Although the process of Roma mobilization can be traced back to the 19th century, it was only after the overthrow of the Nazi regime that a modern civil rights movement emerged, spurred by processes that greatly shaped the political map of the modern world and accelerated decolonization. However, the history of the Romani political movement has always been traditionally narrated from a male perspective, often neglecting the achievements and role of women. In this struggle for emancipation, Romani women found ways to open up issues related to traditional values and social standing in their own community.
Throughout history, various political regimes have engaged with themes of objectification and dehumanization of Romani women’s bodies. Sexism, racism, and class discrimination, as well as other, perhaps less pronounced but inevitably related factors, certainly contributed to this. Although in the period before, during, and directly after World War II, few Romani women had the opportunity to become visible in a male-dominated field, there are examples outlining clear boundaries of women’s activism and associations that became more distinct and open after the collapse of communism. For the purposes of this article, I will attempt primarily, but not exclusively (given the political-historical circumstances), to highlight several names and initiatives from the area of Central and Eastern Europe.
The settlement of Roma in Croatian territories was recorded more than six centuries ago, and during that period, state and local authorities tried to regulate their societal position with various provisions. The culmination of this process, marked by the politics of systematic and repressive assimilation, was recorded during World War II in the territory of the Independent State of Croatia. The pre-war Roma community in Croatia was almost destroyed by the genocidal Ustasha policies, and it took the Roma community some sixty years to rectify the demographic consequences of the war. Romani participation in the anti-fascist (partisan) movement in Croatia is certainly one of the poorly researched areas of Romani history during World War II. Apart from a few Roma who evaded deportation to the Jasenovac camp in the summer of 1942 and those who managed to escape from it, Danica Nikolić, a Romani woman, managed to avoid deportation unlike her compatriots from the village of Negoslavac (Vukovar area), after which she joined the partisan movement. Danijel Vojak, a senior research associate at the Ivo Pilar Institute of Social Sciences, pointed out the lack of personalized Romani history because the media at the time reported on the Roma in plural form, without accentuating their personal stories. When it comes to the Women’s Anti-Fascist Front of Yugoslavia, there is very little or no information about the inclusion of Romani women within it, which certainly presents a challenge for further research on their positioning when it comes to extraordinary efforts to emancipate all social subjects.
In the European context, Alfreda Noncia Markowska, a Romani woman from Poland, survived Samudaripen (translated as mass murder / total destruction, a term used by the Roma to describe the genocide committed against their people during World War II), and is known for saving some 50 Jewish and Roma children from death. In 2006, she was awarded the Polish Polonia Restituta decoration for this heroic and humanitarian act. In terms of literature, the names of the Polish-Romani poet Bronislava Wajs, also known as Papusza, whose verses are considered among the most powerful ones arising from the horrors of Samudaripen, as well as the writer and theater author Ilona Lackova, the first Romani woman to graduate in Czechoslovakia, are inevitable. Having survived Samudaripen, she spent her entire life trying to end segregation of the Roma and to truly spread practices of solidarity.
In Hungary, the 1957 founding of the Cultural Federation of Hungarian Gypsies (Magyar Cigányok Művelődési Szövetsége) was initiated by Mária László, who, despite her brief tenure as secretary-general, inspired many Romani women in their struggle. Apart from preserving cultural values, the federation aimed to raise issues related to job creation and school development, as well as the improvement of general living conditions. In addition, it played a significant role in supporting small Roma blacksmithing cooperatives established in the 1940s. All of these goals were aimed at establishing an ethnic minority status – something that the political authorities strongly opposed.
Moreover, in 1979, the first national exhibition of self-taught Roma artists, organized by Ágnes Daróczi, premiered in Hungary. A year earlier, she and her husband founded the music group Kalyi jag, one of the first music formations with a Romani repertoire to break into the international scene. Ágnes also stood out on Hungarian national television in 1972 on the talent show Ki mit tud? when she recited a poem by the Romani poet Károly Bari in Romani and Hungarian. She was 17 years old.
