Friday, October 26, 2012

My big fat gypsy gender disparity

After I published my last blog post two weeks ago, I happened to catch a re-run episode of “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” on TLC, a show the channel calls “a visually arresting portrait of the secretive and extravagant world of gypsies today.” The show chronicles several aspects of traveller culture in the U.K., but perhaps the most compelling portions of the show are those that give some insight into the lives of gypsy women. I was slightly horrified by the position of gypsy women with regards to education, courtship, and domesticity. The show raises questions not only about women’s rights, but also the extent to which feminist critiques should be sensitive to cultural norms (something that we discussed during our class on feminism and Mormonism).

One aspect of the show that caught my attention was a scene in which a young gypsy woman (I believe she was 16) was discussing her family and how she left school at the age of 11 to help her mother care for her many young siblings. 

An article entitled “Why fat gypsy weddings are a feminist issue” by Vicky Allan of The Herald (Scotland) suggests that the practice of taking young travellers out of school may also be due to the gypsies’ strong desire to maintain their culture and limit the influence of outside values. 

Either way, this practice surely leaves gypsy women behind and sets them up for a life inside the home. Their lack of education would make employment outside of the home seemingly impossible. But to what extent can “outsiders” criticize this cultural norm? 

Possibly the most troubling portion of the episode I watched was a scene in which a young traveller girl (just shy of her 16th birthday) was “grabbed” by a boy at a wedding. “Grabbing” is an apparent courtship ritual that involves a young man physically grabbing a young woman and attempting to “steal” a kiss from her. It sounds like rape, right? Well it looks like rape too. 

The clip that follows depicts the incident. The young woman, Cheyenne, discusses how some boys take it too far, but this grab in particular wasn’t one of the more violent she has experienced. She says, “You just have to live with it.” In a shocking twist, Cheyenne calls this grab the best thing that ever happened to her because she later accepted a marriage proposal from the boy who grabbed her. The young man appears to apologize for the grab in the clip, saying that it must have been “love at first sight.” 

In another clip, two traveller men discuss "grabbing" and respect for women. They say that grabbing may look like rape, but its not. But, they say that while they respect women, they respect men more.

These comments make me wonder whether gypsy men respect women at all if they are willing to admit that they respect men more. But, once again, the issue of cultural norms rears its head. One man says, “Other religions have weird things where we go, ‘Oh my God, how could you do that?’ But that’s their way. Who are we to question their way? And who are they to question our way?”

Although outsiders should have a certain amount of respect for cultural norms they may find offensive or oppressive, I think many women would agree that a line must be drawn somewhere. “Grabbing” is a cultural norm that I would argue goes a bit too far.

It is clear from the show that the role of the gypsy woman is to look after her husband, her children and the household. In the first clip above, Cheyenne says that she can’t wait to be a good wife and make sure “everything is in place” for her husband. According to the show, traveller women typically get married between the ages of 16 and 20.

A young Traveller named John, who was interviewed by Allan in the piece mentioned above said
That’s bang on, how the women stay at home and the men go out to work. My wife doesn’t work and among everyone that I know or speak to, the women don’t work. If the young man had to make his wife work, it would be a disgrace.
This comment is interesting because it almost seems like John thinks that it would be a burden for a woman to work outside of the home, but I think most women I know would agree that it would be a burden to be forever confined to the “private” of the home. 

The central issue raised by "My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding" and its portrayal of gypsy culture in the U.K. is the tension between feminist critiques and cultural norms, and which of those norms may cross a line. 


MC said...

As a viewer of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, I was fascinated by the show and Traveller customs. I was particularly intrigued by the faithfulness with which Travellers preserve and propagate their customs in a relatively liberal and progressive country. Unfortunately, I think it's largely attributable to Vicky Allan's point that young Travellers are taken out of school to maintain their culture and limit the influence of outsiders.

Traveller women are unlikely to call the police in situations of domestic violence because "[they] would be seen as a grass and disowned by the whole community." A study in Wrexham found that 61% of married English Gypsy women and 81% of Irish Travellers have experienced domestic abuse. Id. Of this figure, the women who sought police assistance happened to suffer more severe and sustained violence than those within mainstream communities. Id. As an advocate for victims of domestic violence and abuse, it pains me to think that there's an entire community of women out there, who are unwilling to help another woman in serious need.

Elizabeth said...

I think unfortunately the Traveller elders know what they are doing. They take these young girls out of school and marry them off before they have time to establish a sense of self. This is an easy way to keep girls in line with traditional values: don't let them be exposed to anything else. It is a more extreme version of Christian homeschooling culture in America.

I find the "grabbing" very disturbing, particularly since the young girl ended up marrying the guy who "grabbed" her. How could that ever result in an equal, healthy relationship? I think boys forcing themselves on girls goes beyond any cultural sensitivity considerations. Yes, a lot of "religions" do wacky things as the boy in the video pointed out, but forced sexual activity is never acceptable.

Heather said...

I agree with MC and Elizabeth, 'grabbing' abuses women, and I am not concerned with being not culturally sensitive. Like we talked about in the Mormonism and Feminism class, where to draw the line between respecting another culture and deciding that a practice harm women is tricky. The fact that the girls are so young and this is physical makes grabbing an easy one for me to put in the harmful category.

KRB said...

MC- thank you for sharing the statistics about domestic violence. This issue is something that TLC is unlikely to touch on, but it is really important. It is simply unacceptable that so many women in the Traveller community have been victims of domestic violence, but feel enough cultural pressure not to report it.

Patricija said...

I've also watched this show, and it is incredibly fascinating. As mentioned previously, I was incredibly disturbed by the grabbing culture and the high level and under-reporting of domestic violence in these communities.

The TLC show tries to show the level of ostracism these communities encounter, but when I talked to people in Europe about this, they get equally passionate about the ills that accompany these communities. As they belong to no country, there is no loyalty to the land. They are associated with crime, immoral behavior, lack of education, health concerns, and of course mysogony. I wonder to what extent the tensions between these two culture exacerbates the problem. If the Travellers are hated by the communities they occupy, then those Travellers simply distrust those communities more. This type of logic is circular and builds upon itself. Having this lack of trust and level of hate is not conducive to the most vulnerable individuals in the Traveller communities. It is simply logical to not report something to someone who hates you, who you don't trust, and who you feel won't support you if you get disowned by the whole community.

Sam said...

“The central issue raised by ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ and its portrayal of gypsy culture in the U.K. is the tension between feminist critiques and cultural norms, and which of those norms may cross a line.”

I am not a huge fan of cultural relativism. I think it renders feminism toothless. I do think one needs to recognize the limitations of one’s perspective, the empirical limitations of being able to precisely define a happy life, and the diversity of ways one can live a happy life. However, this does not mean we can’t critique clearly harmful cultural norms, and this does not mean we can’t have a cross-cultural dialogue about what constitutes a happy life. To me, anti-feminism is a clearly harmful cultural norm, and should be eradicated wherever it is found. However, as Jihan has pointed out in class (in her story about the immigrant polygamists), sometimes allowing some of these norms to persist is practically necessary to prevent even more harm to women.

tzey said...

I have also been known to watch My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. One aspect of traveller culture I found interesting is the importance of virginity. Most of the women featured stated that it is inappropriate for girls to have sex before they were married. Granted for the most part the women featured marry very young so its not like they are waiting a long time. What i found interesting is that they do not associate modesty with virginity. Most of the woman's dress featured on the show is far from modest. Yet their is not correlation between modest dress and virginity.