Romani women in Romani and majority societies

12 April 2000

Roma Rights 1, 2000 focuses on women’s rights. A variety of excellent authors have weighed in on this often misunderstood, often contested issue. The “Notebook" section begins with a roundtable discussion by Romani activists on the subject of women’s rights. The roundtable is followed by a discussion of the power of the woman’s traditional role in Romani communities by anthropologist Carol Silverman. Next, Claude Cahn links issues of domestic abuse with the importance of raising the prominence of Romani courts. Joanna Wells then summarises the state of justice issues in the policy of coercive sterilisation of Romani women in Communist and post-Communist Czechoslovakia. “Advocacy" presents the declaration of the “International Conference ‘Public Policies and Romani Women in Central and Eastern Europe’, which took place December 3 and 4, 1999, in Bucharest, Romania.

Roundtable: Romani activists on women’s rights

When the editors of Roma Rights agreed that an issue devoted to women’s rights was timely and important, it dawned upon us that the undertaking would be controversial. Indeed, not all members of the ERRC were without misgivings on the issue. Aware of the troubled seas on which we were embarking, we decided that among our most important tasks would be facilitating debate among Romani activists on the often sensitive, often misconstrued, and in fact multi-faceted issue of women’s rights. We therefore solicited from Romani activist Sabina Xhemajli an article on the status of Romani women, and then circulated it among prominent male and female Romani activists, inviting responses. The result is the discussion that follows:

Everything we don’t want to hear!

Sabina Xhemajli1

The positions of Romani men and Romani women are clearly divided. Unfortunately, women have drawn the losing card. Their lifestyle is comparable to what it was five hundred years ago. The task of the Romani woman is to take care of the children, to maintain the household, and to hold together the extended family. As mother, she knows precisely the details of her children’s lives, including all of the stupid things they do. She often hides this knowledge from her husband, because she knows that she can expect harsh punishment for herself and her children from her husband, because as the mother of the family she is supposed to keep the children from doing stupid things. This lack of openness with respect to her husband weighs heavily upon Romani women — often extremely heavily.

Despite the hard labour assigned to the Romani woman, she generally has a pleasant and calm day. The fact that in addition to her housework — stressful and tiring in and of itself — she often also has to take a job, is generally overlooked by the dear husbands.

The men: they are the masters of the family; their word is law. The work of the men consists of co-ordinating the family and talking with other men about world politics (men naturally do this only while they are busy not going to work). The co-ordination of the family is really a very tiring and energy-draining activity. Sometimes not everything goes as the men imagine, because the women and children have their own ideas. Sometimes it comes to pass that children don’t obey their fathers and then the ruler must step up to the task and shout at or punish the woman and children.

He reserves his greatest responsibilities for his daughter. He is vigilant and fully engaged in her life, especially in issues concerning her free time (to the extent she has such a thing at all). The ruler namely sees it as his task to send his daughter forth into marriage as a virgin. In issues of marriage, the girl concerned is never asked and this, in my opinion, bothers no one. Sometimes newlyweds in a Romani wedding are twelve years old.

If the girl is a virgin at the time of marriage, the family becomes blessed with a good reputation and all are content. If she is not a virgin, she will be sent back to her family the same night. And what will happen to her then we can only begin to imagine. The reputation of the family is ruined and the girl is stigmatised.

Concerning school and vocational training, Romani girls are disadvantaged as a result of their early marriage. There are Romani girls who visit school, but they do so irregularly. However, these girls stop attending school at the age of eleven or twelve, when they reach puberty. The parents become afraid to send them to school because they fear that they will learn “bad things". Among other things, parents are concerned that there are evil boys who hang around the schoolyard.

Not much value is placed on schooling, because the most important thing is the family and women must tend to the family twenty-four hours per day. Especially as a young girl one has to learn to tend to the household: to cook, to clean, to take care of husband and in-laws, to serve guests, to go shopping with the husband and through it all not to forget to smile.