In opposition to the established social and economic status, in the early 1970s, the Romani elite formed in Eastern and Western Europe decided to join forces and to act within the political sphere. The change in their approach to the issue of their own identity marked the beginning of their political movement, resulting in the First World Romani Congress, held in 1971 in London. The Congress was attended by representatives and participants from many countries, including Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, whose delegation played an active role.
Daróczi was one of the few Romani women to attend the Third World Romani Congress held in Göttingen in 1981. At the time, several hundred delegates from about twenty countries demanded that the Helsinki Final Act, adopted a few years earlier, be applied to the Roma as well. At the Seventh World Romani Congress held in Zagreb in 2008, Esma Redžepova performed the Romani anthem.
The late 1980s and early 1990s marked the beginning of a wave of political reform in the communist and socialist countries of Eastern and Central Europe. War conflicts and violence ensued the disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, among which rape was often used as a weapon of war. Romani Shehrije Balaj from Kosovo was the first woman to testify about her own traumatic experience of war rape.
Concurrent with these events, Ilona Zambo founded the Association of Gypsy Mothers in 1991 in Hungary, inspired by the experiences of other Romani mothers in a dance school attended by her son. In one interview she states:
Talking to these women, I thought, ‘Why not gather them together and form a Romani women’s association?’ Bela Osztojkan, who was a Roma leader, called me the first Gypsy feminist for standing up for the rights of Roma women. He did not mean it as a compliment.
The collapse of communist regimes provided the Roma with opportunities to participate more actively in the non-governmental sector as well as in national politics. Thereby, Roma representatives of many European countries, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, entered into parliaments and various state institutions. In Czechoslovakia, Klara Samkova, a pro-Roma activist and the wife of Ivan Vesely, publicly associated with the Roma Civic Initiative (RCI), Anna Koptova was elected representative of the People Against Violence (VPN) in 1990, and in 1998, Monica Horakova joined the newly formed Freedom Union, with which she ran for the Czech House of Representatives a few months later and won. She sat in the House of Representatives as the youngest member and as the only Romani minority representative. Klára Orgovánová, a Slovak Romani activist, served as an adviser to the Slovak government from 1991 to 1993, and ten years later, in 2001, she became the government’s commissioner for Romani issues. From 1990 to 1994, Hungary had three Romani members of parliament, including one woman, Antonia Haga, from the liberal party the Alliance of Free Democrats (SzDSz). Furthermore, Éva Hegyesiné Orsós served as Head of the Office for National and Ethnic Minorities from 1995 to 1998, and Judit Berki was appointed Deputy State Secretary for Roma Integration in the Hungarian Government (2002 and 2004).
Following the gathering at the International Conference of Roma Women, organized by the Open Society Institute and the Roma Participation Program in Budapest in 1998, joint initiatives at the national and the international levels ensued. The Roma Women’s Initiative (RWI), led by Nicoleta Bițu, Azbija Memedova and Enisa Eminova, operated from 1999 to 2006 with the support of Debra Schultz, a feminist and founder of the Women’s Program of the Open Society Institute.
When Nicoleta Bițu declared herself a Romani feminist at an event on Romani women at the
European Parliament in June 2005, one shocked male member of parliament blurted out: Doesn’t that make your life difficult? Nicoleta laughed and said that it did. The following RWI projects – based on feminist practice – made life both difficult and exhilarating for Romani women activists, Debra Schultz writes.
The initiative that brought political visibility to Romani women’s issues and enabled the development of a gender-based discourse within the Romani movement itself is the International Roma Women’s Network (IRWN), launched in 2003 by Romani activists from eighteen European countries with a leadership slightly older than the one of the aforementioned RWI. The main focus was on the challenges that Romani women face when accessing the health system, including discrimination, poverty, and poor living conditions. At a conference organized by the Council of Europe in September 2003, which also presented research on Romani women’s access to health care, IRWN President Soraya Post presented the case of her own mother who was forced to have a late-term abortion and sterilization.
In the 2004 European parliament elections, two Romani women from Hungary were elected – Lívia Járóka, from the right-wing populist FIDESZ party, and Viktória Mohácsi, from the Alliance of Free Democrats, replacing her party colleague Gábor Demszky. Mohácsi was also part of the assembly of the EU-Croatia Joint Parliamentary Committee.
