It’s 5 o’clock, and Yasmina is running late for her after school drawing and painting class. She quickly grabs her watercolors, kisses her mother, and runs out the door. The public school is in the neighborhood, so luckily she doesn’t have far to go. She walks in the classroom and sees her four female classmates; but what you might not realize, is that Yasmina and her fellow students are all defying their culture’s norms just by showing up to their art class today.
Yasmina is 12 years old and is a Gypsy; her people are also known as Roma or Gitano. According to the Spanish census, the Roma population here is around 650,000; but this group is frequently wrongly stereotyped as uneducated and criminally inclined.
In Spain this community is extremely marginalized and oppressed — perhaps out of fear, but more likely out of ignorance. Some Spaniards incorrectly believe that all Gypsies only deal drugs and steal. In fact, many gypsies are often business entrepreneurs, working as traveling salespeople in public markets, while others labor as scrap collectors, or unappreciated recyclers.
But today Yasmina is still a student in Otxarkoaga’s public school, although she may not remain one for long. Since attending school might encourage interacting with boys and facing temptation, girls are often discouraged from continuing their education once they have reached a marriageable age. It is not that young women are expressly forbidden to go to school, bust most of their parents did not complete their studies, so they sometimes do not really see the point of it all.
In the traditional Roma culture, commonly girls were married off between the ages of 12 and 14, but now the appropriate age to wed is considered to be between 15 and 19 years of age. All girls are expected to comply with several honor codes to prove their loyalty and respect towards their future husband, such as not going out unaccompanied or wearing bikinis. Females are also subjected to a virginity test, or “prueba del pañuelo“.
Yasmina’s parents have allowed her go to this after school activity because they were assured only other Gitana girls were attending; the education has helped this aspiring young artist to remain hopeful:
“I really like coming to this class. I’m not a good painter yet, but maybe someday I will be. I really like it.”
When I asked her what she thought about dropping out of school, she stated that she didn’t want to; as she looked at the floor and smiled, she replied:
“Maybe I can go to school and have a family also. I really like seeing my friends and learning things like math and history. I also want to get married, but not yet! What if my husband us ugly?”
As Westerners, we often assume that such gender related restrictions only happen in remote Asian or African countries, but not here in “civilized” and “developed” regions. Too often we can take the right for girls to access education for granted, and wrongly assume that all women are actually allowed to live freely and marry whomever they choose.
Who would have thought that a single art class could reveal to me so much about our ignorance?
image of girls in a Chilean Gitano community by Carles Cerulla