Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Under the kanun code, which governs life in the mountains of northern Albania, women do not inherit. They barely even have a name. Yet, under certain circumstances, it is possible for women to break free from this patriarchal strait-jacket. Join us as we explore the world of Albania's sworn virgins.

article summary —

There is not just one Albania. There are many. There are the crowded thoroughfares of the capital Tiranë (Tirana) where cars and trucks tussle in streets that were never designed to suffer such traffic. There are the spots now slowly being discovered by tourists: coastal communities like Vlorë and Sarandë, the great archaeological complex at Butrint and celebrated Ottoman towns like Gjirokastër, where the visitor will still find echoes of the city described by Ismail Kadare in his Kronikë në gur (Chronicle in Stone, 1971).

Head to the far north of the country for High Albania, the mountainous territory documented so perceptively one hundred years ago by the English traveller Edith Durham. "The land of the living past" is how Durham described this region, which was then and still is one of the most isolated areas of Europe. Life here is still in large measure regulated by the kanun - a code of honour and morality, probably dating back to mediaeval times, that inflects many local customs. The kanun prescribes marriage rituals, the value of livestock, arrangements for the division of property and even the circumstances in which retaliatory killing might be justified for the restoration of family honour. There are many versions of the kanun. In the communities where we have stayed and worked in the mountains of northern Albania, the local version of the kanun, which still guides many families, is called the Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit. A modern American traveller to the region, Marjorie Senechal, wrote of the kanun: "its influence on Albanian society can be - very loosely - compared to that of the bible in western culture, where the deeply religious, the casual believers, and agnostics and atheists alike use biblical metaphors and parables almost unconsciously."

The kanun supports a rigidly gendered division of labour in the mountain communities of northern Albania. Traditional men's work includes all heavy manual work such as chopping wood, scything, mowing, harvesting, protecting animals and property. And it is the men in each household who take the lead in talking to visitors, drinking and smoking with visitors, making family decisions, representing the family outside the home, and avenging family honour.

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About and

Antonia Young is an anthropologist who has worked extensively in Albania and elsewhere in the Balkans. She is the author of 'Women who Become Men: Albanian Sworn Virgins' (published by Berg Press). Antonia lives in Skipton in England.

Anjeza Cikopano is an Albanian photographer now living near Vienna in Austria. Her special interest is in social documentary photography.

This article was published in hidden europe 18.