Girls can only go out if accompanied. Visits to the cinema or swimming pool are generally out of the question. Most contact with people her own age is within her own family, or in asylum-seekers homes. Most Roma here in Germany live in asylum-seekers homes without a permanent residence status. As a result of this difficult situation, Romani children have few chances to realise their potential and often have very few prospects for the future.

Boys have it much easier than girls. They have a much greater sphere of freedom. They can go out, for example to the cinema, youth centre or disco, and they aren’t required to take a chaperone with them. They naturally also bear the burden of the early marriage, but they are not as constricted as the girls. They do not need to be virgins in order to immediately take up responsibility as head of the household.

The boys learn earlier on how to behave like “real men". They have it practically drilled into them. Their best role models are their fathers, who know very well how to be a real man: different from the girls, who have to sit at home, the father often takes his son to town, on family visits or to gatherings of other men, where much about world politics is discussed and the young man can learn a lot. For many boys it is very difficult to live up to the model of the strong man. They are under heavy pressure because the oldest son becomes responsible when the parents are no longer able to care for the family.

The boys have it somewhat easier in their schooling and professional training than the girls. They don’t have to abruptly interrupt their studies at marriage, but because they are neither encouraged nor supported, few finish high school.

The normal development of a person is comprised of the phases child, youth, adult. Among Roma it is different: from childhood one leaps directly into adulthood. Youth is abandoned and this is frequently reflected in the relations between individual Roma. For example a sixteen-year-old girl with a child and a second on the way has far too many demands for her age and is really not fully an adult. Another example comes when someone offers, for example, a handicrafts group to Romani children. Along comes a mother, naturally to have a look at what her child is doing and pretty soon the young mother is sitting among the children and playing along. She is having at least as much fun as her child. This shows clearly to me that she wasn’t fully able to live through certain phases of her life.

We have many taboos, for example sexuality. Nobody speaks about it. Children are not provided with explanations and everything is left up to them to figure out. This results in much misinformation and also many fears. A further taboo is homosexuality. Gay Romani men and women cannot express their own needs and are forced to lead double lives. Many of the men have girlfriends simply to prove that they are not gay, to save face. They do this so they are not “outed" as gay. I would very much like one day to be able to speak about these things openly, but I think that things are always moving forwards and they depend on us — on the younger generation. Because we are the only ones who are able right now to create change.

Of course I know that my article sounds rather provocative, but that is exactly what I hope to achieve. I believe that the situation as it exists cannot continue. I also know that there are many Roma who have a completely different lifestyle to the one presented here. However, the life I have just described is the daily reality of many families. We find ourselves now in a period of radical change. There are many Roma now who attend school and university. There are also many Romani women who, despite their traditional upbringing, have built their own lives for themselves.

I am absolutely in favour of the idea that we should preserve our language and culture and pass it on to our children. I am, however, not in favour of preserving our traditional relationships, relationships that oppress the personalities of other people. I refuse to accept traditions that imprison people and do not allow them their freedom. The consequences, however, that one takes upon oneself in refusing such practices, are hard. When one stands against tradition, one is shunned from the family. And because for us the family and togetherness are very important, being shunned from one’s own family is the cruellest punishment.

Rozalija Ilić responds2

Sabina is right in everything she said. Roma in Europe lack protection in the fields of education, employment, health care, housing, and the preservation of their culture, language, tradition and personal identity. Romani women are the most vulnerable ones, and hardly anyone cares about our protection and education. In Yugoslavia, patriarchy has built up a hierarchy of power, based on age and gender, in which Romani women and girls have very little control, if any, over their sexual or married life, the number of children they have and the time between births. The consequences are short lives and a vulnerable physical and mental state. If one were to compare the situation of Romani women from times long ago and today, it would be obvious that nothing has changed. Patriarchy among Roma has lasted for centuries. The whole ethnic group has additionally been marginalised in the wider society. Taken together, these factors have reduced the lives of Romani women to biological reproduction and care of their children and the family.

