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The childhood and adolescence of Romani children ends when they begin their own
families. One Romani proverb says: Sit your daughter in a chair and if her feet
touch the ground, she's ready for marriage.
The commonly prevalent opinion that Romani girls mature earlier sexually than
Czech girls was proved false by Daniela Sivakova in her study Antropologicke
vyskumy Ciganov (Romov) na Slovensku z roku 1992 [Anthropological
research on Gypsies (Roma) in Slovakia in 1992]. Romani girls are prepared for
marriage between 14 and 16 years of age, which explains the young age of Romani
wedding guests, but the study would indicate that the young Romani girls are
more socially prepared for marriage than biologically. Because, as soon as the
girl "grew up" and reached the critical adolescent age, which for most of us is
connected to defiance and rebellion, her mother was having several other
children and entrusting her daughter "for upbringing" to her future husband.
Parents entrusted their adolescent daughters to their future husbands. The
girls mostly had to marry men who their parents chose for them.
The father chose the husband more often, though this wasn't by rule. So Romani
girls didn't marry for romantic love, but in obedience to the wishes of
their family. The daughter's duty was to enter into a good and well-advised
marriage, thus bringing together two families and by doing so increasing her
family's prestige. This kind of arranged marriage could only occur between two
families which were of similar material standing and had friendly relations,
and when both fathers agreed on the wedding.
It happened, of course, that two young people would get married against the
their parents, but this didn't always cause conflicts. Most of these couples
had siblings helping them elope, and if they spent the night
together, there was nothing else to do but arrange a wedding. The families
usually forgave them, but they had to be publicly punished first, so
that others wouldn't get the same idea. The couple wouldn't be banished from
the family or the community for their transgression, just punished. Banishment
from the community was the worst punishment there was for the Roma, reserved
for crimes like incest, a multicultural taboo strongly condemned by the Roma.
In order for two young people to live together and start having children, after
the fathers' agreement an engagement ceremony (mangavipen) would be
arranged. The young couple, in the accompaniment of each of their parents,
swore before witnesses to be faithful to each other until death. The master
of ceremonies, most often a chief elder(chhibalo or vajda), bound
the hands of the
couple together with a scarf and then poured wine or some spirit into their
palms which they would then drink. Today, the hands are not usually bound,
just held, and the newlywed couple drink the contents of each other's cup and
kiss. From this moment, they are considered by Romani society to be husband and
wife, and they may live together and produce children.
The civil or church ceremony (bijav) would be concluded after a few
when the couple had already had a child or two together. A completed marriage
was for life. Separation was rare, and was only permitted in the case of the
infertility or infidelity of the wife.
If after several years no children were born to the couple, the husband could
leave his wife. Infertility was the worst of fates for a Romani woman, as it
meant she couldn't fulfill her role in life - to be a good mother, and thus a
good wife. Such a woman was scorned by all, and no one thought badly of her
husband for leaving her. Infertility was considered a punishment, inflicted on
the woman for some reason. Naturally, there were many charms to counteract
infertility. One remedy, for example, was for the infertile woman to eat herbs
picked off the grave of a woman who died of puerperal fever after giving birth.
With even clearer symbolic meaning, another spell involved the inhalation
of the contents of an egg from the husband's mouth to that of the wife, who
then swallowed it. The women also believed in the power of the full moon, and
ate herbs picked at midnight by the full moon. The desire for the greatest
number of children, which arose from the vital necessity of families to have
the largest number of descendents, also had something to do with the
non-existence of abortion.
The wife's infidelity could also be a reason for her abandonment. If her
didn't leave her, he had to at least punish her publicly (cut off her
hair, beat her, etc.). With male infidelity, it was a different matter; it
increased the prestige of the man, and sometimes the wife would brag about it
and use it to demonstrate the quality of her husband. The question remains,
with whom could the husband be unfaithful...
When a Romani woman is sure that she's "in a family way," she announces the
joyous news to the women in the family, and only after that to her husband.
From this moment on, the "rules for the protection of the baby" come into
effect, a strict set of rules that come out of the belief that negative
qualities and various deficiencies can be transmitted to the fetus. The woman
is put under a variety of restrictions: she cannot look at physically-handicapped people, at "ugly" or black-magic animals (mainly reptiles),
at dead people, etc. She works to the last possible moment, however, and when
her time comes, the husband rouses the neighbors and calls the midwife, whose
function is half gynecological and half magical. Before cutting off
and removing the umbilical cord, the parents prepare a magical drink against
demons that could jump into the newborn, and sometimes light a fire outside the
house or tent to drive them away. After that comes the official baptism,
until then, the child is at risk from evil spirits. After the baptism, these
evil spirits can no longer affect the baby. Among these spirits are the souls
of women who died during childbirth, or of women who gave birth to dead babies,
and who want to find a new child. There are various defenses against these
evil spirits (guli daj), such as protective objects in the crib under
the blankets or a red line drawn on the wrist of the child.
Baptism (kirvipen), as with non-Roma, always takes place in a church.
The godparents are a very important requirement of the baptism for the Roma.
They often chose as second godparents some gadje, perhaps a farmer from
the village, as something of a guarantee that the family wouldn't starve if
they got into trouble. The godfather or godmother would give the godchild a
krizmo - an object the godchild would keep for his or her whole life.
They would receive the gift on some important day, for example when the child
went to school for the first time or reached some significant birthday. The
godparent/godchild relationship was an important way to strengthen the
relations between families.
During the baptism, the child receives a name, usually after a godparent, one
of the parents or other relative, though this name is only "official" - for
dealing with non-Roma society - and the child frequently doesn't even know it.
In addition to this name, the child is given another name, a Romani one, which
is derived from physical or mental characteristics (Thulo - Fat, Kalori
- Black-Haired), from some event, from some mutilation of words the child tried
to say, etc. This Romani name, which can change more than once during childhood
before it becomes definitely set, becomes the name used inside the Romani
community. Roma therefore rarely use the names they are registered under at
birth and which are on their identification.