Bari Phen

Bari Phen – oldest sister; in linguistic and social sense, corresponds to the Hindi bari bahan.

Birth of a daughter

Although most families hoped that their first child would be a son, a firstborn daughter was also welcome, especially by mothers. Her existence added to the family as an extra person for child-care and help.

Kaj man te avel peršo čhaj, bo avla man aver (čhavoro), ta kodi peršo kole ciknes imar kolisinla.
"I hope my first child is a girl because I will have another child, and the first one will rock the little one."

If another daughter was born, Roma were generally accepting.

Ta so, imar uľiľa e čhaj, diňa o Deloro, jekha diňam te chal, ta daha the dujtona.
"God wanted us to have a little girl so that, just as we fed the first one, we would feed the other one, too."

If a succession of daughters followed, a man could become a target of derision, but usually the blame was placed on the mother.

Odi romňi mušinel te hel došaľi, že aňi jekhe muršes na anďa.
"The woman must be somewhat guilty for not giving birth to even one boy."

It only very rarely happened that a husband would leave his wife because she didn't give him a son. Parents didn't give up hoping for the birth of a male descendant.

Ta murš ajci kerlas čhaven, kim len na esas muršuro.
"A man kept trying until he had a son."

Function in the family

The social situation in the Slovak provinces during the time between the wars was very difficult; there were few "rich" Roma. These were the families of well-established musicians, blacksmiths or pig tradesmen. Other men, average musicians, producers of adobe bricks, basket-makers, etc. had only occasional jobs. Women, even mothers of young children, saw to the daily subsistence of the family; they went from village to village ("phirenas pal o gava") and worked for farmers. They were compensated with food, which the family consumed in a day.

If the firstborn daughter was not yet able to help the family on her own, and if there was no relative who could watch over the children, the mother was forced to take the children with her on her rounds.

Kajso dujeberšengro čhavoro, no ta iľa e daj peha pro dumo. Kala chudenas rokľendar, kala ciknore. E daj paš lende a sako božno ďives phirelas.
"The mother would take such a two-year-old tot on her back, and the others clung to her skirt. The mother walked with them that way every blessed day."

For the woman-mother, it became almost a vital necessity to transfer, very early, part of the obligations connected with household, and child-care, to her oldest daughter, most often at the age of eight or nine.

E daj lake čhivlas le čhavoren andre angaľi, joj musinlas te khosel len. Imar šaj pre late mukelas o kher.
"The mother thrust the little babies into her arms; she had to wipe them clean and watch over them. And [the mother] could already leave the care of the household to her."

Workload: obligations of the oldest daughter-sister

The workload of the oldest sister included cleaning, doing laundry, cooking, but, most of all, supervising her younger brothers and sisters. (When a son brought his wife [bori] home, she was given the hardest tasks.)

Cleaning, doing laundry, cooking

Before leaving the house, the mother gave each child his/her individual jobs, always according to their age and their physical abilities.

At a very early age, female work was differentiated from male work. Almost everything connected with housework fell within the sphere of female obligations. The exception was procurement and cutting of firewood. Boys learned to use an axe at the age of ten or eleven. Almost all the other jobs fell to the oldest sister.

Prekal o ďives khere chulanjinlas najphureder phen. Ča oj sas igen cikňi, ta mušinďa lake o dad te kerel kajso kaštuno stolkocis, kaj te dochudel pre šparheta, kaj te dikhel andre piri.
"During the day, the oldest sister ran the household, but, at that time, she was still very small, and so her father had to make her a little wooden stool so that she could reach the stove and see into the pots."

It was not customary for Roma families to eat breakfast. First, the mother had to go round the villages to get the daily food either in exchange for her husband's blacksmith wares or by working in farmyards. She usually returned from her rounds about noon. The custom of skipping breakfast lasted relatively long in Roma families, although the situation has already changed. Deep-rooted eating patterns often clashed with different dietary regimes in schools and after-school care centres. The fact that children came to school without having eaten breakfast was interpreted by their teachers as parental neglect.

The oldest sister also had to prepare meals for the family. In some cases the father refused to eat this food because he doubted his daughter's ability to cook well.

The oldest sister and the rearing of younger siblings

Younger sisters and brothers were put into the care of their oldest sister when they were about two or three years old, at the time when their mother stopped nursing them. [Upbringing of the children] If there was a big difference in age between siblings and the sister already had her own child, she could even nurse them.

The oldest daughter enjoyed having natural authority over her younger brothers and sisters.

So e jekhphureder čhaj phenlas, mušinlas te avel čačipen. Pal lakero mušinelas te jel. Sako la mušinlas te šunel, ole terneder phrala pheňa. Sako mušinelas te del pre lakero čačipen.
"What the oldest sister said was law. You had do to what she said. Everyone had to obey, the younger siblings, brothers and sisters, each one had to do what she said."

She was even allowed to apply corporal punishment if the situation demanded it.

Pekelas, te kampelas le čhavoren. Kana esas terneder, ta šaj, aľe phureder na, ta kaj! Aľe te sas čhavoro, ta les šaj pekelas. Te imar sas ternechar, ta na tromaďiľahas.
"If she had to, she slapped the children. When they were younger, she could. But not when they were older. She could hit the little boy, but she didn't dare hit the older one."

Elsewhere, she mainly brought up her sisters. While she merely supervised her younger brothers, she controlled the upbringing of her sisters.