The Roma Women’s Forum followed in 2003 and the First International Roma Women’s Conference in 2007, which featured discussions on their rights, the fight against human trafficking, respect for reproductive rights and Romani women’s access to public health care. One of the conference’s outcomes was the Declaration of Romani Women’s Networks at the international level, in which they expressed concern about the discrimination and exclusion of Romani communities and called on governments to adopt appropriate policies and measures to effectively address the multiple discrimination faced by Roma women. A year earlier, the European Parliament passed the first, and thereby historic, Resolution on the situation of Roma women in the European Union, using research conducted by Romani women activists.
In the autumn of this year, Zuzana Kumanova was appointed State Secretary in the Ministry of Culture of the Slovak Republic, from the For the people (Za ludí) party. Kumanova has dedicated her academic work to Romani culture and history, and activities for the improvement of Romani women’s position. In the last ten years, we have also witnessed an increasing number of women occupying important positions in supranational political and managerial positions, such as Rita Izsák-Ndiaye from Hungary, who was appointed an independent expert on minority issues by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011. She was backed by the same party as Lívia Járóka.
It is also worth mentioning the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture, which was founded in 2017 as a transnational organization at the European level that uses art, culture, history, and media as tools to reduce negative prejudices of the majority population towards the Roma, but also for the Roma to learn about and strengthen their own identity. ERIAC is essentially run by two women – Tímea Junghaus, an art historian and curator of contemporary art from Hungary, and Anna Mirga-Kruszelnicka, an anthropologist and Romani activist from Poland.
Hedina Tahirović-Sijerčić, a writer, translator, and professor whose focus of action is on Romani language, culture, and tradition, is the first Romani graduate journalist in the former Yugoslavia and the founder and one of the first lecturers of Romani Language and Romani Literature and Culture at the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb. Women are entering the Roma rights movement from the local level, working in NGOs that began to line up after the collapse of communism. Ramiza Memedi has been leading the Croatian Roma Women’s Association for a Better Future since 1998, Suzana Krčmar has been presiding the Croatian Romani Union in the Republic of Croatia “KALI SARA” since 2015, and Romani women also associate in smaller places, exemplified by the Sara Association, founded by Pamela Palko in 2017 in the Osijek-Baranja county.
In Croatia, the goal of raising the level of Roma inclusion has been present for many years and through various initiatives and strategies, with a special emphasis on the inclusion of women in the public and political life of the local community.
Nura Ismailovski is a longtime activist in the field of human rights and national minorities. She was a member of the Zagreb City Assembly from 2009 to 2013, a member of the Committee on Human Rights and the Rights of National Minorities of the Croatian Parliament from representatives of human rights associations from 2012 to 2015, and a member of the City Coordination for Human Rights since 2013.
I am of the opinion that the current state of Romani women’s association in Croatia is unfortunately very bad. There are several women-led associations that operate their programs, but until we realize that ‘only by associating’ and collectively working with quality, active, and educated Romani women can we create the foundations for a better future for our children and improve the current position of Romani women in Croatia, we will continue to achieve little.
The political participation of representatives of the Roma national minority at the local and county level in Croatia takes place through councils and representatives of the Roma national minority, and recent years have marked a significant increase in the number of Romani women, especially from the younger generation, in their convocations. Also, in the last two decades, Romani women from Central and Eastern Europe have shaped and transformed the agenda of the Roma movement by opening topics and shaping policy- and decision-making, but as the authors Jelena Jovanović, Angéla Kóczé and Lídia Balogh point out in their collective paper, the experiences of Romani women vary and there is no ideological background that shapes their political discourse. Roma women did not gather exclusively around the category of gender or the fight against gender inequality. Rather, their biggest challenges remained poverty and anti-Romaism, which largely prevent them from accessing education, employment, the social protection system, and health care. Thus, the authors conclude, the thesis that the personal is political, in regards to Roma women, emphasizes the relationship between the personal experiences of Romani women and the structures that shape these experiences by allowing the maintenance of the inequality that ultimately affects their daily lives.