Legal and customary norms on the position of women are very archaic and they deprive Romani women of rights. Today, 96% of Romani women are unemployed, and 80% of them are illiterate. Very few are lucky enough to receive an education and make decisions about their own lives. The last ten years of armed conflicts and political and economic devastation in Yugoslavia have caused deep dissatisfaction among its citizens. Often such frustrations are expressed within the family: poverty brings conflicts between spouses, and women suffer physical and mental abuse at the hands of their husbands. Today the most drastic example of the abuse of women has been seen in Kosovo. Romani women in Kosovo are raped, and physically and mentally mistreated. The report “Kosovo Roma: Targets of Abuse and Violence, 24 March — 1 September 1999" published by the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center offers documentation of these crimes:

“F.A and her daughter Z.A. (20) from Žitinje near Vitina recount how a large group of armed KLA members stormed into their home in mid-June and sexually abused them. Some of the family managed to escape so that only the witness, her daughters Z.A. and G.A., and a baby were left in the house. Three of the KLA men left to search for the other family members. Two remained and raped F.A. and Z.A. The mother recounts:

‘One pointed his pistol at me and tore off my blouse. I started hitting him about the head with my fists and swore at him but he banged me over the head with his pistol. I fell down and he lifted my skirt. My head was bleeding and I begged him to leave me alone. But he only cursed and raped me. While I was being raped, the other Shiptar raped my daughter. They were very cruel. When they finished with us, they joined the others who were looking for our menfolk. I helped my daughter up from the floor. We were both weeping. I took the baby, which was on the bed in the same room as my ten-year-old daughter G. She was there when they raped us. She was shaking all over and sobbing.’"

Throughout our lives, Romani women suffer enormous violence, coming from both our family and the society. On the one had, within the family, we feel a lack of understanding and support. On the other hand, we suffer from the prejudices of the wider society. If Romani women seek help from relevant authorities, they meet bias and a lack of understanding. There is no help from anyone. This vicious circle for Romani women has to be broken once and for all. We have to speak up about this publicly, raise awareness of this problem, and make both the Romani men and the society around us help Romani women escape torture and slavery.

Martin Demirovski responds3

Muri phej Sabina (My dear sister Sabina),

I have to tell you that your article is provocative in some way but also there are some sentences that cannot be taken simply as provocation and must be addressed seriously. I am hoping that after my comments here, you will change your opinions.

I am a Rom born in a gadjo (non-Romani) community in Kumanovo, Macedonia. My working hours belong to the Roma in the ghettos, multicultural communities, and communities where majority of the population are gadje. The first time I read your article I was really rather shocked. First of all, why did you write, at the end of the fourth paragraph, the example of how the father reacts when his children and the mother have different ideas from him? I think that it is not correct of you to bring such an example into a general article on the roles among Roma, because the examples you brought are examples of instances in which the father is abusive. You have described a social problem, not something particular to Roma. You can find examples of abusive behaviour in Arabic families, American families, and probably among any group you would care to name.

Secondly, I was disturbed at your description of Romani marriage. It is really not accurate. Fathers rarely arrange marriages for their daughters anymore. Yes, they are responsible for organizing the wedding and arranging the musical group for it. But in my experience, in four out of five cases these days, Romani couples marry because they have been in a relationship and decided it is time to get married. It is true that a bride’s virginity has high value, but I have never heard that some family forwarded back the bride for failing to make the grade. If I had to depend entirely on your description of Romani culture, I probably would be forced to agree with you that it looks medieval. Luckily, however, I know something about the way Roma live really.

Thank you for raising the issue of education among the Roma. In fact you described the issue here quite accurately: Romani parents are afraid to send their children to school because they will learn bad things. Some parents do not motivate the children enough. The parents do not explain the importance of the personal benefits of school. Some Romani parents do not think enough for the future of their children. I would like to further note that while describing Romani culture in such a negative light, you consistently use the words “girl" and “woman" as if they were the same thing which, of course, they are not.

