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Roma Culture: Weddings

Weddings, like holidays, are dwelled upon by Kosovar Roma. When they're not being celebrated, they're being talked about, plotted, potential matches discussed and discounted in the living rooms of every mahala in Kosovo.

Weddings are a cultural point of distinguishment between Roma and others. To Roma and non-Roma, weddings set them apart; their communities come together to celebrate the marriage bond, and with it comes the camaraderie, the drinking, food and music, the women dancing (and now, the men joining them) in a circle around the other guests as the groom's family looks on with pride at the match they've made and the bride stands silent, eyes downcast, making slow, deliberate movements with her hands- no longer in simple clothes, but in a western wedding dress.

Great weddings are great celebrations. A groom's family will sell and borrow to make a memorable one. It brings honor upon them and lends itself to a happy marriage.

All Roma are expected to marry. The notion of shame protects dignity and reputation so this may happen- a good match will be made. The head of household will arrange a marriage for his son not according to love, but strength, attitude and reputation of the bride and her family. Hard work in the home is valued, for the parents of a groom, more than physical beauty. A family's reputation is just as important. Are the groom's people honest? Trustworthy? Are they respected in the community?

Roma Wedding, Serb Guests: Gracanica, June 2003

"My girlfriend came to my house; she had run away from her father. I went and bought one more sheep- to prepare for the wedding. My stepfather asked me why I bought another sheep. I told him 'don't ask, just go and try to make an agreement with her family, and I will take care of the wedding.' My stepfather went to her father and spoke to them; everything was okay because we had many things in common. She was without a father, and I as well. On that day we killed two sheep, and I had a big wedding."

-Azem Beri�a, Kosovo Polje/ Fush� Kosov�

Kosovar Roma engagements and marriages follow the traditions of Roma throughout the world. There are slight variations, and traditions absorbed from the Turks, Serbs and Albanians- along with an infusion of western dress and activity.

Rules regarding marriage are codified by the marim�. Kosovar Roma tend to marry members of their own group, be they Gurbeti, Bugurdjije, Muhadjeri, Ashkalija or Egyptians. This is not strict; intermarriage takes place. Marriage between Gadje (outsiders) and Roma are almost unheard of. A non-Roma woman may marry a Rom man, and outside of the initial stigma attached to them, if the woman adapts to Roma ways then she will be accepted into the community. Not so for a Roma woman marrying a Gadje male. She will no longer be accepted in her own community, and he never will. The financial considerations of a Roma woman marrying a westerner are new problems for Roma communities, especially in the new Kosovo, with its infusion of highly paid NGO and UNMIK/ KFOR staff. A few cases have occurred where a Roma woman marries a westerner with the full blessing of the family, though not with the blessing of the community.

Before marriage, Roma women must follow strict rules regarding dating and any type of sexual activity; they must avoid both. Roma men are supposedly under the same rules; these rules are not honored, and male deviations are often regarded with a wink or a shrug of the shoulders. Elder Roma detailed rules of behavior in the recent past that have fallen by the wayside. There are instances of dating among Roma youth, but this puts the female at much greater risk of censure than the male. A woman is expected to be a virgin when she is married.

The ages of marriage for bride and groom among Kosovar Roma are changing. Before, it was normal for a girl to be considered marriage-age by 9. This is no longer acceptable to Roma. Marriages of 14-year-old girls are not uncommon. Our interviewees were usually married before the age of 15- both men and women.

Roma Wedding Celebration: Gracanica, June 2003

In other areas of Europe, Roma men and women do their own courting. In Kosovo this is rare, but is slowly becoming more common. The standard Kosovar marriage arrangement is made by parents; the bride's family has primary decision-making power. Parents view this arrangement as one of their most important duties. The opinions of those to be married may be solicited, but do not count as much as parental judgment; often those to be married never meet one another before their fates are connected.

The rejection of parental arrangement is uncommon, but known; institutions and patterns regarding this have developed, involving symbolic 'kidnappings.' The encroachment of western ideas has led many more Roma youth to reject the institution of arranged marriage. They secretly find their own mates, and if the parents do not agree, the bride will simply meet her groom one night and head to his house. Eventually, the bride's parents are forced to accept the choice; sometimes a dowry will still be paid.

"We had to work in the fields, to pay for our weddings."

