The gypsy people, also known as “the Roma,” are a fascinating culture that has such vast differences within itself. They are a people who originated in India, who conform to no strict religion, and who’ve migrated across the globe after having left India around 1,500 years ago. These nomadic people now live all across the planet but are more concentrated in Europe. Romania has the largest population of Roma, with 12% of their population belonging to the tribe. Other countries with large gypsy numbers are Hungary, Turkey, Slovakia, Russia, Spain, and France. But they’ve migrated everywhere now. Across the ocean, Brazil has 800,000 Roma. The United States has one million, and in recent years, the shows My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, Gypsy Sisters, and Arranged have cast more light on the secretive gypsy community.
Like so many other groups of people, the gypsies are constantly stereotyped. People generally associate gypsies with child brides, dancing, caravans, fortune tellers, women wearing gold bangle bracelets, lavish weddings, elaborate dresses, and the tight-knit, closed-off communities the Roma are known for having. Stereotypes exist for a reason, and while some of these are true, not all are. One stereotype that the Roma, themselves, perpetuate, is that the girls are sexually promiscuous. Anyone would think that based on the provocative clothing they wear. But contradictory to their appearance, they actually adhere to a strict moral code that not many people know about since most people judge books by their covers. And this is just the beginning of the surprises you’ll learn about this group of people.
Following are 15 little-known facts and rules the Roma live by.Despite having variations between them, the Roma seem to agree on a few things. For all of them, a tremendous importance is placed on family and preserving their culture, to the point of being secretive about it. Also, for the most part, they all seem to have kept a nomadic mentality. The rest? There’s so much to tell, but we’ll start with 15 rules and facts you probably didn’t know…
15. Their Version of BAE
“BAE,” of course, stands for “before anyone else” and is a term used frequently by the younger generations. A BAE could be a boyfriend, a girlfriend, or a best friend. Basically, your BAE is the closest person to you. For the Roma people, they have their own version of a BAE, because they like to say, “Rom before anything else,” meaning Roma before anything else — kind of sounding like a gang type of thing where it’s blood in, blood out, the Roma people prioritize their heritage and beliefs over everything, to the point that they even have a term for the non-Roma, which is “Gadje.” Gadje aren’t to be trusted, and the most important thing for the Roma is honoring, practicing, and preserving their culture as Roma people. This often means shutting other people out and even being secretive about their lives.
14. Education Past Puberty is Rare
This is a sad but true fact. Illiteracy rates among the Roma culture are very high, and it’s because they don’t prioritize education. Formal education wasn’t even a part of their lives until the last century, but even now, many Roma believe that schools are dangerous places where their children will become polluted — both mentally and physically. Whether children are boys or girls, once they reach puberty, they’re generally taken out of school to prepare for their adult lives, which come about once they’re married. Since they’re usually married quite young, even as teenagers, they need to begin to work with the elders of the community and learn how to be a good husbands or wives. Puberty seems like a strange way to determine the end of a formal education, however, as it could happen for one child as early as 10, and others might not reach that milestone until their mid-teens!
13. The Weirdest Courtship Ritual Ever
It’s called “grabbing,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. Basically, it’s just downright creepy. According to Urban Dictionary, grabbing is defined as “a method of seduction used by gypsy adolescent males on gypsy females — verging upon sexual assault. Grabbing is performed by harassing the female (usually in a social situation), taking a grip of her arm and not letting go until you receive a kiss.” As you can imagine, this practice can sometimes go too far. After all, it’s essentially forcing a girl to kiss you. But it’s an accepted practice nonetheless, and young girls are subjected to this until they become engaged. One 15-year-old gypsy girl explained the practice: “It means they like a girl and want to get her number.”
12. The Gypsy World Is a Man’s World
Like so many cultures and religions around the world, the gypsy people live in a patriarchy, which means that the males predominantly hold the power and are the heads of the family and the community. But the gypsy women don’t think of this as a negative thing. Rather, they embrace it. The gypsies believe that, while technically, the husband and wife are equal to each other, they’re both expected to fulfill their traditional roles. The man will work and provide for his family, while the woman will stay home, cook, clean, and raise their children. Since it’s a patriarchy, however, they’re not equal, and the man has the final say in things. Like so many oppressed women around the globe, it seems as though the gypsy women consider themselves equal to their husbands, but when it comes down to it, I doubt that in such a patriarchy, that they would win a disagreement. The gypsy world, like so many others, is a man’s world. In fact, the earliest Roma in India called themselves “rom,” which literally means “man.”