Peršo čhajori ľikerlas savore čhajoren. The marlas len, the košelas len, the khoselas len. O muršora na, o muršora denaškernas avri.
"The oldest sister reared all her younger sisters. She punished them, she reprimanded them, she wiped them. Not the boys. The boys ran around outside."

On the other hand, she could effectively plead the cause of her younger brothers and sisters to spare them parental punishment.

Oldest sister and oldest brother

The sister had to respect her brother's person, even if he was younger than she.

E phen šunel le phrales, choc hiňi phureder sar o phral. Mušinel les te šunel, duj trin berš phureder. Aľe sar imar hin phureder šov efta berš, ta imar les na šunel, aľe aňi ov la na šunel.
"A sister obeys her brother even if she is older than he. She must obey him even if she is two or three years older than he. But if she is six or seven years older, she doesn't obey him -- but he doesn't obey her either."

Among the obligations of the oldest sister was taking care of the clothing of the adolescent older brother, especially when he began making a living as a musician or when he went to parties.

Te sas andro kher terno čhavo, so phirlas pre zabava, ta oj bigľinas leske o gada, e cholov. A tiž sas lake ladž, te phirlas koda ternechar melalo. Savi tut phen ehin?
"When a young man who went to parties was in the house, she ironed his shirts and pants. She would have been ashamed if he went out dirty. (People would immediately ask: "What kind of sister have you got?") "

As long as the oldest brother had a job, he paid back his sister by buying her fashionable clothing and tried to make her a good representative of the family.

Usually the brother accompanied and guarded his sister everywhere so that her actions would in no way deviate from the fixed notion of irreproachable behaviour.

Dešuštar beršengeri čhajori imar našťi phirlas korkori. Imar furt vareko mušinelas laha te phirel: abo phral, abo andal e fameľija vareko.
"A fourteen-year-old girl could no longer walk alone. Someone always had to accompany her: either her brother or one of her relatives."

Gradually the oldest brother had to extend this supervision to his other adolescent sisters, and his other brothers joined in the surveillance. If an adolescent girl is seen somewhere alone, people immediately start calling her a whore (lubn'i) and shame would fall on her whole family. Still today, among some pat'ivale Roma (honorable, respectable Roma), this strict order prevents many Roma girls from taking advantage of educational opportunities (language courses, dance classes, sports clubs, etc.) because they have no one to accompany them. It can also happen that if a girl rebels against this pressure and wants to follow non-Roma girls (rakl'ija) in their independence and "modernity", this new behaviour leads her to imitate the worst aspects of this "modernity".

Only the oldest brother could judge his sister's behaviour. Sometimes this surveillance lasted until adulthood.

Has man čhavoro pro vasta, has leske trin čhon, the mek man o phral marlas.
"I had a child in my arms, a three-month-old, and my brother still beat me."

Education of a daughter

The mother equips her with primary knowledge; the daughter puts it into practice as her mother's representative.

Ta sako jekh dajori musaj te sikhavel te tavel, te pratinel le čhajen. O phureder čhaj sikhavel terne pheňen.
"Every mother must teach her daughter to cook and clean. The older daughters then teach their younger sisters."

The mother trains her oldest daughter not only to help out in the family but, at the same time, to learn her own function in life as a wife, mother and daughter-in-law whose upbringing would not bring shame [Schande] to her parents. A skilled and independent daughter was her mother's pride and proof of her pedagogical and, above all, homemaking abilities.

Dičha, man hin čhaj, savoro kerel. O dad barikano andro murša, e daj barikaňi andre čhaj.
"Look at the kind of daughter I have! She can do everything! A father is proud of his sons, a mother of her daughter."

If a daughter did not succeed in her future husband's family, her mother would be pre ladž (ashamed). Fear of shame functioned like a powerful corrector of social behaviour. The prospective mother-in-law verified the results of the mother's upbringing.

E sasuj la mušinel te skušinel avri, či džanel te tavel, či na, savi la hin daj, či kerel kavka sar amen, či na.
"The mother-in-law had to test whether she could cook or not, what kind of mother she had, whether she does things like us or not."
Te e čhajori na džanel buťi te kerel, nane lačhi.
"If a girl doesn't know how to work, she's no good."


Often in the past, the oldest sister was not sent to school because she had to fulfill her long list of obligations.

The oldest sister in adulthood

When the oldest daughter married and left home, her responsibilities were taken over by the next sister in line or by one of her brothers' wives. If a sister's marriage failed, from then on her original family was willing to help her out.

Just as the oldest brother in a traditional family keeps the lifelong right to decide on and intervene in the internal affairs of his brothers and sisters, his siblings' children, and even his own parents, so does the oldest sister hold on to her sovereign position. She feels co-responsible for the fate of her brothers and sisters, but, deep down, she would rather be a real mother than a sister.

If necessary, she helps her grown sisters and brothers. It is often she, like the oldest brother, who is willing to move in with aging parents or a widowed mother and renew her intensive service and immediate help.

Sisters and brothers show respect to their oldest sister until an advanced age.

Jekhphureder phen amenge sas sar aver daj.
"Our oldest sister is like a second mother to us."

Text based on

Žigová, Anna (1996) Nejstarší sestra a její postavení v tradiční romské rodině. In: Romano džaniben 96/1-2.
Image Printable version
Image Burgendland-Roma (Austria)
Gomilica (Slovenia), 2002
Gomilica (Slovenia), 2002