To the untrained eye, 25-year-old Pepa and her 19-year-old sister, Rosi, are like many millennial girls. They love dressing up, spending a lot of time on social media, and gossiping about boys. Yet, unlike other girls, the sisters have spent their life preparing for one main event that will dictate their future.
Coming from the Kalaidzhi Roma clan in Bulgaria means that every spring, young girls like Pepa and Rosi will be sold off to male suitors at the bride market in the town of Stara Zagora. It is the biggest annual gathering and all-round party for the community of around 18,000 people.
The Kalaidzhi are Orthodox Christian gypsies who have battled with continuous discrimination all over Europe. In years gone by, they were predominantly skilled coppersmiths and lived in the rural areas where they fixed copper pots for a living. Nowadays, demand for their trade has since dwindled, and they face the challenge of economic hardships. In Bulgaria, they are ranked as some of the poorest and as such, they seek unions based on marriages that are financially advantageous.
Pepa and Rosi’s mother, Vera, who was also sold to their father many years earlier with little say in the matter, eventually grew to love her husband over time. These days, she felt that things have changed and girls have a bit more of an opinion when it comes to whom they may end up marrying. In her day, the girls would be lined up on a stage whilst men bid on or competed for their hand. Nowadays, the girls are free to mingle and speak to potential suitors at the market.
In the documentary, Young Virgins as Bulgaria’s Controversial Bride Market, Vera explained how it is imperative that Kalaidzhi girls remain virgins to be able to get the best prices.
“It is very important because a lot of money is given for virginity. If the girl is not a virgin when you sell her, they will call us whores, sluts and disgraceful women,” she said.
Typically, girls are bought for between $290 – $350, but Vera said that she was offered $3500 for Pepa and even more for Rosi.
“I am very happy when boys are bidding a lot of money. This means the girls are beautiful. The boys like them.
The factors, which denote the price of the girl, are purely based on aesthetics – how nice her clothes are, and how pretty she is. The idealised concept of beauty is fair skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes. Because of this, there is a proliferation of cosmetics many girls use to try to appear to have whiter skin.
The documentary’s producer, Milene Larsson, told News: “The bride market is an ancient tradition essential to the Kalaidzhi identity, which is why this custom has survived, but these days most girls have an element of choice — albeit shaped by family pressure — when it comes to whom they wed.”
“That doesn’t by any means justify the disturbing idea that women are property that you can sell, bid on and buy, and how that shapes these girls’ lives from day one. They are brought up not to discover who they are and their ambitions, but instead to obey and serve their future husbands.”
Most of the girls at the bride market are between the ages of 13 and 20. Often times, girls are removed from school since the roles for women tend to predominantly revolve around taking care of the home and the family. Only 10% of Bulgarian Roma women have secondary education, and 1 in 5 women are illiterate.
Peppa and Rosi conceded that they would have preferred to get an education and follow their dreams of becoming a banker and a hairdresser, respectively. But as they had no qualifications and the Kalaidzhi tradition dictates that they are married, they were resigned to their fate.
Larsson found this to be particularly poignant, adding: “I found it especially disturbing when I spent time with them alone and they talked about their fears of being married off to someone they don’t like, missing their families, and their secret dreams and aspirations that they couldn’t pursue.”