I couldn’t decipher the photographs at first.
They arrived linked in an e-mail from a friend, with a tagline that read: Amazing. They were color portraits, shot recently, seemingly of old men who’d lived a little. At least that’s what the evidence suggested: They were dressed as old men, and the camera seemed to regard them as old men, if from another time, like the ’40s or ’50s. But there was something in the eyes, and sometimes the hands, even the carriage of bones—a softness that made me wonder.
The more I gazed upon the photographs, the more I noticed something else. In image after image, the faces possessed an otherworldly quality. That’s as close as I can come to it: Their eyes seemed to look steadily, unabashedly at the camera—or up at the sky, as if they might float away.
These were burrneshas, the text read, or women who dressed and lived as men, in isolated regions of northern Albania, a land of ultraconservative mores. There were strict rules and reasons for this transformation, ones that had been established some 500 years earlier, as part of a medieval canon of laws known as the Kanun. Today possibly only a few dozen burrneshas still exist—and the tribe is fast dwindling.
In The Mountains Where Women Lived as Men, we learn of an unusual tradition in the Albanian Alps where women with limited options in life pledged to be burrneshas – in their conservative society, they took the oath to live like men, with all the burdens and liberties that entailed.