Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-SPAIN: Gypsies Demand Recognition of Marriage Rites

Tito Drago

MADRID, Nov 13 2000 (IPS) - Organisations of gypsies or Roma in Spain are demanding that their traditional marriage ceremonies be granted the same official recognition enjoyed by the religious rites of Jews, Muslims, Catholics and Protestants.

“The marriage rites of gypsies reached Europe when this continent was only just taking shape as a society,” Manuel Martínez Ramírez, president of Gypsy Presence, a multi-ethnic non- governmental organisation that has been defending the interests and rights of the Roma since its founding in 1972, told IPS.

The regional parliament of Aragón — one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities — approved a bill last week introduced by the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) which, if adopted by Spain’s national parliament, will mean the register office will legally recognise marriages conducted according to age-old Roma traditions.

Another Roma association, Kamira, wants the rites approved in their most traditional form, in which a “match-maker” (an older woman) breaks the hymen of the bride with a handkerchief and exhibits it before an assembly of men as proof of her virginity.

A Kamira spokesman said if that part of the rites was eliminated, “it would put an end to the gypsy people.”

Martínez Ramírez, however, said the “match-maker” rite was not obligatory. “It can only be practiced by those who specifically accept it,” because “no religion, culture or rite can take precedence over a citizen’s right over their own body.”

But he also pointed out that traditional gypsy weddings began to be held in Spain a full 575 years ago.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination commended the Spanish government in March for its efforts to improve the situation of gypsies in the country, who numbered around 650,000 of a total population of 40 million.

But while the UN committee said the Spanish government “was treating that segment of the population in a very favourable manner,” it added that “a high percentage of the members of the gypsy community had been affected by unfavourable social conditions in comparison to the rest of the Spanish population.”

An estimated 90 percent of Roma in Spain are married in traditional gypsy ceremonies.

The Aragon regional parliament’s initiative is a test of the sensitivity of those who fight for their rights, said Martínez Ramírez, who pointed out that when the constitution was drafted, only the Andalucista Party (in the southern region of Andalucía) met with delegates of Gypsy Presence, while the Spanish parliament never even discussed the question of gypsy marriages.

Law professor Fernando Mariño, the president of the Spanish Pro Human Rights Association, told IPS that the important thing was to foster the establishment of officially recognised links between people who want to live together, marry, and form a family.

“The form is only a secondary issue,” said Mariño, a professor of international law at the Carlos III University. “What must be guaranteed is the broadest freedom of form, including the gypsies’ right to marry according to their age-old traditions.”

Mariño, however, objected to the “match-maker” rite.

All legislation must take into account public order, “which establishes equality between women and men, and rejects any degrading treatment. And that aspect of the rite is humiliating for women,” said Mariño.

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