time, under a different regime maybe he would have made a different choice. “I was attractive enough to have been a film star in Hollywood!” Diana says. But what is the point in wondering about that now, he adds, flapping his hand as if to dismiss the question.
His life suits him. He has retired, after a career as a customs officer on the port in Durrës. He passes the time painting, taking photographs and cycling around the town. As a man, he is entitled to play a part in the reconciliation groups set up for families embroiled in blood feuds. He enjoys a certain prestige too, with family and friends. “I’m the man of the family,” he brags, though in fact he has two brothers. When one of his sisters wanted to marry an Italian, Diana crossed the Adriatic to check up on her fiance and his family, before giving his assent.
He prefers the company of men. Women are envious and weak, endlessly gossiping, he claims. But in the same breath, he says that he stands up for them. “Yes, I’m dressed as a man, I became a burrnesha, but I have always fought for women to have the same rights as men,” he says, detailing his various “struggles”: so that women could drive taxis, for his friends to allow their wives and daughters greater freedom.
“Nowadays, women have more freedom. They don’t need to become burrneshas to escape their condition,” he says.