Last week the group of women I’m working with in Gracanica and I had our first real brainstorming day to start building up the story they want their part of the quilt to tell. I left it quite open-ended when it was time to start making preliminary drawings – it’s up to them to decide what aspect of their lives they want to present – and it was interesting to see how each woman interpreted our opening discussion about what sets Roma (these women are all Roma) women apart from others in Kosovo, the persistent problems they face from outside and within their community, what they want from their lives.
Two of the group chose to show Roma women as they were. A woman who makes embroidery panels of traditional scenes of Roma life drew a woman in traditional Roma dress (covered head, apron over a long skirt) making flija, a traditional Albanian dough and meat layered pie that in the old days (and in the drawing) would be made outdoors in a pan over a fire. I unfortunately have yet to taste the real thing; her drawing looked delicious.
A woman from a nearby village who makes a small living as an artist drew a portrait of an idealized Roma woman, with flowered headscarf, earrings, long eyelashes. These two drawings showed a domesticity that was simple, beautiful.
The youngest member of the group thought toward her future. She dreams of being an architect, and drew the house she would like to build for herself someday. This doesn’t sound so revolutionary, until you consider her circumstances. As a Roma girl about to finish high school, she is already exceptional. Attending university would put her in a tiny minority of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian women who have the education to potentially join the professional middle class. Her next hurdle is to win a scholarship so she can afford to study in Pristina.
The boldest of the group, an activist from a small village outside of Gracanica, wanted to directly address a troubling issue that bears heavily on the lives of many women and girls from the three communities: the cultural mandate that new brides be virgins when they are married. This tradition holds in Roma communities across the region. RROGRAEK Director Shpresa (who was translating) told me that in eastern Kosovo (including Gracanica), a new couple must still hang their wedding night bedsheet out of their window the morning after their first night together, displaying it for the entire town. If there is no blood stain on the sheet to prove that the new bride had been a virgin, the groom’s family can reject the girl, sending her back to her own family, and she will be permanently, publicly, shamed, as well as probably beaten, or worse. She will probably then be married off to an older man, perhaps a widower, because no young man’s family will accept her. While this practice is apparently receding in western Kosovo, even in those more progressive areas the family of the groom may want to see the sheet privately to be sure their son has married a worthy woman.
This tradition isn’t limited to the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities – it’s an old Albanian custom as well – but most Albanian families don’t use the virginity test as final proof of the bride’s worth.
A few of the other women in the group joined in the conversation, agreeing that the virginity issue is one of the most important for Roma women because the consequences of not being a virgin can be so dire. They were all from towns and villages where this is their reality. It underscores how little choice many women from these communities have in the major events of their lives: ruled over by powerful patriarchal traditions, girls are shuttled from cage to cage.
The group said that the younger generations may be starting to see virginity as less of a requirement and more of a desirable quality; this study done in the region (not including Kosovo) is a bit less conclusive. For now, anyway, “dishonorable” Roma brides continue to be pilloried, unless they’re able to scrape together enough money to renew their virginity.
Taken together, I think that the group’s ideas represent very well the intersection that Roma women find themselves at – they are proud of their traditions, but are also aware that some of them hold them back from being independent, maybe even from being happy. Some have strong ideas for their futures but know that economic and social realities may make those dreams impossible. There are so many competing forces shaping how Roma women see themselves and their futures. How to navigate the crossroads is the challenge. I’m excited to see where the project takes us next…
Posted By Samantha Hammer
Posted Jun 27th, 2011