[The following piece appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Ms. Magazine. My longer piece on the early-marriage controversy, for Transitions Online, is here. For more of my photos of the Kalderash enclave in Targu Jiu, click here.]
TARGU JIU, Romania – Her headscarf is vibrant purple – a symbol of mourning in Targu Jiu, Romania.
But 15-year-old Raluca Mihai’s husband isn’t dead. Rather, her headscarf marks a personal tragedy that has rekindled controversy among the deeply traditional Kalderash Roma, a branch of the ethnic minority known pejoratively across Eastern Europe as “Gypsies.”
For the estimated 200,000 Kalderash in Romania, parents’ paramount duty is to preserve their daughter’s virginity until marriage.
Two years ago, however, when Mihai was 13 and engaged, her 15-year-old fiancé raped her, knowing it committed her to the nuptials. He grew so violent during their two-month marriage that she escaped to her parents. The scarf not only mourns her stolen virginity and failed matrimony, but also the unlikelihood that she’ll ever remarry.
“He ruined everything for me,” says the young woman, who had dropped out of school to wed.
In a community where virginity or its loss can mean pride or dishonor for a whole clan, Mihai’s situation is making waves.
Her family has gone over the head of the internal court of elders, waging a highly publicized lawsuit to reclaim her dowry: 135 gold coins, furniture and a Peugeot valued at 150,000 euros.
Moreover, her plight has rallied the women in her family to denounce a centuries-old Kalderash ritual: marrying off daughters as young as 12 or 13.
“We’re victims of this tradition and want it to disappear forever and ever,” proclaims Mihai’s mother, Bianca.
The case underscores tensions between tradition and modernity for new European Union members. Romania was let into the EU in January 2007, obliging it to adhere to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which bars “traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children.”
Today, though, despite the threat of imprisonment for underage intercourse, this tribal custom continues in defiance of EU standards.
“This isn’t a ‘cultural’ issue—fundamental human rights override everything,” says Baroness Emma Nicholson, the former EU observer for Romania. “This drives the child back into the Dark Ages. It’s a bad habit that must change.”
Not easy, says king of the Roma Florin Cioaba (who inherited the crown from his self-anointed father). His own daughter’s media circus of a wedding sparked the controversy in 2003. Cioaba says she was “13 1/2 or 14,” but some media cited her as 12 years old.
Cioaba pledges to help eradicate early teen marriage and the tradition of displaying a bloodstained sheet as proof of virginity. But he sympathizes with traditionalists who decry new pressures from Western shows like Sex and the City.
“In the morning, she’s with one guy; in the afternoon, another; at night, with a third,” he says. “Do we want this education for our daughters?”
To confront the patriarchal old guard, Mihai’s grandmother Anisoara says, external pressure is needed. She worries about another granddaughter, now 11 and on the cusp of marriageability.
“I don’t care about this tradition anymore,” she says, smiling sadly. “Let her choose her own husband. All I want is for her to be happy.”