Romani Women's Rights

16 May 2007

"It appears that that thing called dignity is contagious and it is women who are more likely to become infected with this uncomfortable malaise..."

EZLN communiqué: 12 Women in the Twelfth Year Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, 1996

This current Roma Rights issue looks at the responses of Romani women to some of the human rights violations Romani women face. Our past issue on women's rights, published in 2000, caused controversy as some view Romani women's rights activism as a fracture or rupture of the Roma rights movement. The Romani women's movement has evolved organically through the wider pursuit of Roma rights by Romani women and men over the years in response to the initial (and mostly continuing) lack of attention to women's issues on the part of the predominantly male "leaders", some of whom viewed patriarchal traditions as integral components of Romani identity and culture. Romani women's first steps to speak out about their rights as women and to challenge the idea that certain practices are a part of Romani culture have often been met with criticism, rejection or have been simply ignored. The fact is that women's rights in all contexts tend to be a cause of controversy, but particularly when in juxtaposition with other characteristics such as race or ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, etc.

This issue of Roma Rights dedicated to the Romani women's rights movement will probably be no exception to this rule, as even its title, ‘Romani women's rights movement', could already be the cause of controversy. Is the struggle in which many Romani women activists are currently engaging to defend their rights a "movement"? What do we refer to when we say movement in the context of Romani women? Is this movement part of the Roma rights movement? Part of the feminist movement? Of both? None? This issue of Roma Rights by no means pretends to provide an answer to all these questions. Instead, what we try to do is to give a few current examples of current Romani women's actions and reflections. Movements have often been perceived as collective mobilisations with an organisational structure. Looking from this narrow perspective at the Romani women's rights movement, we could conclude that there are only a few dozen, or a few hundred at most, Romani women activists, because we would only be seeing the few relatively well educated and relatively privileged Romani women who continue to emerge as the primary actors of the movement. What I propose is to look beyond the organised Romani women's movement.

We must consider that a Romani woman who has not joined a women's organisation does not lack feminist ideals. She might face barriers that do not allow her to become a full- or part-time activist. For example, she might not fulfil the formal requirements to be part of an NGO (in terms of education, language or other factors); she might not have the time because she has to look after her family; she may be prevented by her husband or family; she might not even know that there is a movement or might even refuse to identify herself as an activist. However, despite these barriers and sometimes taking great risks to her physical security, often being isolated and without the support of other people, in her everyday life she can challenge discriminatory practises precisely in the only arena where real and tangible changes can happen: the domestic and immediate environment. Those acts of defiance are a manifestation of non-conformism, of a growing consciousness that there is something wrong with the present state of inequality between Romani women and Romani men and the majority society. It is in such situations that consciousness becomes and, indeed, fuels activism. If we don't take all these everyday acts into account then it would seem that only those of us who are working formally in organisations fighting women's rights comprise the Romani women's movement. This perspective weakens the movement and belittles actions by Romani women who are not formal activists. A narrow perspective would lead us to only see the tip of the iceberg, but the fact is that the formal activists are just the most privileged ones because we have had opportunities that others have not.

I am by no means trying to undermine the work of Romani women activists or say that is easy at all. As Truman Capote says, "More tears are shed for answered prayers than for unanswered ones." This seems particularly enlightened within the current context wherein we see that activists that decide to overcome fears and speak about human rights violations are often crushed by their governments, police, media, public opinion, etc. It is also important to point out that in many cases there is no clear line between formal activists and other Romani women making acts of activism/defiance, seeing that very often these two categories overlap. The main difference in the situation of a formal and non-formal female Romani activist is in terms of the support received from her peers and colleagues that non-formal activists rarely have and that helps her to persevere in fighting discrimination.

The Romani women's movement is often criticised for the fact that real tangible change in the situation of Romani women has not yet happened. However, the fact that the ERRC has changed in such a short period of time from lacking a gender perspective to having a number of activities in this area is a victory of the efforts of the Romani women's movement. This is an important victory because the ERRC, not a specific Romani women's rights organisation, has the ability to broaden the base of the Romani women's movement and increase the limited resources available. The ERRC and other organisations may also be able to contribute to the development of the holistic perspective of Romani women's rights, with expertise in other areas such as housing rights, employment, etc., which are necessary for addressing Romani women's issues.

The Romani women's movement is probably much bigger than conferences and reports allow us see, and the fact that there is something that we could start calling a movement is already an extremely positive thing. Female Romani activists (and hopefully men, too) might work collectively or individually, in accordance with their opportunities, as women's rights advocates, as Roma rights advocates, as teachers, as home workers, as lawyers, as mothers, or in any other capacity, against the illusion of male superiority and against racism. The Romani women's movement is as much about personal change and self-empowerment as it is about collective and social change.


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