By: Ermira Babamusta/
In the following interview director Roland Uruci and writer Blerta Alikaj talk about this practice “Sworn Virgins – Burrneshat” that has been an Albanian tradition since 1400s and stems from the Albanian culture. For centuries sworn virgins were viewed as respected figures, equally dignified as men. Director Uruci features this topic in his movie “The Superintendent” that tells the story of Shota who “makes the ultimate sacrifice and reveals the most precious secret to a mere stranger”.
In your movie “The superintendent” you bring up a topic that may be unheard of in the western world or not as popular “burrneshat” (sworn virgins). What interested you about this topic and why did you choose it for your movie/script?
Roland Uruçi: This has always been an interesting topic for me especially since it is a very unique phenomenon within the Balkans, especially northern Albania.
Blerta Alikaj: I started writing and entertain my friends with a horror story for Halloween, but it went in a different direction. I wanted the readers to think the story was going one way, then another, and be caught off guard. I also thought it would be interesting to show what a sworn virgin does when she comes face to face with the realization that she is in a different country, where her sacrifice is not necessary, understood or appreciated.
Tells us a little bit more about the origins of Burrneshat (Sworn Virgins)
Roland Uruçi: To me this choice has more of a social weight than the choice of sexual orientation. It is living a life or the perception of a specific life as a gender. It is accepted by others and once it is out there it is simply there.
How do you make the distinction between sworn virgins and sexual orientation? What are some of the principles that define both terms?
Roland Uruçi: Sexual orientation does not require a gender shift. You can remain within your gender. With a Burrnesh there is a gender shift. It has to be a shift for it to hold. It is an oath to never look back to what you were.
Blerta Alikaj: The story of “The superintendent” is not about sexual orientation at all, but about two women rediscovering parts of themselves again and sort of helping each-other. In a way it is about unlikely friendships. Sworn virgins are men for all intents and purposes. They are the way highland society deals with an unusual situation. Being called a man is a compliment. “This woman is shouldering such a hard responsibility, she is now a man, part of an exclusive club. She enjoys all male freedom as long as she keeps within the man frame and smothers her female side.”
A woman with a different sexual orientation who chooses to emulate men, or even change gender is at the other end of the spectrum. She has understood and accepted herself, and she is true to what she perceives to be her nature. She might look, dress and act the same as a sworn virgin, but for completely different purposes.
What is the social context behind “Burrneshat”. What drives the choice of a woman to become man? What are the causes for this phenomenon? What are some of the social pressures if any for women to become men?
Roland Uruçi: My own perception of the root cause is the struggle of the Balkans through out history combined with a male dominant culture. Wars, blood feuds and the like had the Balkans with men sometimes not reaching their 30s. To keep that social norm going women needed to step into the perceived man’s role and this was what came out of that.
Blerta Alikaj: Most women are selfless, compassionate and caring, so if becoming a man is the only way to keep the family together, clothed, fed and alive, they do it. In the highlands, becoming a man was the only way to keep property in the family of women, escape an undesired marriage, or pursue a blood feud. Modern life is not much different. Any woman who rushes off to work in pants, square shoes and sans eyeliner every morning, feels the pressure.
Are there traces of Sworn Virgins today? Is it still practiced today and where?
Roland Uruçi: From what I understand there are still some in Northern Albanian populated areas including areas in Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosova.
How do you view the role of gender in Albanian society and how has the gender role shifted over the years? In what areas have you seen improvement?
Roland Uruçi: I think gender roles have changed with more contact with other cultures. I know growing up there was a great deal of respect for women and that their opinions mattered. Older women were sought out for their help in resolving issues within families. There was pride in working together in making a family which meant both husband and wife worked hard together. How this changed I think happened with a false sense of modernization where ideas of independence seem to be forgotten. Can we have a Shota Galica today? I am not sure we could allow that even thinking that the role of women has improved.
Blerta Alikaj: It is a well-known fact that women have gained a lot of ground. There are prominent women in all fields of life, and many are able to bring food to the table and get recognized for that fact alone.
What does the concept of “Burrnesha” say about the gender role, rights and social equality?
Roland Uruçi: There will always be struggles for equality between genders, sexual orientation, religion and class structure. People are social creatures that tend to divide by nature. I do feel that the concept of a Burrnesh allows for people to see things from a different point of view. That someone can be seen as they wish to be seen without a negative connotation associated to that specific choice.
Blerta Alikaj: To me “The Superintendent” is a story of unlikely friendships and of self-discovery.
What is the status quo in Albanian society about Burrneshat? How is this concept of Sworn Virgins accepted in the Albanian culture, by the society and men?
Roland Uruçi: Again from my understanding they are accepted as equals to men. They work jobs that are preferred by men and there is no real doubt of their ability to perform as their chosen gender. Is that 100 percent… I feel that with a world culture gaining ground in Albanian culture this will change.
After the screening of “The Superintendant” what feedback did you receive from the American public? What interesting conversation came up regarding this topic?
Roland Uruçi: When people saw our short film there were a sense awe in something so different. It is a thinking persons film. It brings a different point of view to gender that people have not thought about before. One of the best compliments I received was that I respected the character in the story and the concept of the story itself.
How is this notion of Sworn Virgins understood in United States? How does it fit in with the social context, cultural context and the psychology of self/identity?
Roland Uruçi: It is not understood clearly with there still being an idea that it is really a choice of sexual orientation rather than a choice or perception and how one fits into a society. It is a mental transformation that does not require a physical change. I think here in the US it would be accepted more but, even here people find it more exotic than anything else.
What are some of the assumptions people make in United States about Sworn Virgins. How do those perceptions change after they see the movie “The Superintendent”?
Roland Uruçi: Here there is the concept of gender as always chained to sexuality and in Albanian culture gender is more connected to social standing. It is is something that makes people think more than just accept. That is what films and art should do for people. It all should make people think and reevaluate what perception is as we as a world evolve into a global culture.
What’s next for you?
Roland Uruçi: Currently I am trying to get a feature film into production. The film is based on the real experiences of my friend, Julian Biba, in Greece in the 1990’s. This was during the Albanian Civil war and economic breakdown. His desire to find a better life in Greece was met by a harsh experience that no one should have to live through and some did not. The title is Paftuar (uninvited) and we hope to shoot in Albania in the next year.
While I am working on getting Paftuar on its feet I am shooting another Albanian themed short that I plan to shoot in the next couple of months. I do not want to talk about the subject matter but, I will say that it is very topical with its subject matter. (www.rolanduruci.com)
Blerta Alikaj: Currently collaborating on the Albanian-American Success Stories project, an excellent private opportunity to present ourselves in a good light. Occassionally, you will also find a few of my works at www.bletebzz.wordpress.com.
Caption: Qamile Stema, Sworn Virgin, Photo by Johan Spanner