I was betrothed at age 12 to a boy called Petru.
He smelled like old clothes and wet dirt and had eyes the colour of smoke. I didn’t much like him and I certainly didn’t want to marry him. Papu told me it was for the good of our family, our culture, our tradition. He told me that I was the future of our family. Maami told me I was to be a wife by fourteen.
A new show aired last week on Channel 4 in the UK. Called “Gypsy Matchmaker”, which follows two families living in Rotherham and Oldham. I only found out about it when I discovered an article via The Herald (Scotland) slamming the show. Claiming that the families brought with them the “foul Gypsy tradition of buying and selling young girls and forcing them into ‘marriages’ when they are barely past puberty”. The Herald article goes on to argue, ” Why was the word ‘rape’ never used? Why was the word ‘paedophile’ never used? Words were carefully chosen and misappropriated – it’s not ‘rape’ it’s ‘marriage’. She’s not a ‘child’ she’s a ‘bride’. It’s not ‘illegal’ it’s ‘cultural’ – and others were carefully avoided. Even the title of the programme, with the retro word ‘matchmaker’, was calculated to be cute and romantic.”
I could scarcely believe what I was reading. So, I sought out the video on Channel 4 (the trailer is available here). It was shocking. It was confusing. But mostly, it was true.
In some respects, Šanko reminds me of my Papu.
Papu was a strong-willed, diabetic, old-school Rom. His husky voice cracked when he spoke, a combination of too many cigarettes and too much whiskey. Papu and Maami were very strict and demanded we follow Romanipen at all times. Growing up I wore long skirts, long sleeves, and usually covered my head around older men. I learned how to cook, clean, take care of a family as soon as I was tall enough to reach the tap, the counters, and carry the laundry basket. I was not allowed to speak in mixed company unless directly asked to do so. Education was not a priority. My family were illiterate – a path I was predestined to follow. Papu was unforgiving and tough. You didn’t want him to yell out, “CHAJE, SO TU KERDJAL?” (Girl! What have you done?) because he would beat you and he would beat you hard.
My parents were also very strict – no boys, no television for girls, no school, no non-Romani friends. I was to clean and to cook. I was to provide clean and folded clothes and to have as many babies (preferably boys) as I could. I was to raise good Romani sons. My father told me time and again that women did not have opinions; women did not need education; women stayed home and looked after the house and family and that’s how it had always been. In fact, on more than one occasion, my father told me that “trying to teach a girl is like trying to teach a pig to sing”.
I was expected to marry early, as the show says, to keep patjiv – honour and respect. Not only my own, but that of the whole family. To be considered “tainted” or “degeš” was not only applicable to one member of a family, but to all. As I crept unwillingly towards fourteen and ‘womanhood’, I started to notice friends at school vanishing. First this one, then that one. I’d see them later on the street, meek and silent, and often pregnant. A few of us argued for school until sixteen and were granted reprieve.
As a child, I was lucky. Yes, my father was alcoholic, angry, and sometimes as vicious with his hands as his words. Yes, my mother let him beat her and never spoke up to protect herself or her children. But, my family had settled in the UK. I was able to go to school. I was able to see a doctor if I became very sick (as I often did). I was protected from the fierce poverty and oppression that stalked my Slovakian family. I visited their abjectly poor villages during the summer, running between dilapidated buildings and watching as aunts fought dust and dirt daily, as well as more sinister opponents like addiction, preventable disease, and pollution. I lost many cousins to tuberculosis, measles, chickenpox, the flu, and other common and preventable illnesses before they turned five years old. My family, decimated during the Holocaust could not forget how they watched our children disappear. My grandmother lost five of her eight children before their third birthday, my mother was one of only two siblings to survive out of… well, no one is quite sure how many. A large number of my relatives died in early middle-age (forties and fifties), again due to preventable illnesses or complications from disorders such as diabetes, heart problems, or immune system deficiencies. Some died from industrial hazards – lead, asbestos, black lung – from jobs they’d had to take to earn enough to feed their families.
I had one set of cousins who became orphaned when both parents died of pneumonia. They smoked, they drank. Kako worked in scrap and was often exposed to both lead and asbestos. Bibi cared for her husband when he became sick one winter, then she became sick and the eldest daughter cared for everyone. That daughter, Jara, was thirteen and unmarried. In the space of a month she became mother to all seven of her siblings. It was hard for her since many others in our community had no room to take them in – all my aunts had many children of their own who they were already struggling to feed and clothe.
It isn’t just illness, disease, and death. There are deeper, harder views and issues to change within our communities. Our women have been subjected to horrific treatment by non-Romani throughout history – forced marriage, removal of children, slavery, rape, branding, and forced sterilization, not to mention genocide. This has left an indelible mark on the structure of many of our communities, who fear that our culture will be exterminated – after all, sometimes it seems that’s all that non-Romani have ever tried to do. Making sure women are protected by a strong man and his family at all times swaddles us inside our culture like a blanket and helps us to feel safe. Protected. Our history has led to vast chasms of cultural and historical trauma that are played and replayed generation after generation. Poverty, alcoholism, depression, addiction are bred into our bones. My family was proud to work, but when that work is denied only because of your ethnicity, it makes you angry and anger is often displayed with those we love most. My father beat me, but he never beat my brothers’ wives. He beat my mother, but he never touched any of my aunts. My mother was not beaten by her parents or sister’s husband. Violence is not prevalent in our communities, but trauma – historical or otherwise – is.
When we send our children to school many feel that we are educated “out” of the culture – we forget our language, we learn other people’s history, language, culture, and societal rules. We learn about sex and drugs and dishonour. These elements have been firmly and irrevocably etched into my memory. Marrying a girl young ensures that she has not left too much of her culture behind and will raise good Romani men.
I see all of the steps and missteps that led to the way our men feel about their daughters and wives. I had to make a choice between tradition and family or education . I chose education and became degeš. I became “oda gori” (that non-Romani woman). I disgraced my family. They didn’t understand why a woman would value education. They didn’t understand why, as a twelve-year-old, I didn’t want Petru. They didn’t understand why this pig wanted to sing. At first, they thought I was just headstrong. My reading and writing abilities helped the rest of my family with their benefit forms and other legal issues, so I was allowed to continue. They agreed I could wait to marry until eighteen. When I was eighteen I chose to go to nursing college a move accepted by our family because it was a “female career” and again, helpful to others in our family. I never had a boyfriend, I never went to parties, I kept romanipen. But, I began to feel angry and bitter about the impending end of my education and having to return to become a wife and mother only.
So, I chose to leave. Everything. Forever.
I voluntarily became an outcast from my own family because I saw the opportunities education gave not only to me, but my children and their children and our culture as a whole. Since I left I found other Romani women, many more than I’d ever believed, some of whom made similar choices to me, but many more who did not have to make such decisions and who were able to become highly educated. They give me so much hope for the future of our daughters… and our sons.
The problem is, us daughters are not in the same place we were all those years ago. As the world changes around us, we feel the need to change and grow along with it. For our culture and for our children. Marrying us young and keeping us uneducated and unaware is not going to raise up our men, our culture, or our lives. Keeping things the way they have always been simply because they have always been that way isn’t helping anyone.
Least of all, our daughters.