During the 20th century, in the face of attempts at centralisation, Albania endured as one of the poorest parts of Europe. Meanwhile, rural life has persevered by a system of exogamous and patrilineal clans. With no nationally imposed justice system, despite attempts to impose national law and church legislation, traditional laws of the Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit or ‘Code of Lekë Dukagjinit’ persisted as the fundamental standard of social relations.
This customary law was passed initially from feudal rulers, the Dukagjini Clan, during the 14th and 15th centuries. It covered a range of moral, social and economic ideology; dealing with issues of public law as government and court. Unfortunately, recent privatisation and politics have led to the provisions of the Kanuni being used for the justification of violence and vendetta under the guise of ‘Blood Feuds’, which, in the context of traditional law is a valid ‘Act of Justice’.
“A woman is a sack made to endure” — Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit
Women had little to no recognition in the Kanuni and were expected to be virgins at the time of their arranged marriage. They were unable to refuse the marriages and had to submit to the dominance of her husband. Their duties also included childbirth and rearing, domestic and agricultural duties; they were also expected to defer to her husband in public.
A woman would be married into a male-controlled clan, often only being referred to by her husband’s first name. It is this deeply rooted gender bipolarity structural dynamic that opens the gateway for the recognition of a third gender. A woman can escape her arranged marriage, take part in blood feuds, act as leaders, obtain property rights and inheritance if she chooses to take on the role of a man.
She can swear an oath of chastity and donning men’s clothing and arms abdicate from marriage, consequently regarded as a man. Now, she is known as Burrnesha / Virgjinesh, a ‘Sworn Virgin’.
From an ethnocentric perspective of Western culture, it may be assumed that these women could be transgender or lesbian in nature and may look at these practices with hatred and disbelief. Others may take pity on these women on the assumption that for them to have any freedom, they are forced to live as men.
However, it is in our best interest to implement tools of cultural relativism by bearing in mind how our worldviews affect our perception of this practice; and examine it holistically. Normative realism encourages us to challenge the validity of our ethnocentric ideology. For this to be achieved, we must actively strive to understand the perspective of others by sequestering our presumptions.
Interestingly, of the three informants that Littlewood spoke to in 2001, all demonstrated the typical male body language and self-confidence — almost to the point of arrogance — of the Albanian culture. However, they denied any history or desire for sexual relations, did not express any tendencies of homosexuality or solidarity as a women’s movement and are typically socially conservative.
By using cultural relativism, we can take on a deeper understanding of the Albania way of life. The reality and frequency of ‘Blood Feuds’ and the effect it has on the traditional values of patrilineal descent and inheritance, rules of exogamy and arranged marriages — not to mention the high price placed on female virginity.
Cultural relativism arms us with the necessary skills to question crude moralisation that appeals to the hyperbole of universal human rights, but that is not to say that anthropologists are not well represented among human rights groups calling for scrutiny of the suffering of women in patriarchal customs.
Social ideology is embedded in the very core of our being, particularly for the Burrnesha. Furthermore, the individual experiences of birth, childhood, sexuality, parenthood and death carry out its own set of meanings on our physical reality, meanings that are common to all members within those environmental constraints.
“Anthropology alone amongst the disciplines seeks to both make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.”