The Challenges of and for Romani Women
7 February 2004
When I was asked to write an article for the first women's rights section of Roma Rights, I was puzzled. I didn't know what to write or how to write about this issue. Finally, I decided to write about the challenges that Romani women's rights are creating for both Roma and women's rights movements - and to map the challenges that we, Romani women activists, are facing as a social movement.
To start, I want to repeat what I have said on several occasions. The most challenging fact about Romani women's rights is the following: The discussions about Romani women's issues brought to the surface a much deeper question, and this is the assumed universality of human rights discourse. Romani women's questions fall at the same time into two types of discrimination: racial and gender-based discrimination. This fact challenges the Romani community, by bringing gender issues into public debate, and women's rights movements, by bringing into discussion the racial aspect.
I realised this for the first time in 1999. In that year, I presented a paper about the situation of Romani women at meetings of Romani activists and women's activists. Then I started to put forward questions on my own declared beliefs and public discourse. Do I really believe in the universality of human rights? I was thinking: I am an activist fighting for the rights of Romani people, but what about other types of rights? Do I really believe in them or are my personal convictions so far from that that I pray in public until the point where I start to have double discourse?
I am sure that there is an increasing number of people, Romani activists, thinking the way I do. But that is why Romani women's issues and rights represent not only a challenge for the women themselves and they are not issues to be discussed by women only.
I hope that after reading this paragraph each of us will think: I want rights for the Romani people, but do I want rights for women inside this community? Do I want rights for disabled people in this community? Or should we enjoy only the rights as a group and a minority? There are already these two types of discourses in public meetings, but my impression is that there is not enough coherence in the public discourse of Romani activists.
On the other side we, Romani women activists, who contributed to the movement are facing some challenges as well. These challenges became clearer for me during the meeting at the conference in June in Budapest - "Roma in an Expanding Europe" - organised by the World Bank and the Open Society Institute.
One of the evident challenges was for the "older" generation of activists. It was clear that the organisers wanted to support the new emerging generation of Romani activists with a clearer professional identity and expertise in a specific field. The challenge is how to assure a smooth transfer from one generation to another.
From the point of view of Romani women, after me, there were two major challenges expressed during that conference: Where are the men activists in our debates? Do we want to be a separate movement and not invite the men colleagues? And the second major challenge is where do we go from here? What do we want?
Concerning the participation of men in the debates and activities, I believe that this is a major decision to be made. It is true that the participation of men in the debates and meetings, as well as the activities, can raise uncomfortable questions and could be also very painful for a majority of us. But we need to start having these debates. We cannot stay any longer in the "women's corner", a corner which somehow is more comfortable in the sense that we do not face any challenges or negative approaches. We need to prepare ourselves for this. Also, I am sure that there is a significant number of Romani men activists who believe in what we are doing, and they are ready to contribute to our work.
Where do we go? This question has become more acute this year. We have three European networks of Romani women, two of them established only this year; we fought for putting on the agenda of different organisations Roma women related issues, and this year was the highest recognition of our work. How do we go on?
Personally, I feel the need to, on one hand, continue lobbying and advocacy, but to be more focused on the national levels. The different initiatives to bring state officials and Romani activists together could have a major contribution in introducing gender aspects in the states, policies and, more importantly, in their implementation.
On the other hand, I think we need to concentrate more and more on grassroots projects. This will allow us to discover new young Romani women and to address Romani women in the communities and make them aware of their rights. International advocacy should go hand-in-hand with grassroots activities.
Finally, before we make our way forward, we have to face our challenges and solve them in an open discussion. One such challenge is the so-called cultural taboo issue. It has been several months since the wedding of the traditional Kalderash2 family in Romania - the Cioaba family - exploded into the domestic and international media. The wedding event received extensive attention from both Romanian and international society. In spite of this impressive media coverage (for a Romani event at least), most of news items about the issue failed to give any context to the event, leaving only the bare sensationalist and the stigmatising elements in the story. One such detail of the context is the fact that this was happening in a family with, let's say, a "tradition" in sending their girls to school. Two of the girl's aunts have finished higher education and university. Another detail relates to the rivalry between King Cioaba, who belongs to the Pentecostal Church, and another self-proclaimed king, who is supported by the Orthodox Church. In this context the wedding became a public relations campaign for King Cioaba.
Apart from the fact that a teenager has had the traumatic experience of being exposed to pressure from both her family and society, for me this case represents a turning point in the way in which we continue to work as human rights activists, and I'll always remember it. The case raised some much broader challenges:
- individual rights vs. group issues;
- cultural tradition and its human rights implications, which affect women more often than men;
- the question of how we react when human rights violations against members of a minority group are committed by persons belonging to the same group; when public figures condemn human rights violations committed by private persons belonging to a much denigrated minority such as Roma, we must avoid perpetuating stereotypes against this minority and intensifying hatred from the majority.
What was interesting in this case was that the Romani women activists started a discussion about this and took public stands on the issue. For the first time a group of young Romani women from Hungary, with similar customs, reacted publicly to both the wedding and the way media represented the event. These women came down clearly on the side of the right of the woman to choose, against more traditional roles defined by patriarchy. It will be interesting to follow developments in the coming years, as more and more Romani women weigh the choices provided by the human rights framework.
- Nicoleta Biţu has been affiliated with the Bucharest-based Romani non-governmental organisation Romani CRISS since its founding in 1993. At that NGO, she coordinated European Commission regional projects on Roma and worked as community worker in post conflict situations. Recently, she has served as a consultant to the OSI Network Women’s Program Romani Women’s Initiative. She is also an ERRC board member.
- “Kalderash” Roma are one of a number of subgroups of Roma. Kalderash Roma are particularly prominent in Romania.