My dear Sabina, I do not want to go too deeply in the article because I do not want to be seen as someone who verbally attacks you. I note that you are a person who wants to change the situation for you and other Romani women. I recognize that you have much insight when you go beyond the narrow issue of men and women and discuss the tolerance — or lack of it — of homosexuality among Roma. My advice to you however is not to divide Roma into women and men or gay and lesbian. Turn your attention instead to the global problem of the Roma and discrimination against us as your priority. Let’s work on resolving the problems burdening all Roma. When those huge issues have been addressed, we can use our strength to address other issues among us. To be clear and short, for now, in the eyes of the gadje you are not a girl or a woman first, you are a GYPSY.

Tiro phral (your brother),


Katalin Sztojka responds4

I do not like to talk about the issue of women’s rights. I think that women’s rights is an excuse by women who are unable to express themselves in other ways. I do not think that anyone — even if she is a woman — has the right to interfere with the life of a family. I have never heard of cases — of course I am speaking only about my local Kalocsa community — in which a woman complained about her husband, even if she had a reason to do so. If she did, she would be threatening the integrity and the good name of her family. Those Romani women who are beaten by their husbands and go to the police will not be able to go back to the community. They will not be welcomed even among their own family. It is a shame to report the husband at the police. Manage it in the family, or divorce.

Possibly these activists do not consider this damage to the community. Or they simply have never lived in a traditional Romani community. Or they have never had a husband. Or they are divorced. Or they could not stand up against assimilation. I do not think that we should think about organisations for the defence of women’s rights. The traditional Romani community is an organisation itself. If there is a problem in the settlement, the community is there to help.

I’m afraid that the forces of assimilation will go to work within the field of women’s rights as well. The Romani women’s movement is not yet very large, but it is possible that it will grow. What if this whole fight for the rights of Romani women is a part of a bigger plan? Communists had a method to destroy Romani communities and forcibly assimilate Roma. I think there are some parallels between Communism and the Romani women’s movement today. If you hear often enough that Romani traditions are bad, and that you are bad, you will believe it in the end.

Last year I took part in a Romani women’s conference, where twenty-six women — leaders of Romani women’s organisations from different countries — demanded that Roma forget their traditional customs because this is why they do not advance in the school system. According to these women, the only way out of this situation is to give up tradition. This is dangerous.

At the same conference, they discussed organising a telephone hotline for women who are beaten by their husbands. The idea is that you call a number and file a complaint against the Romani husband. In a real traditional Romani marriage, this action is against Romani traditions. That’s why the idea is so strange to me — I come from a closed Romani community. I think that the women taking part in those conferences and taking those kind of decisions are separating themselves and causing division. In Romani families, women have the most important place. Women stand on the front line — they are the first to shout to protect their children and families. This is the structure of the Romani family and if some part is missing — for any reason — it threatens the cementing force holding it all together.

I think we should not address the issue of women’s rights. If a woman has a problem, she knows where to go. We should not manage our affairs separately and in different ways just because we are Roma and women. I do not argue that Romani women should not organise themselves. We could establish a community centre where women could wash their clothes together, meet regularly, talk about their problems, and discuss how to solve them. In many families, women and girls do not speak about intimate themes. These community centres could solve this problem by providing Romani girls a venue to talk to older women. Or we could organise health programmes there. We should look at how many Romani girls have received medical check-ups in the past ten years. I do not think more than 10% have received basic medical attention. This is a very serious problem. Often older Romani women die because they did not get to a doctor in time. A lot of programmes could be organised to be run by women, but not only aim at them.

Liljana Kovatcheva responds5

As a consultant to the Network Women’s Project (NWP) and the Roma Participation Project (RPP) of the Open Society Institute-Budapest (OSI) from January to June 1999, I had the opportunity to establish many contacts with prominent Rromani women activists and leaders of women’s organisations and associations from all over Europe.

The Rromani women’s movement in Europe is not something new. During communism in my native country Bulgaria, the so-called Fatherland Front Organization involved Rromani women in community activities. The activities included learning to cook, sew and other similar courses. Although Rroma suffered discrimination and human rights violations, it was not possible to talk about them under the communist regime. The same was true all over communist Europe at that time; there were women’s organisations, but the focus of their activities was narrow and socially irrelevant.