11. Girls Encouraged to Aspire for Marriage
In this day and age, most people of a modern mindset would frown at the thought of encouraging their daughters and other young female family members to aspire to marriage — and only that. But in the Roma culture, that’s exactly what happens. Young girls, like their male counterparts, won’t continue school past puberty. They know that their role in life will be to raise a family and stay at home. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but there’s so much more out there for young women these days that limiting young girls to the role of a housewife and expecting them to not even try to do anything else with their lives is kind of sad. If that’s the girl’s choice, it’s one thing. But when she’s raised to believe that it’s her only option and is pushed to make that choice, it’s not really fair to her.
10. Similar Rules to the Duggar Family…
From puberty on, boys and girls in the Romani culture aren’t allowed to be alone together until they get married. Sound familiar? This is the same practice that the infamous Duggar family of 19 Kids and Counting employ when their children begin courtships (pictured above are the gypsy stars of Arranged, and the typical Duggar side-hug, back when Jessa Duggar and her future husband were courting). Like the Duggars, the Roma people keep very close tabs on their young ones. Although they encourage getting married quite young, being a virgin until their wedding day is important.
9. The Laundry
One of the things I found fascinating about the gypsy culture is how they do their laundry. You wouldn’t think such a mundane task would be interesting, but since the gypsy people have such strong ideas of cleanliness, it affects how they clean themselves and their things, including their clothing. Since the lower half of the body is considered unclean, clothing worn from the waist down must be washed separately from shirts and other clothing items worn from the waist up (it is seen as so unclean, in fact, that they don’t even take baths; the Roma shower so that they’re not sitting in a tub of water made unclean by the lower body). Men’s and women’s clothing must also be washed separately from each another, as does anything worn during a woman’s menstrual cycle. That’s a lot of loads of laundry, and it must take a lot of dedication to do all that separating!
8. Childbirth Is Impure
We know the act of giving birth isn’t the most glamorous thing in the world, but it’s so momentous an occasion that, at least in the Western world, people tend to not care as much about the gory details and focus more on the beauty of a new life being born. For the Roma culture, however, childbirth is considered impure (it’s slightly less impure if the baby is a boy, and they are thus “lucky”). While a new family member is, of course, a happy thing, after the birth, the mother and the baby are both considered polluted. This means different things in different gypsy cultures, but depending on the clan, the mother and child could be separated from the household and other Roma for as many as 40 days. After this time, the godparents are chosen, the baby is taken to church, and there’s a feast. It seems like it would be very difficult to be a new mom to be isolated for so long from family and friends, especially if there are other little ones to be taken care of. Immediately postpartum is when a mom needs the most emotional and physical support, but if the baby is isolated as well, no one can even help her take care of it!
7. Secret Laws
The Roma people live in clans in many different countries around the world, but one thing they all seem to have in common is how they put great importance on family and extended family. They’re known for having large, extended families, and all of the Roma are expected to uphold a certain respect for their privacy. This means that they’re not allowed to tell any non-Roma, or Gadje, the “secrets” of their rules. The gypsy set of rules varies across cultures, but it’s called many things, such as “the Marime Code”, “the Romani Code,” “Gypsy Law,” and other variations. Gadje aren’t privy to what exactly these laws are. As different as all the different gypsy cultures are, however, it’s said that there’s only one law: Gypsy Law. In this way, all of the gypsies are united.
6. They Adopt Their Host Country’s Religion For Access to Religious Establishments
Perhaps this is not a rule per se, but a common practice within gypsy culture is to adopt their host country’s religious ceremonies for access to their churches and other religious establishments. The Romani people have religious roots in Hinduism, as they originated in Northern India. They believe in a universal balance called kuntari. Since they’re so widespread, live all over the world, and were traditionally nomadic, gypsies use their surrounding religions for ceremonies like funerals or baptisms when they need a formal religious institution. In this culture, there are no priests, churches, or Bibles, with the exception of the very few Pentecostal Roma. The Roma worship the Christian God but pray to Him through the Virgin Mary or another female consort. They don’t have an official faith but go with whatever faith is predominant where they are, and they describe themselves as “many stars scattered in the sight of God.”
