Jill Peters is an award winning photographer who lives in Miami and Southampton, New York. Her portraits explore gender identity, sexuality and tradition, past and present. Her work has been featured in GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, Marie Claire, LIFE, Details and Elle among others. Jill has recently won a spot in Photo Lucida’s Critical Mass Top 50, 2013 international competition and is currently a finalist in New York Photo Festival 2013. Her work will be exhibited in group shows this spring at Houston Center for Photography and at Corden/Potts in San Francisco. Six images will be included in the NYPHA 2013 exhibition at Powerhouse Arena in NY this January. Jill’s current project “Sworn Virgins of Albania” has received worldwide recognition and has been featured on Slate, Huffington Post, ABC News, Yahoo! News homepage, Radio Free Europe, RTE Radio and many others. GQ will feature the project in the March 2014 issue.
“Sworn Virgin” is the term given to a biological female in the Balkans who has chosen, usually at an early age, to take on the social identity of a man for life. As a tradition dating back hundreds of years, this was sometimes necessary in a society that lived within tribal clans, followed the Kanun, an archaic code of law, and maintained an oppressive rule over the female gender. The Kanun states that women are the property of their husbands. The freedom to vote, drive, conduct business, earn money, drink, smoke, swear, own a gun or wear pants was traditionally the exclusive province of men. Young girls were commonly forced into arranged marriages, often with much older men in distant villages. A family suddenly without a patriarch or male heir would find themselves in jeopardy of losing everything.
As an alternative, becoming a Sworn Virgin, or ‘burnesha” elevated a woman to the status of a man and granted her all the rights and privileges of the male population. In order to manifest the transition such a woman cut her hair, donned male clothing and sometimes even changed her name. Male gestures and swaggers were practiced until they became second nature. Most importantly of all, she took a vow of celibacy to remain chaste for life. She became a “he”.
Sworn Virgins still exist today, but as modernization inches towards the small villages nestled in the Albanian Alps, this archaic tradition is increasingly seen as obsolete. Only a handful remain.