In/visible Roma Women: Celebrating spaces of self-representation

Thought it’s tough to be a woman? Try being a Romani woman. Better yet, try being a successful Romani woman. We found the examples and you can read about the Roma Women Gala, an event created specifically for making Roma women more visible and promote positive illustrations. Following from a conversation with Carmen Gheorghe – one of the three women who, through their efforts, made the Gala possible – the event tries to insert an insider’s perspective on what is a truly pressing and worrying matter, not only for the Romanian society, but for the larger European context. It talks about the intersectionality of the gender and ethnic discrimination that Roma women are facing each day, and it reflects on ways to open up spaces for self-representation, informed by real examples.

by Cristina Simona Bangau

Women marching on the International Women's day!  'Then' and 'Now' collage!

Women marching on the International Women’s day!
‘Then’ and ‘Now’ collage!

Gender and ethnicity: exposing the inequalities or why it matters if the Roma Women Gala is a feminist initiative (or not).

Its strikingly clear and direct motto, ‘see me as I am‘, has been the foundation of the Romanian Roma Women Gala since 2011, as it strives at pointing out the success stories, engraved in real life practices. It is not the extraordinary that is looked at, the focus falling, rather, on women who, through their efforts and dedication, have benefited others and their community. Its main areas of interest – education, health, mass-media, culture, economic and social impact, community development, activism – mainly designate points of reference that add up to a sketch of a better society. This is yet another example of compelling women, one of the rare existing venues to celebrate, publicly, Roma women as mediators of social change and betterment, as agents who actively reject the discrimination they have been subjected to, inserting these small challenging acts in their everyday life. The symbolic date – the evening of the 7th of March – preceding the International Women’s Day, may also connect it to the motto, the need for recognition and proper representation. It makes reference to the 1910s women’s rights movement[1], to the change women can and have brought in society, and to the more recent historical developments – the almost 24 years of continuous struggle of the Romanian women activists to advance their agenda. Certainly, there are other women who may not be in the list of nominations, but their role may have been as significant, a caveat that comes with any event of this sort. Indeed, the struggle for social justice should be celebrated regardless of the scale it is played at, placing itself at the intersection of political acts and the impact of the grassroots initiatives.

This article stems from a conversation I had with Carmen Gheorghe, a Romanian Roma activist, who has been one of the three women, together with Mihaela Gheorghe and Mariana Dincă, who act as cornerstones of the Gala. At its 4th edition, the event has incorporated support from various institutions and organisations, maintaining its non-affiliated identity, as a way of ensuring its continued existence as an initiative that best benefits and promotes positive examples.

As Carmen kindly explained, the Romani identity is important only as one of the criteria based on which the selection is made. It is not the ethnic dimension that is celebrated, but the personal efforts of the representatives of one of the most vulnerable minority groups in Europe. Though the position of Roma in society and their marginalisation, economically, socially and politically, has been long researched, only recently studies on the specific intersectionality of gender and ethnicity have been advanced. Particularly revelatory is one of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)[2] Roma inclusion working papers  from 2012[3], which systematically went through every indicator included in the priorities stated by the national strategies for Roma, at the European Union’s suggestion[4]. It proved that, in terms of education, employment, housing, and health, Romani women, when compared to non-Roma individuals, and even to Romani men, are always the group most susceptible to subpar living conditions. Access to education is limited, with high rates of early school abandonment, formal employment is rarely the norm, most of them being assigned to the domestic universe, which implies that they are also the most affected by the non-standard sanitation and housing facilities. It follows, dramatically, that being a woman in a society like the one prevalent in Romania, where feminist initiatives are scarce and there is still an urgent need for measures that prevent domestic violence, and moreover, a Romani woman, is a combination that leaves little room for personal development, and guarantees an unfortunate series of insurmountable obstacles. Their civic and political involvement is thus drastically limited by their social and educational backgrounds. At this point, it would not be hazardous to say that what is perceived as the ‘normal’, sometimes becomes the extraordinary for some of these girls and women.

See me as I am: short theoretical intro on politics as making things in/visible – Campaign against the violence towards women and the right to decent housing