To date there have been several international Rromani women’s conferences and meetings: 1994 in Seville, 1995 in Strasbourg, 1997 in Barcelona, 1998 in Helsinki, 1998 in Budapest, and 1999 in Bucharest. At all of these meetings, my question during discussion was, “How can we find the best way to emancipate Rromani women, and to improve the position of Rromani society"? Rromani women are part of the Rromani family and Rromani society, so the problems faced by Rromani society are the problems faced by Rromani women. The Romani woman is the victim of skinhead attacks. She suffers discrimination in employment. She is often the victim of brutality by officials, for example she suffered a campaign of sterilisation in Czechoslovakia.

While I was a consultant to the Budapest-based OSI, I conducted research, including a questionnaire in which I asked members of Rromani women’s organisations to provide a range of information, including answers to the following questions: “Where do you find the most intense discrimination; in the family, in Rromani society or in society at large"? “What are the priorities of your organisation"? (I provided a list of options including education, health, media, human rights, social work, political work, and “other") and “What is your opinion about Rromani women’s problems; what do think has to be changed to improve your work" How do you see the future of your organisation"?

In the answers to the questions one can see that some concepts like “double discrimination against Rromani women" — the idea that Rromani women suffer first as Rroma in society and then again as women in the patriarchal Romani family and Rromani community — have been challenged: 80 % of respondents answered that the discrimination is in the society at large, 10% in the community and 10% in the family.

Only 10% of respondents also reported that their relationships with the co-ordinators of the Network Women’s Project were good; 90% felt that they have poor communication. 60% have good communication with other Rromani women’s organisations. Education is a priority for 80% of the women surveyed. 85% are looking at the future with their eyes on integration into society and improved relations between non-governmental organisations and governmental institutions.

My personal opinion about the direction of the Rromani women’s movement is that for the extremely important issues to be solved, women must have an appreciation of their basic social, economic, and political rights. According the Bulgarian constitution, it is forbidden to establish a political party on an ethnic basis. We must combat discriminatory laws such as these, which deprive us of basic political rights.

Another example in Bulgaria of the violation of basic rights is that the Ministry of Education does not allow Rromani children to learn their mother tongue — Rromani. Because it is not a written language, the Ministry claims it is not possible to teach it. They play a very dirty game by claiming they have received no applications for a Rromani language expert to design a program, a position for which they have never advertised (my application has been at the Ministry for three years). I know how to manage people who say openly: “I am a nationalist", I can accept that. I do not know how to deal with people who hide beneath the layers of bureaucracy.

For me, it is understandable that Rromani women place more stress on education, but I see something more important. Rromani women first of all have to learn how to challenge those who discriminate against them, both on a personal and institutional level. Once we have the respect of the officials in the country, then we can speak of integration. For the moment it is impossible to speak about this issue, as integration is only possible between two equal groups, attempts before this occurs will be nothing short of assimilation. Unfortunately the program for the integration of Rroma into Bulgarian society is still on paper and nothing has been done until now.

Ivan Ivanov responds6

A Romani woman does not have an easy time in her various roles in the Romani community and Romani family. She faces difficulties from early childhood. For the greater part of the Romani community, the honour of the family is the most important thing, and the chastity and the purity of women is central to that honour. Public opinion is a very important part of the life of Roma. To maintain a good public image, Romani parents exercise strict control over the girls of the family from an early age. They rigidly steer them away from any possibility of committing acts which would reflect badly on the family image. This control very often deprives these young women of normal entertainment and the kinds of relationships that non-Romani young women usually have. Also, this control can be a reason for parents to stop them from continuing their formal education after their early teenage years. In order to control female sexuality, education for girls is limited, and soon after the onset of puberty, often Romani girls are married to prevent sexual experimentation. Of course the other explanation for the practice is that Romani women have to bring up children and grandchildren while they are young and healthy, but this never sounds very convincing to non-Roma. Traditionally an adult Romani woman does not have the option of living independently; she must live either in her father’s home or in her husband’s home.