-Rexhep Curkoli, Kosovo Polje

The darro- dowry, or bride-price, is a fundamental institution of Roma marriage in Kosovo. Some Albanians practice this; no Serbs do. The groom's family must pay an agreed-upon amount of cash and gold to the bride's family; this monetary exchange is not a simply purchase, as many claim. The bride-price is compensation for the loss of the daughter- a household worker- and the price of raising her to be the woman she has become. Another element of the dowry is to ensure that the bride will be respected and treated fairy by her new family. Her price is a reflection of her worth to them.

Engagement begins with the groom�s family. They go through likely matches and pick the best match for their son; attractiveness may be a plus, but is considered behind the girl's character, work ethic, household skills, manners and demeanor.

An elder male in the groom's family- a father or an uncle- will make the initial approach to the bride's family. His first approach will be rejected, usually with a polite 'no, she's too young'; this is the norm. The bride's parents need time to investigate the groom and his family as well. Are they trustworthy and respected? Are they hard workers? Do they drink too much?

An agreement in principle that the match is a good one opens a new round of formalities, including negotiations over the dowry. Often the groom's family will agree to the initial offer. It is a delicate matter to try and lower the price; poverty must be pled, or the groom's family's regard for the potential bride will be quickly called into question.

If the price is accepted, the groom's father will go to the bride's home with a bottle of rakija. He and the male members of the bride's family will drink to the future union. Some Muslim Roma bring a bottle of sugar water and a bouquet instead.

Q: Would it be better to dispose of the dowry in the future?

"No- it's better to ask for the dowry, because the groom didn't work hard to raise and care for my daughter. I did that. To pay the dowry is much better because (the bride's family) has worked hard. You'll sell your house to be able to marry your son. They'll keep and respect the girl more; she'll be part of their home."

-Hazbije Vickolari, Prizren, Kosovo

When an engagement is set, it can last for years. New traditions of school attendance among emlightened families will often set the proposed marriage date to a time in the future when the male- and even the female, though this is considered of lesser importance- has completed his secondary education.

A celebration will occur in the weeks before the wedding day, at the bride's home; musicians will play while the families and guests eat and dance. Before, only the women danced; now, everyone does. Alcohol will be prevalent at this celebration, as well as at the wedding, which will follow the first celebration by another few weeks.

On the wedding night, the bride will ceremonially cry before all the female members of her own family. The groom's family will arrive to transport her, and her things, to her new home with the groom's family. Before she enters the home for the first time, she will place her hand in a bowl of sugared water, and place it on the door of the home, signifying that she will only bring sweetness into the groom's home.

The wedding is a western-oriented celebration with little Roma-specific cultural significance. Wedding gifts- usually cash- will be given. The bride and groom will usually wear western-style dress; the wedding will begin in the early evening and continue late into the night. But to Roma, the marriage happened when the terms were agreed to. Everything is a celebration of the union that has already passed. The wedding is sometimes reserved for the groom's family and friends; the bride's family will attend a smaller celebration the following day.

Some Muslim Roma women will be ceremonially veiled upon their wedding days, by their stepmothers; others are veiled by their brothers before the ceremonial transport to the groom's home. No man but their husbands (and children or family members) will ever see their hair again.

Two weeks after the marriage, the bride will return to her family home, for a visit. She will often walk, so that everyone can see that she is following the proper customs.

Soon after this visit, the bride and groom will ceremonially pay a visit to the bride's family. The bride's family will play numerous practical jokes on their daughter's husband. Popular ones are eggs placed in his shoes and salt in his coffee. A huge feast accompanies this.

In another few weeks the bride's mother will visit her daughter's new family. She will bring gifts- usually gold jewelry- to her daughter.

Marriage is the transition from child to adult in the Roma community. The man's new role is one of acceptance by his elders as a true member of the community- especially if children follow the marriage soon. For the woman, the transition is more difficult; she enters her new home as a junior member of her husband's family, and for years she will work to prove herself to them. She will assume many of her mother-in-law's duties. She will rise first in the morning and sleep last at night.

Divorces grow more common in Kosovo's Roma community, but are still rare because of the consequences and disgrace directed at the woman. Repercussions usually fall on the woman's shoulders; infidelity may result in banishment. Should a Roma woman divorce her husband, he will keep and raise the children. Civil laws regarding divorce are absolutely overshadowed by Roma laws. Further, a divorced woman's value will be lowered in the community. Should she marry again, it may be to an older man or a man of 'low' character. The dowry will be repaid by her family. Should a bride find herself abused in any way, her father may reclaim her.

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