01/02/2011

My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding - I didn’t approach it with an open mind, glad I didn’t bother..

OK, this week’s episode focussed on the lot of the traveller woman and frankly, it left me decidedly unimpressed… It’s not a gross over simplification to say that nothing in traveller culture has changed in relation to the perception/position of women since the 17th century. In summary, girls are not educated, their sole aim is to marry and as a general rule stick that marriage out, irrespective of whether it’s a good one or not.

One of the girls that were the focus of tonight’s episode was Lizzie, who at 18 was considered to be an old maid in the marriage stakes. (Not least because her 16 year old sister was already married.) Despite the fact that her sister, did not recommend marriage on the grounds that 16 is too young, Lizzie professed to be ready for it. In fact, she looked positively excited about the whole thing. “I’m not recommending it,” said her sister, ‘because when you’re 16 you’re still a ‘babby’. ‘Oim’ still a ‘babby.” Given Lizzie’s history, she left school at 11 to take on responsibility for her younger siblings and the housework, I shouldn’t have been surprised. However, I still found it shocking that in 21st Century UK we still have people that can barely read and have no understanding of the options open to them outside of their immediate community. As Lizzie put it, “there’s no point because we ain’t gonna be doctors or lawyers. Housewives is what we’re gonna be”. Cut to her 13 year old sister Margaret who was removed from school to take over Lizzie’s duties and was obviously terrified at the prospect of endless hours of drudgery in the form of child minding and cleaning.

The most disturbing aspect of this is not just poor Margaret’s plight, but the fact that many girls are removed from school early for similar reasons, but also to ‘prevent them from being corrupted by outside influences’. I keep coming back to the fact that such practices are illegal and yet no one is attempting to prevent it. How can the powers that be justify that, whilst berating parents who take the children out of school for a foreign holiday during term time to take advantage of reduced costs???? Thelma, the dressmaker made a good point in that the travellers do move around a lot, so its difficult to keep track of them/investigate excuses they give for removing children from school. I’m not convinced, I suspect the authorities could find a way to protect these children if they were of a mind to.

We were also introduced to 16 year old Noreen – a cake shop assistant - who wanted more for herself than a life beholden to a husband. She stayed in education and the contrast between her and her compatriots was palpable on a paint balling day, when she was the only one of her party that was able to complete the requisite consent forms. Despite her education, she still seemed to buy into some of the stereotypical male/female rules of interaction that apply to travellers. “If a girl asks a boy out, it’s disgraceful,” she said with feeling. She also indicated that a traveller woman’s wedding day is the biggest day of her life and thus she attempts to and often succeeds in, living out her fantasies on that day. Given that life post the wedding for over 50% of traveller woman includes domestic violence, I think I am beginning to understand (if not subscribe to) the pantomime that is a traveller wedding – It’s a girls’ first and last chance to be the centre of attention. “They are Cinderella for a day” said Thelma, “The only thing is, they don’t carry on being Cinderella…”

We also met divorced traveller woman Bridget. Bridget’s situation is extremely unusual in the traveller community where, as I mentioned earlier, woman tend to accept what is thrown at them (sometimes literally) and stick with their marriages. Now that I understand that divorce, as well as being frowned upon by the community, also leaves women with no means of supporting themselves/their children, I see why their hands are, to an extent, tied. A thoroughly depressing state of affairs, Emily Pankhurst must be turning in her grave…  

Bridget appears to have done a fantastic job of bringing up her children alone. Which is just as well as, even though she was divorced, she had no prospects of remarriage due to the communities views on such things. Clearly very proud of her eldest daughter, who she is extremely close to, she indicated that she wanted stability for her given the lack of a father figure as the children were growing up. Stability, apparently, comes in the form of the 17 year old boy her daughter was marrying. I despair...

We were treated to snip-its of the life of 16 year old Martin to provide a point of comparison. Martin had ‘left home’, only as far as a caravan parked outside of his parent’s house. The location of the caravan (which of course he never clean or cooks in, that’s down to his Mum and sister…) was less important than the fact that he basically has free reign to do as he pleases. That included the Appleby horse fair, a traditional hunting ground for travellers looking for a partner. Martin and his mates spent the weekend ogling and ‘grabbing’ a succession scantily clad girls: “Girls won’t give you a kiss straight away.” He said; “You got to bend its arm” literally…Collecting 2 or 3 numbers and a subjecting a young girl each to a grab was seen to be ‘good enough’ for a weekend in Appleby. The boys conceded that girls might not enjoy a grab, but that really wasn’t relevant.

Towards the end of the episode, the narrator asked whether we were right to assume that the Gypsy way of doing things was really incorrect. My answer to that is “absolutely” and I feel certain that next week’s episode, which focuses on what it’s like to be a traveller man, won’t change my view…

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