[This piece appeared June 30 in TOL.]
One family of Kalderash Roma speaks out against the custom of early marriage.
TARGU JIU, Romania | Raluca Larisa Mihai got married two years ago. As a seventh-grader. She was just 13 years old.
But it was no fairy tale for Raluca, a tradition-minded Kalderash Rom. Here in provincial Romania, hers is one of the most respected families in the Kalderash enclave of Meteor, a neighborhood on the edge of Targu Jiu.
Which is why the tragedy that’s engulfed her family reverberates across Romania – even to Brussels. Raluca today wears the headscarf of a widow; on this day, a vibrant purple.
‘VICTIMS OF TRADITION’
Her ex-husband isn’t dead, though. Raluca accuses the boy she wed in a Pentecostal ceremony of raping her during their 2008 engagement. He was only 15 at the time. According to her family, he’d learned of another Romani tradition: if he stole her virginity, Raluca would be duty-bound to follow through with the marriage. Two girls had already broken it off with the boy – allegedly because of his violence.
He calculated wisely, then. Despite the rape of their daughter, her parents went ahead with the wedding. If they had backed out, they say they would have been “dishonored” before all of Meteor. After all, Raluca was deflowered.
“From the very first moment that he took advantage of her, I knew I would have rather seen my house set on fire,” says her mother, Bianca.
There is no greater badge of honor for Kalderash parents like these than to deliver their daughter to marriage – as a virtuous virgin. This pressure, though, has consequences. It helps drive the centuries-old tradition of early-teen marriage, a ritual that Brussels criticized well before Romania joined the European Union in 2007. Parents simply want to rid themselves of this burden as soon as possible.
Just three days into the marriage, Raluca’s husband turned violent. Five times, she ran back to her family, saying she couldn’t take it anymore. Five times the Court of Elders, a panel of esteemed communal leaders, judged that she should return to her husband. Raluca did. But then she escaped for good, after only two months of matrimony.
Divorce is another taboo here. Minus her virginity, a divorced woman is akin to damaged goods.
Nothing can compensate for the loss, Bianca says. But to try and settle the score, the family went over the head of the Court of Elders, or kris, dragging the boy’s family into city court for return of their daughter’s dowry. Quite a haul it was: they say they handed over 135 gold coins – which tilted the scales at nearly two kilos. Plus Versace furniture and a Peugeot. They value it at about 150,000 euros.
Raluca’s is not an isolated case. Indeed, it reveals that despite years of EU criticism – and a new Romanian law that criminalizes sex so young – informal early-teen marriage continues among some Kalderash and other Roma. Among the most traditional of Romani groups, the Kalderash number about 200,000 in Romania, or 10 percent of a broader Romanian Romani population estimated at up to 2 million.
Historically, the Kalderash toiled as metalworkers and smiths. Kalderash women are often distinctive for their floral dresses, scarves and braided hair, and girls rarely marry outside the community.
That the early-marriage trend stubbornly continues has again gotten the attention of Baroness Emma Nicholson, the former European Parliament observer for Romania. She says it’s a question of fundamental human rights.
“This isn’t about ‘culture,’ but is a bad habit that must change,” Nicholson says. “It’s against the UN charter, against European standards, and against everything that modern Romania stands for. It always takes time for people to change their habits. I expect they think they’re doing it for the best, and maybe it once was, 500 years ago. But today it does the very opposite: it drives their children back into the dark ages.”
The difference today, though, is that for the first time, at least one Kalderash family is speaking out against it. The Mihais are prominent in the community, as key players in the scrap-metal trade.
“We’re victims of this tradition and want it to disappear forever and ever,” Bianca Mihai proclaims. “Help us to change this, because we, the younger generation, can’t come to agreement with the older generation, with their old values.”
Her father, Ilarie Mihai – Raluca’s grandfather – also attacks what he says is a sinister economic motive. With many families anxious to survive, and prosper, in the more competitive environment of post-communist Romania, some angle to marry off children for the largest dowry.
“We’ll never be civilized if we continue this way,” says Ilarie Mihai, who is also president of the Union of Roma Christians in Romania. “We have to escape this sick mentality of some of our Gypsies, who see their kids as a commodity.”
He says the tradition first grew out of Romani enslavement by non-Roma, a practice that persisted in Romania until the 19th century. The nobility preyed on the slave girls, with a particular fetish for virgins.
“To rid the girls of this nightmare,” he says, “the elders then decided for the girls to be married early, to stop the master’s lust.”