Life is changing, however, and for Roma as well. Many Roma are now integrated, educated and lead lives different from the paternalistic Romani lifestyle. These families are more tolerant with their children. But even they cannot escape from some traditional values. For example, there remains the requirement that young women remain virgins until marriage. Traditionally, in some groups, a women who cannot prove her virginity at the time of her wedding might potentially see her marriage annulled, her impurity affecting her entire family’s honour. If she cannot prove her virginity, she will be stigmatised for life, and even if she remains married, the marriage will be discussed for a long time as second class.

In the family, Romani women have more responsibilities than Romani men. For example, if the man cannot finish his job or his duties, he will continue the next day, but if the woman, in addition to the burdens of her day job, cannot prepare lunch or dinner, she cannot postpone it until the next day. Many domestic disputes begin this way. The shift of responsibility from male to female in the Romani community is a common occurrence. For example, many problems with the local authorities are resolved by a Romani man sending his wife. I was struck by this while conducting research for an ERRC anti-discrimination case in Ostrava in the Czech Republic last year (see “Lawsuits filed by Roma challenge racial discrimination in schools" in Roma Rights,2/99). Romani children in the Czech Republic are dramatically over-represented in so-called remedial special schools — schools for mentally handicapped. My colleagues and I visited many families to talk with them about their children, who were pupils in these notorious schools. In most cases, we talked with the mothers. They knew all of the most intricate details of their children’s lives. One time I met a Romani father who did not know the exact dates of birth of his five children and he suggested that I talk with his wife because she “must“ know. I recognised how much closer a Romani woman’s connection with the family is than a Romani man’s.

A Romani woman suffers triple discrimination: for being poor, for being Romani and for being a woman. Her situation is caused not only by being the weaker member of the family, and not only because of the persistence of patriarchal stereotypes. It is also due to the fact that since Romani men face daily humiliation and discrimination, they are often unable to communicate and to express sentiments. All their emotions accumulate during the day and they can often explode at home, the only place a Romani man can feel powerful. This can result in domestic violence. Domestic violence is the result of the serious social and economic problems which affect the Roma community more than other communities. Alcoholism and other addictions, as well as the serious financial problems faced by most Romani families, can increase such aggression.

In recent years, Romani women have given voice to their problems and created a Romani feminist movement. This indicates that human rights culture is rising in the Romani community. Romani feminism is a part of the development of Roma Rights in general, and Romani women are fighting for an end to their inequality.

Nicoleta Biţu responds7

When I read Sabina’s article, my first reaction was, “Well, how can I say any more"? It would be nice to meet this woman, I thought, and I was glad to learn that I am not alone in my struggle. But — as usual there is a “but" — there is not only one category of Romani woman, just as there is not only one way or style of being Rom. That is why I wish to add comments here about Romani women activists, one of the most visible and controversial categories of Romani women. The post-communist period has inspired the mobilisation of a social category of Romani women in human rights activism and politics. There is not yet a Romani women’s movement, but there are a number of Romani women sharing a philosophy on their approach to the general discourse on Roma. There are now Romani women, acting as individuals rather than as the leaders of big groups, who have started to think and to act on the problem of improving the access of Romani women to various resources, resources presently unfairly distributed. These women are now looking for their identities and social roles. They have few past models on which to base their lives.

The Romani women’s activist is faced with the values of her family, values sometimes related to the social group to which the family belongs, and sometimes related to the rules of Romani culture. She is faced with the patriarchal society of the majority as well as with the attitudes of male Romani activists. When she grows to be an activist, she no longer has her father as oppressor, but now she has male Romani colleagues with whom she competes. The Romani woman must face the rules of the traditional culture from the time she is very young and has her social role defined. When she reaches school age, she has to fight with her own community, if it is a traditional one, and/or with the prejudices of the other children. If a Romani woman does not adhere to the rules of the family, her extended family will not respect her, and her parents’ reputation will also be tarnished. The problems faced by a Romani woman at the community level — if she is an activist, or a wife and mother — are sensitive and generally remain unexpressed. A Romani woman activist is constantly faced with her existence between two worlds: the non-Romani culture into which she has chosen to be integrated, and the Romani culture with its exacting traditions.

