TARGU JIU, Romania – Beyond ugly stereotypes of the Roma (known more pejoratively as “Gypsies”) across Central and Eastern Europe, outsiders like me have also heard about early-teen marriage among certain Roma groups.
I’ve learned about the parental obsession with a daughter’s virginity: if a bride is discovered to have already been deflowered, it unleashes shame for the whole family. For proof, the bloodied sheet is publicly displayed.
From a Western-liberal perspective, I also suspected this was more a feature of a patriarchal society that sees its men bent on keeping their womenfolk barefoot, pregnant and subservient.
Today, though, I had an epiphany about why these fathers are doing what their doing. And as a fellow father, I began to understand them.
The revelation happened here in the city of Targu Jiu, best known as the hometown of sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi. The city is also the scene of a great tragedy, say the local community of “Kalderash” Roma.
In the Roma quarter of “Meteor” — what they call here a mahala — a 14-year-old girl was promised to a 15-year-old who turned out to be troubled and violent. The boy raped her during their engagement, ensuring that she would be committed to marry him. With no choice, her family scrambled to hold the wedding one week later, to contend the blood was fresh.
The violence grew unbearable during the marriage, her family told us, and the girl fled back home after two months. Today, the girl, now 15, is seen as spoiled goods. She is required to wear the headscarf of woman in mourning: not only is she no longer a desirable virgin, but she violated another tenet of tradition by abandoning her husband.
For broader perspective, we turned to communal leader Ion Mihai, who is both a judge in the local “Gyspy court” and Pentacostal preacher at the church across the road from his home. Historically, he says, if parents can’t agree on a match or dowry, it’s acceptable to “steal” her for a bride. Perhaps kidnap her, after school. “Steal,” though, is a euphemism for intercourse, whether voluntary or forced.
So, according to the Kalderash, the boy in the Targu Jiu case did not rape her, but roughly claimed her as his.
This unwillingness to acknowledge this as rape had my mind racing, since I’m now the father of angelic one-year-old daughter. For Kalderash parents, then, there’s the risk that you’re either branded for raising your daughter immorally, or faulted for failing to physically protect her from being snatched.
“Wait a minute,” I said to Mihai. “If I understand correctly, parents are essentially running a marathon, to deliver her safely to marriage, so the community can see them as good Gypsies?”
What pressure. What a burden! No wonder they arrange the nuptials as soon as possible.
“If it were me,” I said, “I’d be exhausted. And, relieved to marry her off and cross the finish line.”
Mihai roared in delight: “Now you’re thinking like a Gypsy!”