SIBIU, Romania – For another perspective on what internal pressures the Kalderash Roma face to abandon their tradition of early-teen marriage, tonight we visited the stately home of Ilarie Mihai.
Around the large conference table in his office, Mihai, executive president of the National Council of Roma in Romania, railed against those dowry-driven Kalderash who marry off their children for the biggest booty: some dowries of gold coins are said to run up to 50,000 euros.
“We’ll never become civilized if we continue this way!” he roared as his wife, Anişoara, served us coffee in delicate porcelain cups. She then took a seat behind her husband, in a chair against the wall.
In maroon headscarf and braided hair, 55-year-old Anişoara was the picture of a tradition-bound Kalderash woman, listening impassively as her husband spoke. At some point, though, she uttered a few words to him in Romani. It wasn’t clear exactly what she said, but his reaction sure was: with a wave of his hand, he ordered her to leave the room.
Except, she didn’t. In fact, as my colleague Petru Zoltan carried on interviewing Mihai, my interpreter, Lavinia Gliga, and I motioned for Anişoara to join us at our end of the table. We’ve heard too many men talking about a women’s issue – the right to choose when to marry. So, I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to hear from a Romani matriarch …
Anişoara had quite a bit to say, though it took gentle probing to draw it out: after all, it’s her granddaughter at the center of a nasty dispute in Targu Jiu, where one family tries to recover a hefty gold dowry from another, claiming the son was extraordinarily violent toward their daughter, including rape. (See the Feb. 11 post below, “Now You’re Thinking Like a Gypsy!”)
Anişoara told us how the ordeal has spurred dialogue among Kalderash women, young and old, about whether to spurn this age-old tradition. The menfolk have decidedly less interest.
“We talk about this among ourselves,” she said, “but they don’t take us seriously.”
Recounting what she described as the “tragedy” of her 15-year-old granddaughter – no longer a virgin and less likely to ever wed again – Anişoara began weeping. I didn’t notice at first, as I was jotting her comments in my notepad. But as I looked up, Lavinia said, “Wait, she’s crying. Give her a moment.”
This led, under our breath, to a quick but interesting discussion of interviewing tactics. Lavinia, herself a journalist, prefers the more sensitive, respectful route. Me, I’m uncomfortable with tears – and it’s happened plenty during my hundreds of interviews with Holocaust survivors. But I also think not everyone wants that deeply personal “moment” before a stranger. “Let’s change the subject,” I told Lavinia. Anişoara composed herself and moved on.
Soon, a second whispering debate. I’d photographed Anişoara sitting behind her husband, like the one posted here. Lavinia now suggested I shoot her talking to us, gesticulating, speaking up for herself, not only her husband’s wife. Lavinia had a point, but I also wondered about authenticity: does she sit at his conference table when other guests are there? I don’t know, but she surely didn’t until we invited her over. So, I declined.
Toward the end of our meeting, another of Anişoara’s granddaughters, an 11-year-old living with her, walked through the room. I couldn’t help but ask grandma – who had herself been “stolen” by her husband at relatively old age of 17 – when she hoped the young girl would marry.
“I don’t care about this tradition anymore,” said Anişoara, with a wan smile. “Let her choose her own husband. All I want is for her to be happy.”