When I first read about the Kalaidzhii bride auctions, I couldn’t believe it. How is it possible that young girls are being auctioned like cattle in 2012? And, in the European Union??
I wanted to see the event for myself, and planned to meet up with other volunteers for the festival. What I observed on Sunday was less the hyper sexualized bridal auction portrayed in articles from the New York Times [LINK], Global Post [LINK], and Huffington Post [LINK] than a family reunion for a traditional group whose members now live scattered throughout Europe. The foreign journalist present didn’t have a translator and she departed while vendors were still preparing food, long before most people arrived. If her presence was any indication of the journalistic research upon which articles were based in previous years, those responsible for printing them ought to be ashamed. Thanks to them, a quick Google search for Kalaidzhii, turns up dozens of articles about the tribe selling their girls to the highest bidder.
I don’t excuse the activities, bride prices were still discussed during the event, and parents and grandparents, not the young people, seemed to be the driving forces behind pairings. But as one mother said: most important is that they care about each other, though the man should also have a good job and be able to take care of her. Large sums, like those reported in the articles, the woman claimed, have not been at play for quite some time. The event had more in common with the old tradition of young women presenting at court in the UK or the original idea behind debutante balls in the US, than a market selling young girls as brides.
The festival is traditionally held on Todorov Den (St. Todor’s Day) in the village of Mogila, Stara Zagora region, Bulgaria. This year it was held the following day. Adults and children socialized, showed off new babies, and gossiped. Keeping shared traditions and histories together is a key motivating factor behind the event and discussing children of marrying age, was, of course, a prominent subject. If families find match suitable, the boy and girl will get to know each other, and a marriage, perhaps, will follow. The boys and girls in question appeared in their late teens and early 20s, awkward, and shy.
The girls of courting age wore white pancake makeup to lighten their skin and stark red rouge. Their outfits glittered and shined, often at the same time. Their makeup and clothes set them apart and seemed to serve as a signal that they hoped to find a husband in the crowd. Older women wore flowered scarves and bright clothes, younger girls looked like little kids anywhere.
We spoke with one girl, age 18, in her fourth year getting dressed for the event. She lives with her grandparents and cousins in a small Bulgarian village. Her family was together for the event, even her mother, who has worked in Greece for six years, travelled back to Mogila. Last year, the girl said, she was paired with a boy. They talked on the phone for a while, but it didn’t work out. She hoped for better luck this year.
Another family we spoke to is the only Kalaidzhii family in their village. They brought their little girl to play and meet other Kalaidzhii. Maybe she will find her a husband at the event, but it won’t be for a few years, now she is too young, the father said.
Before the festival became busy, we shared a picnic table and chatted with a grandmother of two girls of courting age. When the crowds arrived, I saw her deep in conversation with a trio of older women, their heads bent together in conversation. By the time we left a few hours later, her two granddaughters were sharing a picnic table with two young boys.
A bride price system is the opposite of dowry practices in some traditional societies—instead of paying the groom for taking the daughter, the groom must demonstrates his suitability with financial offerings to the family of the bride. I believe both practices are wrong. They commoditize women and take choice away from the individuals involved.
My personal opinion is that bride prices and arranged marriages are outdated relics and should not be excused under a cultural relativist banner for being anything other than a demeaning practice that hurts both the young men and women involved. BUT the Kalaidzhii event in Mogila was unfairly sexed-up and sensationalized in the media.
The Kalaidzhii are one of 18 Roma tribes in Bulgaria. Traditionally tinners or metalworkers in towns and villages across Bulgaria, members of the Christian Orthodox tribe now work in a variety of industries. In my opinion, Bulgaria’s Roma are unfairly blamed for a panacea of social issues—scapegoats for budget woes, petty crime, and gangsterism. Without going into the veracity of these claims and the European wide struggle of Roma-integration, I can say that experiences, conversations, and observations of the weekend festivals (horse fair on Saturday and Kalaidzhii gathering on Sunday) in Mogila were pleasant and welcoming events. (the horse fair was not Kalaidzhii-centric, ethnic Bulgarians and Roma were present).
Very, very few females attended the horse fair, but I and the other female volunteers were not made to feel unwelcome. No one threatened or spoke to us inappropriately. Even when we found ourselves at the center of a large crowd, we were given space. If any off-color comments were made, they were done so at low volume and out of earshot. On Sunday, women and girls chatted with us and answered questions. I’m sure the questions we asked, considering we expected to see a bride auction, were, alarmingly probing and personal. There were a few creepy men scanning the girls in the crowd, but this is not unusual for large gatherings anywhere. The men that spoke to me were friendly and polite-wanting to pose for pictures with us and asking if we were sure we weren’t Kalaidzhii. For the most part, everyone humored us, posed for pictures, and one woman and her mother even apologized for not having something to “cherpi” or treat us to. The spirit was joyful, one of family and friends getting together for the first time in a year.