ROYAL WEDDING SET OFF FUROR
To be sure, many modern-day Roma have moved away from early marriage, but many others hew to the practice: a 2004 UNICEF report found that 35 percent of Romani women in Romania married before turning 16, 31 percent at 17 or 18 years old, and 26 percent between 19 and 22. Just 8 percent of married women wed after 22.
To Romanian society at large, these Romani marriage traditions have been known and broadly tolerated. At least until the international scandal that broke in September 2003, when the self-proclaimed “King of All Gypsies Everywhere,” Florin Cioaba, gave his daughter’s hand in marriage to a 15-year-old in Sibiu, a historic city in Transylvania. During the media circus that ensued, Romanian media suggested the girl, Ana Maria, was as young as 12. Cioaba today tells visiting reporters that she was “13-and-a-half or 14.”
That sparked an outcry, as Nicholson – then the European Parliament rapporteur – demanded that Ana Maria be removed from her husband. But that was before Romania joined the European Union, when it was eager to please Brussels. Under pressure, then, the Romanian authorities officially forbade most marriages between children under the age of 18.
The Sibiu children’s rights department investigated and determined the couple should live apart until they both reached 16.
Publicly, Cioaba accepted this decision. He also says today that he’s trying to convince his people to give up early marriages. It’s been no easy task.
“You can’t change overnight something that’s been going on for hundreds of years,” he says. “Especially with police knocking on your door and saying you may go to jail. We have to find a solution that obeys the law but also respects our traditions. I want to integrate, not assimilate.”
In February, he told journalists who were visiting his family’s compound in Sibiu that his daughter’s wedding was misunderstood by the baroness.
“It wasn’t a legal marriage in the eyes of the civil registrar,” said Cioaba, who also serves as vice president of the International Romani Union and the European Roma and Travellers Forum. “It was an engagement at the Pentecostal church. We just asked God to bless our children.”
Cioaba’s gated compound, with its driveway decorated with an iron crown, sits along a busy boulevard not far from the church where he serves as minister. On this Saturday afternoon, Cioaba and his wife, Marica, were seated in the glass-enclosed “summer kitchen,” located in the courtyard, when visitors arrived unannounced.
With his wife looking on suspiciously, he offered no objection and led his guests into a building that fronts the street, a dining hall with gilded furniture. High on the wall was a huge portrait of his father, Ion Cioaba, who anointed himself king in 1992 and died in 1997. In the painting, the senior Cioaba rides a noble horse, wearing a white cloak stamped with Knights Templar insignia.
Cioaba explained how hard it is to change conservative attitudes within the community, especially when tradition clashes with modern life. External pressure to be more sexually liberated comes from sources like Sex in the City, he said.
“If a girl waits until she’s 18, she may already ‘know’ 50 men and be well-trained – so it can’t be a proper marriage,” Cioaba said. “That’s why our marriages are so stable: the woman only knows one man. If we can’t marry them off, there are negative consequences. We can’t control them, or their desires.”
No one thought breaking this custom would be easy. In the wake of Nicholson’s criticism, Romania and its National Agency for Family Protection and Child Rights launched an educational campaign for parents – to inform them that such marriages violate the rights of their children, says Ioana Nedelcu, a senior adviser to the agency.
It’s unclear how extensive the campaign was, and Nedelcu concedes it had limited affect.
“The campaign’s results were rather positive,” says Nedelcu, who also notes that it’s since been discontinued. “But the parents claim that these engagements don’t represent real marriages, because children won’t live together after the engagement. It’s very hard to hold parents responsible.”
BLOOD AND HONOR
Ultimately, observers say, change can only come from within. Which is also what makes Raluca Mihai’s situation so unusual.
On the one hand, her story reveals just how little has changed for the more conservative segments of the community. Her neighborhood in Meteor is full of Kalderash women dressed in folkloric floral skirts and dark headscarves. They also stick fast to the rules of society.
When her suitor’s entire family – plus witnesses – approached her front door that day in 2008 to ask for her hand in marriage, her parents essentially had to decide on the spot. They negotiated a dowry, and the deal was done.
The rape, then, ensured the deal wouldn’t be broken.
“For us, it is a great disgrace if the girl is not a virgin when she gets married,” Bianca Mihai says. “After she lost her virginity, our daughter wasn’t asked whether she wanted to go through with the marriage. We hurried the wedding to avoid embarassment in front of the community.”
They organized it for the very next week.
On her wedding day, Raluca wore a beautiful white gown with an expensive gold tiara made by a famous jeweler. However, the arranged marriage wasn’t the only sacred custom observed.
