“A gypsy woman’s life is always hard,” Clara tells us. “Men give the orders and women put this into practice.”
Clara and her younger sister Perty belong to the Gabor family, a highly esteemed clan within the wider Roma community. In the face of systematic and social discrimination, many families in Romania have lost or deny their Roma identity, but the Gabor community has fiercely guarded its culture and traditions in the face of prolonged attempts of assimilation into mainstream European society. This is immediately and strikingly evident in their long, pleated, elaborately patterned skirts and Perty’s waist-length braids with ribbon woven in. As a married woman (albeit divorced), Clara wears more somber colors, with her hair braided at the base of her neck and covered in a patterned headscarf.
Clara and Perty’s family has long given up the nomadic lifestyle, and the Gabors have been settled in Valenii, a village in Transylvania, for as long as anyone can remember. Their father, highly respected in the village community, upholds the traditional family profession of metalwork while at the same time working as a community police officer. We spent a week with this family, and with Clara and Perty we learned about the complicated experience of being a Roma woman in 21st century Europe, balancing strong traditional values with strong feminist beliefs.
“In our community we have to get married very young,” Perty explained. She had just finished her day’s chores and sat down to speak with us. “A traditional girl’s life would be like this, getting married at like 13 or 14, getting pregnant 1 month later, then be a slave in the house, never go out of the house, have so many kids and clean and wash and cook for your husband. That’s, like, the perfect wife. But that never happens, because we are also human, right? I don’t see that kind of life for myself. I’m the kind of person where if my husband tells me something wrong I will beat him up with my shoes!”
The tradition of arranged marriage has helped the Roma people preserve their identity and culture in the face of hundreds of years of (often brutal) assimilation attempts. Perty, age 14, is due to be married within the next year. She joked about the tradition — “One of the reasons why they get girls married so young is because after a certain age it would be difficult to tell them what to do, especially these days!” — but when we asked further she sighed, swung her long braids over her shoulder, and leaned forward, to make it clear that what she was about to say should not be heard by the rest of her family who bustled in and out of the room, busy with their various chores. “Now I’m at the age where I have to get married, and if I get married with a guy I don’t love then I will be in a very bad situation my whole life,” she confided. “But if I say that I don’t want to get married with someone because I don’t love him it’s not a good enough reason for anyone.”
Despite some misgivings, though, Perty recognizes that she will continue the tradition and help preserve her culture by encouraging her own children to marry within the Roma community. “If my daughter came up to me and said that she had fallen in love with a guy and he wasn’t from the community,” she says, “I would honestly tell her, ‘go and have fun with him, date him as much as you want, but please don’t marry him’.”
Perty’s older sister Clara, aged 25, has two young children from two failed marriages. The first was an arranged marriage when she was 16, the second was an elopement in an attempt to escape her first husband. Quieter and more reserved than her loud and confident sister, Clara’s soft voice speaks of a difficult past, and the challenges of balancing her strong sense of self with what is expected of her according to cultural norms.
“My first marriage was really difficult. If my father had refused him I would have married somebody else and I would probably be perfectly fine now.” Clara paused to pull her young daughter onto her lap and absent mindedly stroked her hair. “That marriage changed me, it made me stricter. I cannot forgive things so easily anymore. He wasn’t mature enough for a wife, and I was just a woman that he could use in the night, there to feed him and wash him. He was violent, an irresponsible husband and then an irresponsible father.”
She went on to explain how she discovered that he had taken another wife behind her back. Unlike many women in her community, she left her abusive husband and came back to her family home: “I’m the kind of person where if I don’t like something I will leave, I can’t accept things the way they are.” But she was unable to take her son with her. “In our society the boys usually stay with their fathers, to keep the traditions alive,” she told us. “My family didn’t really know what I was up to when I started trying to get my son back. I contacted the child services and the police; they worked together and my husband’s family had no chance because he was in prison at the time for counterfeiting money, and his name was not on the birth certificate.”
Once she got her son back, Clara’s difficulties were far from over. Her ex-husband came out of jail and started pursuing her again, trying to get her to come home with him. She decided that the only way to get away from him was to run away with another man. “It wasn’t romantic, and right now I’m sorry that I did it, but I had to,” she said. “I thought it would only be for 2 or 3 months, just long enough for my ex-husband to get the idea. And then I got pregnant, by my second husband.”
Her second husband and his family didn’t think there was any way she would be able to support herself with two children, so they were free to treat her however they pleased. “When I got pregnant we ran away together to Berlin, oh my god it was awful. His brother is a very jealous guy and me and his wife were closed in the room all day. After two months we came to Romania, to Cluj, and life there was not any easier. He was violent [towards me], and depressive. It was too much.”
We asked Clara what the future held for her now. After two disastrous marriages, did she have any intention of marrying again? “I don’t want to, but in time I’ll have to,” she said. “It’s hard to be a single woman in the gypsy society, you are considered weak, a slut, you are not looked at with good eyes. I wish things were different, I would be very happy only to have a boyfriend.”
Perty sat quietly, saying nothing. We asked her how she felt about her upcoming marriage, in the face of the difficulties experienced by her elder sister. “I’m afraid, and I still feel like I want to be at home,” she said. “If I was 18 I’d have no complaints, but I’m 14, for sure next year I’m gonna get married, and I feel like I’m still a child. Being married is a lot of responsibility, and I’m not ready.”
In a patriarchal society that dictates a woman’s life to such an extent, we wondered if there was any space for feminism and women’s rights. Clara immediately set us straight: “Of course I’m a feminist!” But she conceded that her commitment to feminism isn’t reflected or supported in the wider culture. “When it comes to women’s rights I am very passionate, and I fight for them. The problem is that gypsy women don’t want to have rights; usually they are not feminist,” she said. “For most of them it’s enough if their husbands are providing for them. There’s so many women who are abused by their husbands and they don’t leave because their entire lives, their entire worlds, are dependent on their husband, who is the center of their world. This makes me mad; the situation needs to be changed, but as long as they like they like the way they are, nothing can happen.”
In light of this, Clara’s courageous determination becomes even more admirable. In order to support herself and her two children, she has made a business for herself. With the limited resources and opportunities available to her, she buys fabrics from the weekly market and, at home with her sewing machine, makes beautiful handmade clothes which she sells through Facebook.
Within the Roma community, preservation of culture and tradition is often the women’s responsibility. (“Officially men are representatives of the tradition,” notes Clara, “but the mother and the wife have hugely important roles, they’re the ones who hold everything together.”) Clara and Perty take that role seriously; for them, empowerment can not come only on their terms, but must incorporate their responsibility to tradition — even if that tradition restricts their choices. Still, even under constrained circumstances, Roma women like Clara and Perty are able to combine this sense of duty with a strong sense of self.
Perty may be apprehensive about her upcoming marriage, but Clara is confident that her sister’s strong character will carry her through. “She’s gonna be fine. Not too many gypsy women are like me and my sister, we’re strong and we know what we want. Mostly the women in our community stay in the house, their husband sends them money, they have nice clothes, kids, house, mother in law, father in law. and that’s it.” For herself, the future and its challenges are less clear. “I don’t know what’s gonna happen in 10 years, I don’t think that far. What will be will be!”