5. Obsessive-Compulsive Cleanliness
We already know about the gypsy predisposition to cleanliness, but besides the refusal to take a bath (they will only shower), the isolation of mother and baby after birth, and the washing of lower body and menstrual clothing separately, there’s one more thing they do in the name of cleanliness. You may think of repetitive hand washing as something reserved for the Obsessive Compulsive among us, but the Romani people are nearly as neurotic about it as if they had the disorder, too. Obviously, there’s no getting around using your hands for everything, unless you wear gloves. And admittedly, that means that for most of us, our hands are one of our dirtiest body parts. For this reason, the Romani people constantly wash their hands after touching anything that could potentially “pollute” them. This could be a shoe, a doorknob, an animal, anything.
4. Marriage “Apprenticeship”
A gypsy teen is considered an adult when he or she gets married. As we learned from the show My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, weddings are a huge deal in the gypsy culture. Young men and women are encouraged to marry as young as 16 or 17 (and sometimes even younger, depending on the country). After they take this step, the bride must serve a period of apprenticeship, living with her new in-laws. This will go on until the mother-in-law is fully satisfied that she’s adhering to the laws of pollution and respect within their family and, overall, being an adequate wife. How awkward that would be to be a newlywed living with your husband’s family, and knowing you’re being judged already. And to be so young on top of it would be especially hard. They probably don’t think this way, but this situation and needing such approval when already married would bring a whole new level to the issue with in-laws that so many women face!
3. Bride Kidnapping
The practice of bride kidnapping is done only in certain Roma communities around the world. It was practiced more throughout history than it is now but still is in some cultures, namely in Central Asia, the Caucasus region, parts of Africa, and in several smaller, diverse cultures such as the Hmong in Southeast Asia and the Romani in Europe. Bride kidnapping is also called “marriage by adduction” or “marriage by capture.” Basically, it’s when a man abducts the woman he wants to marry, whether she wants to marry him or not. In European Romani cultures, this has been happening throughout their long history. Girls as young as 12 years old can be kidnapped for marriage to teenaged boys. One reason behind it is avoiding the price of a bride (because people are buyable, naturally). This also puts young girls more at risk of being victims of sex trafficking. The Romani don’t see anything strange about this tradition, which, in the past, included that if you manage to kidnap a bride, you must also keep her by your side for two to three days before she officially becomes your wife.
2. “Mixed” Marriages and Their Offspring
A mixed marriage within the Roma community would mean a Roma marrying a Gadje or non-Roma. Obviously, this isn’t ideal for the Roma, but it does happen. It’s much worse if a Roma girl decides to marry a Gadje boy than if a Roma boy marries a Gadje girl. Double standards again, I’m afraid. If a Roma boy marries outside his tribe, his wife may eventually be accepted into the community, as long as she adopts their way of life. It’s much worse for a Roma girl to marry outside of her tribe, as Roma women are considered to be the “guarantors” of the survival of their population. In the case of a mixed marriage, there are still bound to be children (and it’s rare that a couple has only one or two), but those children would not be pure Roma, which could be a potential problem. Sadly, these children will only be considered Roma if the father is Roma, which seems quite silly.
1. The Most Terrible Punishment
There are many religions, cultures, and societies that practice shunning, and the Roma gypsies are one of them. This happens when Roma are found to be “polluted,” and it’s the most terrible punishment they can receive. As we know, the Roma people have a thing about cleanliness, and they believe that pollution can spread from one person to another. This person can be expelled from the community and then shunned if they’re found to be contaminated. This can also happen for other things such as turning your back on the community tribe; however, this is less common. Shunning and ostracization are also cited as one of the reasons for the increase in gypsy suicides in Europe, along with poorer health, lack of access to healthcare, and the level of discrimination they’ve historically experienced (and continue to experience) in Europe.
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