After the wedding night, to prove the bride’s innocence – and that her parents raised her properly – a mother must produce and parade the blood-stained linen for all wedding participants to see. It’s confirmation of virginity lost.
Bianca says she held on to the white petticoat Raluca had bloodied the night of the rape, to dupe the community.
“I took that petticoat full of blood and showed it to everybody,” she says, tears in her eyes.
Raluca’s paternal grandmother, Elvira Mihai, explains that the day after, a girl proven to have been deflowered is supposed to get small gold coins from members of the family. Without blood, she gets nothing, and worse, can bring shame to an entire extended family.
“There are cases when a girl is not a virgin anymore,” Elvira says. “Then, a pigeon is sacrificed and its blood shed on the sheets, to lead the wedding guests to believe the girl was a virgin. This trick is used to prevent brawling between the two families.”
Kalderash custom also dictates that once a girl marries a boy, even if there are no legal papers, she is stuck with him for the rest of her life. Raluca’s situation tested that edict.
Just days into the marriage, she says, her husband began “talking bad to me, insulting and hitting. He spat in my face, then started slapping me while I was supposed to keep my hands behind my back. After hitting me and his mother, he left the place.”
She fled to her parents. Her father appealed to the Court of Elders, seeking an annulment of the informal marriage. Instead, the judges decided she should return to her husband. Bianca says the huge dowry swayed them.
One of the judges, Ion Mihai (no relation), says the panel tried to make peace between the young couple, reassuring Raluca’s parents they could “guarantee” better behavior from the boy. They ordered his family to rein him in. But they didn’t, or couldn’t. The father allegedly beat him, often.
Eventually, the judges decided the boy was a danger to Raluca. And because his family didn’t obey the judges – and made fools of them in the process – they’ve been cast from the community.
“This is our law,” says Ion Mihai, who is also a Pentecostal minister. “Since the girl’s family doesn’t want to give her back, and the boy’s family asks for her back, they’re both at fault.”
A BREAK WITH THE PAST
Bianca then did something that nobody in Meteor ever had: she filed a police complaint against the boy, accusing him of rape.
Viorel Caragea, the Gorj County police chief, says the rape investigation closed in January, with the file sent to the local prosecutor’s office as a “sexual intercourse with a minor” offense instead. If found guilty, Caragea says the teen, now 17, could spend 18 months to 5 years in jail.
In a separate case, the family for months tried to recover the dowry, claiming the 150,000-euro value. But they recently abandoned the effort. “We came to realize that it’s pointless,” Raluca says. “We struggled and struggled, but nothing happened.”
Meanwhile, the boy’s father said his son had been falsely accused, and himself went to the Court of Elders demanding compensation from the Mihai family for the 2 billion lei (nearly 60,000 euros) he said he “invested” in the wedding.
“My son didn’t beat her up,” he said earlier this spring. “He might have slapped her once or twice. So what? Was that a reason to go back to her father?”
“I’ll let the judge pronounce the verdict,” he continued. “If they tell me to pay, I will pay.”
The man, however, was killed in a car crash in June. It’s now unclear if the family will maintain its own claim for compensation.
With all their aggravation, others in the Mihai clan are also speaking up.
Toma Mihai, Raluca’s paternal grandfather, says he’s seen the light on early-teen marriage.
“They’re too young and just kids,” he says. “They don’t have the judgment to know what they’re doing, or to think things through.”
Change, though, means different things to different people. Girls still shouldn’t wait around until they’re 18 or 20, says Toma, “because then they’ll be an old maid.”
In Sibiu, Raluca’s maternal grandmother, Anisoara Mihai, says her granddaughter’s ordeal has spurred dialogue among Kalderash women, young and old, about whether to spurn this age-old tradition. The men have decidedly less interest.
“We talk about this among ourselves,” says Anisoara, who was herself “stolen” – that is, carried off – by her husband of 38 years, Ilarie, when she was 17. “But they don’t take us seriously.”
Just then, another of Anisoara’s granddaughters, an 11-year-old living with her in Sibiu, walks through the room. The young girl, too, is on the verge of marriageability – a fact not lost on Anisoara.
“I don’t care about this tradition anymore,” says her grandmother, smiling sadly. “Let her choose her own husband. All I want is for her to be happy.”
Petru Zoltan is a journalist in Bucharest and a writer with the daily Jurnalul National. Michael J. Jordan is a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor in Bratislava. He blogs about Central and Eastern Europe at Jordan Ink.
Photos by Michael J. Jordan.