Hey Sabina, what about the Romani women activists? Those Romani women who choose to take on the responsibility of a public life have an even more complicated series of circumstances: they must play the roles of power while looking for an identity which can give them a feeling of belonging. They find themselves between a number of cultures and worlds. Another issue is the attitude faced by single activist women of a certain age. These women have to work triple to attain respect from men. It is worse for those Romani women’s activists who are single and do not have children. Among other things, married women consider them a threat and fear that they will compete for their husbands.

Many of the issues raised by you, Sabina, are not particular to Romani culture, but can be found among other isolated and marginalised communities. Themes such as prostitution, homosexuality and drug abuse are taboo for many rural and patriarchal cultures. It is important to discuss these issues, but the controversial question is: do we want the states to intervene from the point of view of legal support and government policy? How can we respond to this issue, knowing the history of states’ policies in integrating and “civilising" the Romani population? If the answer is not to come via the state, can we improve the work of Romani civil society? The old generation of Roma had its own survival strategy for keeping Roma away from the majority societies. What is the survival strategy of the young generation? What is our survival strategy?

Sometimes I have the impression that among the young generation of activists, including myself, so-called “Roma nationalism" is widespread. I watch these phenomena with interest, and I am fascinated at how Romani men use nationalism. I also notice that women activists of my generation seem to use nationalism as an escape from failures in not being a head of family or marrying as a virgin, or having four children by thirty. I am concerned with how we use nationalism to justify ourselves, to build our careers, or to improve our public image. Also some of us appear to be taking advantage of our multiple roles of women and our opportunity to have access to more roles than the men do (I did not say “rights", I said “roles"). Everything that you, Sabina, wrote is true, but let’s speak about the role of older Romani women in the community and how they influence young girls. It is not only the father who oppresses them and watches them.

Sabina, how about the cultural message and symbols of domestic violence, and how the son wants to show his solidarity with his mother in beating the wife? In some Romani communities, this has heavy symbolic ritual meaning: sometimes, when the boy’s mother criticises the daughter-in-law, the boy wants to show solidarity with his mother by beating his wife. The message of this violence is to the mother, something like, “See" You have a real man as a son; I am powerful and I control my wife.? What are the problems of male teenagers in assuming the cultural roles of being a real man? What is the psychological impact on boys, too, and how do they feel?

The existence of Romani women activists shows that it is possible to break the rules, or to change them. Activists like young Sabina are very precious if only for the fact that they are thinking about the world around them. Can we Romani women activists create a new society of Roma? How can we emancipated women design the future of this people when everybody is watching us and expecting us to say great truths? How do we cope with the diversity among Roma?


  1. Sabina Xhemajli was born in Germany to Romani parents from Kosovo. She is an educational assistant and for the past two years she has been a volunteer at the Cologne-based Romani organisation Rom e.V.
  2. Rozalija Iliæ is a high school teacher of mathematics and the programme director of the Roma Informative Centre (RIC), a Romani non-governmental organisation based in Kragujevac, Yugoslavia. Among other activities, RIC organises educational workshops and social activities for Romani women, and networks with other women’s organisations.
  3. Martin Demirovski was born in Kumanovo, Macedonia. He is a young Romani activist who works with various organisations at a local, national and international level. Among other things, he is a member of the board of the youth section of Roma National Congress.
  4. Katalin Sztojka is the head of the non-governmental organisation Phralipe in Kalocsa, Hungary.
  5. Liljana Kovatcheva is a Romani activist from Bulgaria. She has been a consultant to the Network Women’s Program of the Open Society Institute in Budapest, Hungary.
  6. Ivan Ivanov holds degrees in medicine and law. He has been a staff attorney at the ERRC and worked closely with the Sofia-based organisation Human Rights Project. He is presently a student at the Public Interest Law Program of Columbia University in New York.
  7. Nicoleta Biþu holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in socio-psycho pedagogy from the University of Bucharest. She has been involved in Romani issues for close to ten years, working with organisations such as the Network Women’s Program of the Open Society Institute, Project on Ethnic Relations and Rromani CRISS, mainly in post-conflict situations and youth leadership education. 


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