Zarine Habeeb

11 March 2005

The Personal is the Political: A Story of Another1 Journey from India

Zarine Habeeb2

I have often been asked why I have chosen to come to Hungary and then to work at the ERRC. I have given shorthand answers to this question, sometimes even without thinking a lot. As feminism teaches us, the personal is the political. The identity crisis I experienced in 2002 when genocidal violence was launched against Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat3 had a deep impact on me, a Muslim, who was and continues to be deeply proud of India's secular and pluralistic traditions. So, to go back to using shorthand phrases, in my mind Gujarat 2002 has a connection to Budapest 2003.

In India, in both scholarly and lay circles, the "Muslim problem" is thought of primarily in terms of minority rights. So, it was no surprise that in my application for the Henigson fellowship, I expressed my interest in the comparative study of minority rights. Especially in the wake of the Balkan wars in the 1990s, this region seemed to provide the perfect backdrop for the study of minority rights. Of course, Roma, as readers of this journal are well aware, have been the silent victims of these wars, a fact that I came to know only through the pages of this journal.

After spending a year at the ERRC, I have come to believe that minority rights per se cannot provide solutions. Where a minority identity, such as the Romani identity, is vilified in mainstream society as inferior and unworthy of respect, it leads to either assimilation or ghettoisation. Assimilation forces Roma to deny their Romani identity and ghettoisation forces them to deny other parts of their selves, such as Slovak, East European, feminist, etc. Either way, the burden of choice falls on Roma4. This is not to deny the distinctiveness of the Romani identity. Indeed, the Romani identity should take its rightful place among the other affiliations that Romani men, women and children possess and ways must be sought to combine robust anti-discrimination policies with a coherent minority rights approach.

While on the topic of identity, I have to say that the time spent with the ERRC and in Hungary gave me the opportunity to realise that identity is not only something you have (in my case Indian, Muslim, Woman, feminist, Keralite, etc) but also something you don't have, like, non-Roma, non- ethnic Hungarian, and non-Westerner5.

When I conducted research and writing on Romani women's issues, I was keenly aware of my role as an outsider, not only a non-Roma, but also a person who was very new to the region itself. One of my favourite moments at the ERRC was when ERRC's board member Nicoleta Bitu told me that the African-American feminist and literary critic bell hooks had inspired her. I was reminded of the sweltering heat of Delhi when I was reading hooks' "Feminism: From Margin to Center" and had wanted to scream out in sheer joy in the silent environs of the library of the Centre for Women's Development Studies. Bitu and I reflected on the power of hooks's language in challenging race and gender hierarchies. Though our experiences differ, hooks, Bitu and I shared something: the conviction that markers such as race, nationality, gender, class and religion can exclude as they include. I think that as women who stand at the cross roads of these markers, we have a special responsibility to ground our theory and activism in humanity and not in exclusion.

I realise that I can never be Roma or ethnic Hungarian or even a Westerner. But, globalisation has ensured greater connection between diverse societies and peoples and it would be foolish not to constructively engage with "other" cultures and peoples. I believe that to be rooted in who you are, but to treat, as the Indian literateur and philosopher Rabindranatha Tagore said Vasudaiva Kudumbakam (the universe as my family) is one of the ways of making sense of the complex world we live in. Come to think of it, this is the message of the Universal Declaration also, that all of us, Roma, non-Roma, Muslim, non-Muslim, Westerner, Indian, all belong to the same human family.


  1. It will be probably clear to my readers that I have used "another" in reference to the journey of Roma from present day India and Pakistan. I also use it in acknowledgment of all those Romani men and women who on hearing that I am Indian express a sense of fraternity with India and India
  2. Zarine Habeeb was awarded the Henigson fellowship by the Human Rights Program of Harvard Law School in 2003 to pursue a year long internship at the ERRC. She is originally from Ernakulam, Kerala, India.
  3. In February 2002 a train carrying Hindu pilgrims and right wing agitationists was burnt down in the town of Godhra in Gujarat allegedly by a Muslim mob. Many of the agitationists had gone to the state of Uttar Pradesh to participate in a movement launched by right wing groups to build a temple in the town of Ayodhya on the site where a mosque used to stand until it was demolished by right wing groups in 1992. In the retaliatory violence that followed the burning of the train Muslims were systematically targeted in Gujarat. Human Rights Watch has produced a report on the violence and the collusion of the Gujarat authorities entitled 'We have no orders to save you', available at:
  4. I accept that it is quite possible that a person may consciously decide to privilege a particular identity over every other identity. My purpose in drawing the distinction between assimilation and ghettoisation is only to point out that in this dichotomous framework, people belonging to vulnerable groups cannot choose to be everything, they have to give up some part of their selves.
  5. I admit that the term 'Westerner' is imprecise. I use it (with a nod to my dear friend and ERRC staff attorney Ioana Banu, a Romanian national, who was surprised when I said she would be considered a 'Westerner' in India) here in the way it is used in India to make a cultural distinction between us Indians and the residents of Australia, Europe, New Zealand and North America.



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