Europe, Bulgaria, Human Rights

The Virgin Market of Bulgaria: Tradition Over Rights?

Every few times a year, an event takes place in the city of Stara Zagora that has come to be known as the Bride Market. The participants are young boys and girls from the Kalaidzhi clan – a local Roma community that is largely impoverished.

What Exactly Is a Bride Market?

The Bride Market is a generations-long tradition and it’s exactly what it sounds like – families sell their daughters into marriage. The girls are dressed in shiny, colorful dresses in the attempts of attracting a suitor who they like and who, more importantly, is prepared to pay well for their hand. On the other hand, the suitors, who are sometimes boys, and sometimes even older unmarried men, roam around the market trying to strike up a conversation with the girls and ask for their ‘prices’. All of this is accompanied with loud Roma music blasting from different car speakers, dancing and celebrating. There is an overall festive atmosphere, where everyone looks and acts their best.

One might see this as a harmless tradition, seeing as the boys and girls willfully participate in it. That, however, would be an uneducated statement, made without knowing the complete background of this community.

Cultural Background

The Kalaidzhi community traditionally deals in copper craftsmanship – repairing and producing pots, pans and other similar products. This trade hasn’t been very popular in recent times, and business hasn’t been going very well for them. They live in the villages around the Stara Zagora area, with little to no contact to the outside world. This is the reason why they still hold so strongly onto their Christian beliefs and Roma traditions, remaining unaffected by the changes and progress happening outside their society.

The gender roles are strongly divided in their families. The man does the physical labor and financially provides for the family, while the wife does all the cooking, cleaning and other stereotypical housewife tasks. Anything else is unheard of and condemned.

The setting that these children are raised in is far from healthy. Boys and girls are allowed minimal contact with each other. Social life is limited and consists mostly of small gatherings within the family circle. If a boy wants to have any social contact with a girl, then he must visit her at her home, under the supervision of her parents. Although they are no strangers to social network and media, the girls are discouraged to take part in any fraternizing with a boy that hasn’t been approved by their parents beforehand.

Things go even further than that. Around the time they reach adolescence, girls are withdrawn from school and only boys get to proceed with their education. This is done to prevent temptation between the young teenagers and to stop them from falling in love, running away together or defying their parents’ plans for their future marriage. Another reason why parents do this is to do everything in their power to preserve their daughters’ virginity, because the bride must be ‘pure’ when sold. If the bride is sold as a virgin, but is afterwards found to be otherwise, then the family she came from is judged and denounced within the community.

Impact on New Generations

The Roma girls are denied education at a young age, which from the start excludes any good chance of them having a professional career or an independent life. Some of them, when asked, say that of course they dream of being business women and earning their own money, however, they ‘simply can’t’. They have been a part of such a system since the day they were born, and have simply learned to accept these boundaries set by tradition and old beliefs as normal.

So yes, one might say that these teenagers are happy to take part in the Bride Market. And from the excessive preparations they go through: extravagant dresses, large bling, makeup and hairdos, one could draw the conclusion that they even anticipate the Bride Market with joy. And rightfully so, since this is the only event where girls and boys are allowed to freely talk to each other and socialize, as well as the only way youngsters can hope to find a match.

Most of the young boys and girls at the market think that this practice is unfair. Especially when a boy and a girl like each other, but the boy’s parents don’t have enough money to offer for the bride, so she is sold to someone else. Some parents are more liberal than others – they ask their daughters’ opinions before they make the deal and let them do the picking to a certain extent.

Even though the youngsters recognize the fault in this practice, they wouldn’t dare going about their marriage any differently. These customs are so deeply ingrained in their beliefs, that going against them, would mean bringing shame and exclusion to their families.

Tradition is the key to preserving a community’s culture, but to which degree is this acceptable? When does a tradition become recognized as harmful, and when does it cease to be practiced? And more importantly, when a tradition hinders new generations instead of benefiting them, is this tradition worth preserving? These questions might be easy to pose as an outsider to this community. The truth is, only someone from within can answer them, and only someone from within can act to inspire change among others.

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