Romani Gabor women in Romania

“Romani women are as colorful and beautiful as limited in their social life”

There are approximately  3 milion Roma in Romania, as declared by the Roma National Agency in 2011. Although it cannot be known for sure when the Roma arrived to Romania, there is a historical document from 1385, by the Lord of Romania, Dan the 1st, who gave a parcel from the Monastery  Tismana for 40 Roma (“atigani”). The Romani communities can be divided into around 25 extended families: distinct groups with their own culture and tradition. Amongst  them are the group of romungri, caldarari, argintari, ciurari and gabori. They can be easily distinguished from each other because of their lifesyle and clothing. In the following, the life and traditions of the Gabors will be presented.

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Gabor family with a young couple

Gabor means a network of hundreds of Romani families who all refer to a certain common ancestor called Gábor (English: Gabriel). Although the network of Gabor families stretches across many large European cities and even as far as San Francisco on the edge of the Pacific, most Gabor consider their home in Transylvania, in the region around Tîrgu Mureş. As of today, most of the Gabors still live in Transylvania, and are called “Gabors with a Hat”. They also stand out from other Romani communities, especially by their traditional clothing: women wear long colorful and folded skirts and colorful shirts. Their hairstyle is characterized by long, braided hair on one side with a colorful ribbon (never black: this color has a negative connotation in traditional Roma culture). Men wear leather vests and hats, and have moustaches. As for their occupation, they are travelling traders, and conduct business in many different countries. However, they can stay temporarily in any country where they conduct business. Since some of their traditional activities are less needed, many of them found a new source of living in business activities. They are now known street sellers, they are present on fairs and markets. Some already have their own companies, established sometimes abroad, in Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, Austria or other countries in Eastern and Central Europe. Usually, they are trilingual speakers: they speak Hungarian, Romanian and Romani.

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Gabor man working as a tinker.

Although striving to find new ways of employment and conducting business, many Gabors are still proud of their old heritage of craftsmen:

I am very proud of doing gutters and also business because now this is a new life, all my family lives of this, but there is our very old crafts heritage from the times of king Gabor Bethlen as well.” – says a Gabor man.

The Romani Gabors are composed by two big families: the Giuresti Gabors (gabori giuresti) and the Banesti Gabors (gabori banesti). Some consider that the Giuresti Gabors, also called Romani Gabors, are the original Gabor family who have the biggest “rank”, because they preserved their tradition for many centuries without any change. According to the internal community rules, Giuresti Gabors must have a supreme person living in the same settlement. He is called Bulibasa and is elected by the members of the community. The Bulibasa should be an elderly, wise and experienced person, with extensive knowledge and expertise about the traditional rules and norms. He and a selected group of respected men function as the jury of the community, and help solving internal matters and conflicts without the involvement of any external power such as police. An example to such an internal conflict is the following story, told by a Gabor woman:

A conflict escalated between the wives of two young male members of two Gabor families. The men were absent, and the argument between the women grew more and more serious: they did not let their children play together anymore, and with the passing of time, the two families grew completely apart. One of the two women suffered so badly due to the conflict that she decided to leave the family house together with her children, and to move back to her own parents’. Since this happened in the absence of her husband, who was abroad for business reasons, the Gabor jury waited until his return to start the process of reconciliation. Finally, upon the return of the male members of the two families, the jury summoned everybody, the bulibasa and other elderts from different cities and places. They resolved the conflict during a series of talks. The punishment always targets the one who caused the conflict, and it is most often about banning him or her from attending the community events, and making her a less reputable member of the community- such a stigma lasts for long and it is a shame for the whole family. In this case, one of the women was punished, as being the initiator of the problems”.

Despite of their traditional lifestyle, religion has had an important influence on Gabor culture in recent years. The missionary activities of neo-protestant churches, such as the Pentecostal Church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and especially the Seventh Day Adventists, has led to changes in their lifestyles in some respects. The recent changes brought by religion to the community have resulted in a slight development in the women’s position as well, however, the strictly defined gender roles are still present in the community. In the followings, the role of women in traditional Gabor society will be discussed.

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Father, son and daughter

The family is a fundamental value in the life of every Roma person.  If in other cultures the marriage means a “commitment between the two and/or before the God”, in the Romani Gabor’s tradition the decisions within the family taken by the spouses depend a lot on the rules imposed by community tradition – without any official recognition and as a result of a mutual agreement between the parents of those to be married.  As compared to other Roma traditions where the bride is “bought” with a sum of money, in Gabor tradition, it is the groom that is “bought”.  This rule places a great value on the masculine part of the family.

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Wedding preparations: ribbons are removed from the bride’s hair, preparing her to wear the kerchief, sign of womanhood.

The Romani Gabor women have a specific value in the establishment of the family. Their role is the preservation of the household and caring for children. Consequently, the Gabor men keep their women within the traditional rules, and forbid them any connection to other men – Roma or Gadje. Also, they do not allow Gabor women to marry with a Roma who is not a Gabor. In case this happens they have to certainly exclude this woman from the family and the community. The marriage between couples of Gabor families happens on the basis of social and economic condition, and geographical proximity also plays an important role. Romani Gabor women are expected to marry at a very early age and to do so within pre-arranged circumstances and to an approved Gabor men. Women also have to develop a good relationship with their mothers-in-law, care for children, and maintain the household – clean, cook, and so on.

However, even if their lifestyle restricts their freedom to choose whom to marry and limits opportunities to earn a living, these women want to earn their own money, and they do so by selling cheap goods on the market, thus getting some independence in their lives. The Roma Gabor women have a big responsibility for the family, especially for the upbringing of children, however, some of them have to stick to the decision made by their husband in this filed of life as well. This is how a Gabor woman talks about her children:

I am responsible for my children, I have to take care of them in each small section of life. On the other hand, I cannot decide that I want my daughter to pursue education, and go to university. Even if she tells me that that’s what she would want, that she would want to change some thing in her life, I cannot give her the permission, I cannot support her, if my husband and the community does not agree with me.”

It is crucial to get to know in details and understand the culture and traditions of this group of Roma: their lifestyle, rules and norms and find the possibilities and the individuals within the community who may want a change in their lives and a broadening of their possibilities. Illiteracy and a very early marriage (in the case of both genders) can also have a negative impact on their lives, and it also means that they will have difficulties to function in a modern society.

The author of this article is also a Romani woman, with a deep understanding of Romani traditions, combined with a modern view of life. From this particular point of view it is even more evident that tradition plays a fundamental role in the stability and the future of the Gabor Roma. Thus, the change has to occur from within the community, harming as little as possible those rules and traditional norms that aim at preserving the community as such. Romani women who have experience in activism and have felt on their own skin the difficulties of preserving traditions and, at the same time, living a modern life and pursue education, can support morally and emotionally those members of the Romani Gabor community who wish to embark upon the difficult route of emancipation.

Written by: Lorena Doghi, Romani woman from Romania.