A centuries-old tradition in which women declared themselves men so they could enjoy male privilege is dying out as young women have more options available to them to live their own lives.
LEPUSHE, Albania — As a teenager locked in a patriarchal and tradition-bound mountain village in the far north of Albania, Gjystina Grishaj made a drastic decision: She would live the rest of her life as a man.
She did not want to be married off at a young age, nor did she like cooking, ironing clothes or “doing any of the things that women do,” so she joined a gender-bending Albanian fraternity of what are known as “burrneshat,” or “female-men.” She adopted a male nickname — Duni.
“I took a personal decision and told them: I am a man and don’t want to get married,” Duni recalled telling her family.
Few women today want to become what anthropologists call Albania’s “sworn virgins,” a tradition that goes back centuries. They take an oath of lifelong celibacy and enjoy male privileges, like the right to make family decisions, smoke, drink and go out alone.
Duni said her choice was widely accepted, though her mother kept trying to get her to change her mind until the day she died in 2019. Like other burrneshat, Duni — who remains Gjystina Grishaj in official documents — is still universally referred to in a traditional way, with female pronouns and forms of address, and does not consider herself transgender.
The fraternity that Duni joined nearly 40 years ago is dying out as change comes to Albania and its paternalistic rural areas, allowing younger women more options. Her village, which is Christian, like much of the northern part of the country, has in recent years started to shed its claustrophobic isolation, thanks to the construction of a winding road through the mountains that attracts visitors, but that also provides a way out for strong-willed local women who want to live their own lives.
Many, like Duni, took the oath so that they could escape forced marriages; some so that they could take on traditional male roles — like running a farm — in families where all of the men had died in blood feuds that plagued the region; and others because they just felt more like men.
“Society is changing, and burrneshat are dying out,” said Gjok Luli, an expert on the traditions of northern Albania. There are no precise figures for how many remain, but of the dozen or so who do, most are elderly. Duni, at 56, is perhaps the youngest, he said.
“It was an escape from the role given to women,” Mr. Luli said, “but there is no desperate need to escape anymore.”
Among those now able to choose different paths in life is Duni’s niece, Valerjana Grishaj, 20, who decided as a teenager to leave the mountains and move to Tirana, Albania’s relatively modern-minded capital. The village, Ms. Grishaj explained over coffee in a Tirana cafe, “is not a place for me.”
“All my friends there have been married since they were 16,” she said.
But Ms. Grishaj said she understood why her aunt made the decision she did. “There were no strong, independent women up there,” she said. “To be…