The underlying message of the Roma Women Gala, SEE ME AS I AM[5], indicates the need felt for fair and equal public representation. It urges for the creation of a space of their own, free from the stereotypes that pervade the public sphere and build-up to exclusionary practices and marginalisation. “See me as I am” may be the call to the right of presenting one’s own narrative, to disrupt the arbitrary categories and expose her selected markers of identity. This is the point where Jacques Ranciere’s perspective on politics[6] may prove relevant. He talks about the attempts the governing powers make to create a certain societal order, that better benefit the coherent, charming stories that one may want to present as the truth, the status quo. This, of course, is attainable by making some parts of the society visible, as material evidences of that before-mentioned ‘truth’, while carefully and deliberately silencing and eclipsing other parts that do not fit. The attempt to order is not the occasion when the political happens, in Ranciere’s terms. Rather, when hidden or shadowed parts of existence are suddenly brought to light through claims to their recognition, that is the moment when politics come into being. Therefore, politics should not be seen as the attribute of the political institutions, political parties, and state institutions, solely. This vision hints at the grassroots potential to constantly challenge the powers that be and, in the process, also challenging their regimes of representations. This approach can be empowering, especially in the context in which Roma women are routinely refused access to public offices and to decision-making positions, reduced to the domestic universe, and have to face multiple layers of discrimination, rarely having the possibility to be the ones who tell their own stories. It emphasizes the emancipatory effects that result from opening-up the public space for the Romani women.

This short theoretical intermezzo, emphasizing a rather optimistic approach, is backed-up by the concrete examples Carmen Gheorghe shared, an exercise of putting forth proposals and concerns: “Exactly because the Gala managed to bring together, from year to year, a big number of people, we wanted to also spread a message, as a sign of concern about what’s happening in Romania and beyond the borders. For example, 2013 was, from my perspective, a year in which many cases of violence directed against women happened.” A strong campaign[7], dedicated to informing and combating these practices, had been established, having as a starting point the unfortunate case of the Romanian extremist group which offered 300 RON (around 70 Euro) to Roma women who would agree to being sterilised. “Even if this case had been immediately sanctioned, not even a month later another local councilman declared he agrees with the sterilisation of women if it is proved that they can’t educate their kids (originally ‘puradei’ – derogatory term for Roma children). Of course, this statement completely shocked us and we decided it is time for Roma women to take a stance on that. So, we invited eight Roma women from different backgrounds – from activists, actresses, to women in public positions – to voice their concerns on this matter, and position this distressing discourse in a larger context of violence, which can take countless shapes against women, be them Roma or non-Roma. The campaign was launched using social media, our purpose is to make our voice heard and to share our concerns with the civil society that the time to act against these practices has come. And, from what we have seen, there are more and more similar projects and actions that are working towards this goal. At the moment, a group of organisations, amongst which E-Romnja, brought to court the ones who launched such allegations. We hope that justice will be on our side.”

Moving forward to the 2014 edition, the right to decent housing is brought up in front of the audience of the Roma Women Gala, and the exposure of the violent means local authorities sometimes use is being discussed. While it has been a long debated concern, being one of the main focus points in the national strategies for the Roma inclusion, along with the need to address improved and progressive education, health and employment policies, recent events in Romania show that there is a long way to their successful implementation. The case of forced evictions of entire Roma families, as the infamous one in Pata Rât, Cluj [8], where 76 families were given no other feasible alternatives, is not singular. Examples of local authorities abusing their power, without constructively finding solutions to the housing problem, can be found in Baia Mare, Craiova, the Rahova area in Bucharest, and in Eforie Nord, a small sea resort[9], people forcefully being thrown out, left homeless. As the previously mentioned UNDP study shows, poor housing conditions, and the constant threat to being evicted, dangerously shape a vicious circle that furthers the gender and ethnic gap and have tremendously negative effects on health, educational achievement, and employment.

International Women’s Day: on Spring and new beginnings

The Gala is a grassroots initiative that stems from a simple curiosity to find out who the Roma women are, not being designed as an institutional project. It serves as an inspirational example of the struggle to actively address the intricate position Roma women find themselves in, at the intersection of multiple dimensions of discrimination, in terms of gender, ethnicity, and geopolitics, and it is helpful in mapping out the successful cases of Roma women who contribute to the betterment of society and community. As Carmen Gheorghe pointed out, the Gala is extremely well anchored in the Romanian social realities, the nominations genuinely reflecting the societal dynamics: “This year we have 10 sections, among which public administration, health, education, promoting culture, young activists, civic actions, volunteer work etc. One of the interesting aspects of this year is the political field. We have received nomination of women from the political environment – elected local council women, which shows that the imposed measure in 2012, of including women in the lists of the political parties, worked. Of course, Roma women are not yet present on the political scene the way we would want, but this is a starting point that makes us hopeful.” The nominations are made by people who are aware of the activities of the Roma women they consider worth celebrating, transparency being valued in the process. Concluding, Carmen points out: “Our purpose, is simple but challenging: to discover and make visible as many Roma women as possible.” The message is clear, the International Women’s Day is more than just flowers and Spring and the gala was initiated in order to show that Roma women are contributing to society and have countless stories to tell, stories worth listening to.

Carmen Gheorghe - Romanian Roma activist and one of the Roma Women's Gala main organizer.

Carmen Gheorghe – Romanian Roma activist and one of the Roma Women’s Gala main organizer.