Albania 2008 - 2010
In northern Albania, in the Accursed Mountains, said to have been created by the devil himself, the tradition of the sworn virgins, the last man-women of Europe, is still alive to this day. The Kanun, a collection of laws from the Middle Ages, passed on for generations by word of mouth, permits families to replace the male head of the household with a woman in the case of the patriarch’s death, often brought about by clan-related blood feuds. Yet the woman’s new status requires her to make an irrevocable vow to preserve her virginity for the rest of her life. Adult women may swear this oath to take the place of the deceased father or brother. But even newborn girls can be declared sons and raised as boys for the purpose of providing the family with a male heir. Occasionally, women also take the vow to escape a prearranged marriage. Filling the roles of men, these women can also expect to gain more recognition in the male-dominated society of Albania.These so-called oath-virgins, or Burrnesha, not only receive the status but also the rights of men and are highly respected in the family. They do men’s work, and dress and behave like men. But they are men in a social, rather than in a sexual sense. The sworn virgins adapt their roles so perfectly that, over time, they are no longer recognized as women outside of their family. Over the years, the woman in them is lost.
Photographer Pepa Hristova was born in 1977 in Bulgaria. She studied communication design at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences. Her photographic work is driven by her fascination with the fractured beauty of the east and her interest in social phenomena and archaic traditions, leading to an examination of the unknown, changing side of Europe. She focuses on the alienation of Muslims in orthodox Bulgaria, documents a centuries-old custom in North Albania with ‘Sworn Virgins’ or looks behind the closed doors of Bulgarian children’s homes. She approaches her subjects with intuition and emotion and experiments with different genres and the ambiguity of photographic imagery. Snapshots combine with staged images and precise observations of situations, opening up an associative space, in which there is still scope for individual interpretations and points of contact. Hristova received multiple fellowships and awards including the C/O Berlin Talents Award (2008), the Otto Steinert Award for subjective photography (2009), a fellowship from the Berlin Academy of Arts, and the Border Crossers grant of the Robert Bosch Stiftung (2010). Her work has been on display at House Of Photography Deichtorhallen Hamburg, C/O Berlin, the Berlin Academy of Arts, Bozar Centre for Fine Arts Brussels and elsewhere.