Reflections on the history of the Romani women’s movement

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    The book titled The Romani Women’s Movement, Struggles and Debates in Central and Eastern Europe, published last year by Routledge and edited by Angéla Kóczé, Violetta Zentai, Jelena Jovanović and Enikö Vincze, highlights the role of Romani women’s politics in shaping equality related discourses, policies, and movements. In the book, the four editors and over twenty authors have offered a review of women’s Roma associations and intersectional feminism through eleven chapters divided into three parts. As they themselves stated in the introductory part of the volume, many of the authors began working together after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the mid-1990s. As activists or their supporters, they have engaged in building spaces, platforms, and dialogues that contribute to Romani women’s local and transnational mobilization in Central and Eastern Europe. However, it should be noted that the fall of the Berlin Wall did not necessarily mark the beginning of the Romani women’s movement, as they have been expressing their opinions and taking positions even before this historic event.

    In the foreword, Margareta Matache, lecturer and director of the Roma Program at Harvard University, emphasizes the importance of researching intersectional discrimination that affects Romani women and contributes to a better understanding of racist and patriarchal practices, but also the importance of joining forces with other social movements in order to contribute to the global project of fighting repressive dogmas.

    The volume’s first section explores the nature of male discourse and practice within the Roma movement and the diversity of the Romani women’s political positions. In the chapter analyzing the Roma Women’s Initiative, Nicoleta Bițu states that Roma women need separate safe spaces, but in communication and solidarity with Roma and feminist movements, and that they must recognize class privileges within Roma communities and the Roma movement. I would certainly single out a paper in which the authors Jelena Jovanović and Violetta Zentai, through their research, strive to understand how young members of Roma communities understand the concept of gender and the meaning of hierarchical relations in society, to which I will devote myself later. Furthermore, the first section deals with the Roma LGBTIQ movement, and in her work, Jelena M. Savić tackles the nature of historization of knowledge about the Romani women’s movement through the prism of feminist epistemological theories.

    The second chapter of the book explores the experiences of the movement in a national context in relation to transnational Roma women’s activism. By linking the personal and the political, it is possible to discern experiences related to Roma gender politics in Romania, Serbia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Bulgaria. In the section titled Romani Women’s Friendship, Empowerment and Politics: Views on Romani Feminism in Serbia and Beyond, authors Vera Kurtić and Jelena Jovanović choose an unconventional method, exchange e-mails, through which they discuss various topics including the position of women in the Roma movement and solidarity with other social movements, the resistance of some influential Roma leaders to the discourse on Roma women and/or LGBT rights, the position of emancipated Romani women in the community and, finally, friendship building among women. The third and final section presents the inspirations that the Romani women’s movement of Central and Eastern Europe drew from the history of Romani women’s activism in Spain.

    Men and the politics of gender equality

    One of the questions that authors Jelena Jovanović and Violetta Zentai wanted to address in their paper Gender Relations and the Romani Women’s Movement in the Eyes of Young Romani Men: The Potential for Transversal Politicsis how do these individuals, who are of a certain social status and origin, view the Romani women’s movement and the gender politics within it.

    The authors conducted a study in which they focused on ten individual interviews and a series of joint discussions with members of the Roma community, aged 25 to 40, who are activists educated to at least BA level. Most of them are studying at the Central European University, and more than half of them have completed a one-year Roma Graduate Preparation Program, a preparatory course for English-language graduate studies. The interviewees mostly come from smaller places in Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Romania, Hungary, Albania, and Slovakia, they grew up in working-class families and all declare themselves as Roma. Interestingly, none of them come from a family that has experience in the Roma movement. Additionally, the authors interviewed five established Romani movement leaders with more than ten years of work experience in public affairs, as well as other young members of the Roma community on issues of gender hierarchies and movement politics within them. Most of the interviewees in the research characterized the communities they come from as places where the gender hierarchy is either not pronounced or never overly exploitatory of women, or is in part, a very flexible and not so rigid hierarchy. Such experiences are certainly in explicit contradiction to the practices of some traditional Roma groups, in which women would not wash their clothes together with men’s clothes. Interviewees have clear memories or lived experiences of expectations relating to gender roles within their local communities and extended families. The most pronounced expectations concern partnership and marriage.

    When the interviewees had to describe themselves and answer who they were, the most common answer was Roma, and in terms of identity categories, with answers such as researcher, student, Roma activist, father, etc., none of them stated that they are feminist or a friend of a feminist. In further conversation with them, the authors point out that some of the interviewees are aware of being privileged just because they are men. One of them used the example of people around him reacting to racist claims, but this not being the case with sexist speech, which is considered a good joke. Another interviewee is cognizant and recognizes sexism and gender-based discrimination, including the gender pay gap and the mandatory multitasking often forced upon women.

    Moreover, the research shows a wide recognition among educated young members of Roma communities that there is insufficient space for gender equality issues within the Roma movement. Those convinced of the importance of gender mainstreaming often express resistance to the potential division within the Roma movement itself. Also, there are concerns that if Roma women begin to demand a more explicit engagement with gender equality, it will mean that they work primarily for themselves, as opposed to men who are considered to work for the entire Roma community. Some of the interviewees, when asked about their own active participation in the implementation of gender equality programs, believe that gender policy is too noisy and ideology-laden. It is also suggested that a debate on oppression in various contexts will weaken the Roma movement, and that engagement with a strong feminist agenda can strengthen prejudice against Romani traditions.

    Ultimately, the interviewees of the research support gender equality programs that are part of the Roma movement, but only as long as it does not jeopardize the unity of its broader political goals. Aside from a few isolated examples, most of the interviewees developed a true recognition and respect for the Roma women’s program and demands.

    In the final section, Alexandra Oprea reflects on the importance of this volume, not only because of its substance, but also its form. The written word holds a special meaning for the Roma community, for whom education has long been unattainable, but is one of the most influential factors for changing the position of women in a society that petrifies women’s issues as problems. The emphasis on the importance of action and struggle that permeates the works of all authors is therefore clear. The authors have dedicated this volume to the lives of Roma women, those who lacked the well-deserved public recognition for their contribution to the opposition to established social norms and fighting to change difficult and unjust social conditions.

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