Resisting Oppression both by Claiming and Reimagining Romani Identities
Resisting Oppression both by Claiming and Reimagining Romani Identities
By Salome Kokoladze
Ethel C. Brooks in “The Possibilities of Romani Feminisms” mentions a question once asked to her at a symposium. The question is striking and raises many issues that need to be discussed. A woman asked Brooks, “I am sorry, but you can’t claim both: If you want to claim feminism, then you must give up your claim to a Romani identity. Patriarchy and oppression to women are central to your culture; to be a feminist means renouncing being a Romani woman.” The woman asking this question assumed that Romani culture is static and unchanging. She also put on the foreground qualities of the culture that in reality are not just problematic within Romani communities, but they represent main issues in many different nations today. I can also see an assumption in this claim that feminism can only belong to or emerge in cultures that are less patriarchal. But isn’t this belief an oxymoron? Isn’t feminism arising exactly because of a necessity to resist systems such as patriarchy? The belief that only white women can empower and create feminist movements is inaccurate and problematic. Brooks rightly refers to a two sided problem in the question. She claims that for the interlocutor “to be Romani was to be antifeminist, and to be feminist was to be anti-Romani.” It is not only that the Romani culture is seen through an essentialist and stereotypical lens, but also feminism is represented as a narrow concept that seems to only belong to the privileged members of different societies. As Angéla Kóczé emphasizes, it is not only non-Romani individuals who think so, but within Romani movements there can also be “the lack of intersectional thinking: instead of analyzing the dialogical relationship between gender and ethnicity, the male-dominated leadership of the movement argues for the separation of these categories.”
Romani feminists or LGBTIQ individuals are challenging these views while also claiming their Romani identity. How and why is this possible? I want to explore the concept of identity politics and challenges it faces in order to see how the politics centered around communal struggles and identities can be complementary with reimagining one’s identity.
The term, identity politics, appeared in the U.S.A. in different movements at around 1960. Very generally, the term “rests on unifying claims about the meaning of politically laden experiences to diverse individuals.” Identity politics has been used by movements based on race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation and etc. One of the first and important uses of the term is in “The Combahee River Collective Statement,” published by black feminists in 1977. They write, “[t]his focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity.” Focusing and embracing one’s identity has been also shown in LGBTIQ movements and the idea of “pride” is the most obvious manifestation of this. Being proud of one’s sexual orientation and not being ashamed of it is a form of resistance against the society that considers not normative expressions of a self as illegitimate. While at one look identity politics seems to be an important aspect of different liberation movements, it is also a term that has been very problematic.
Since identity politics points to a collective identity, for example, taking pride in the idea of womanhood and saying that we, women, share some common characteristics, it has been criticized as essentialist at times. Identity politics can lead to an illusion that there are some common characteristics that everyone in a certain group should share. In the other words, the term becomes not just descriptive of group members, but it refers to different ideals one needs to achieve to be considered a part of a group. This could lead to the exclusion of those who belong to a movement or struggles associated with the group, but do not identify themselves with all of their typical characteristics. We can have multiple movements and types of activisms centered around one idea and cause. When Angéla Kóczé discusses Romani women’s activism, she criticizes the idea of the universality of feminism, rather, she emphasizes that there is a need for “Romani women…to articulate their own experiences and their own struggles in indigenous terms specifically in terms that are distinct from those proposed by the Western human and gender rights discourse.”
In addition to the danger of narrowly defined concepts, identity politics may urge one to forget that things like race, class or gender are social/cultural constructs and instead of making the definitions of such categories rigid, one needs to constantly redefine them and approve their non-static and non-essential nature. However, we might ask how we balance the idea of embracing and celebrating one’s identity and at the same time questioning it. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak developed a term “strategic essentialism”, which means that taking characteristics of one’s identity as important or essential can be used for resistance. Linda Alcoff explains the concept further. She says, “although one ‘knows’ that identity is not real, that its purported homogeneity is an illusion, one can still deploy identity in the public domain as a way to displace hegemonic knowledges and structures of oppression.” This is an interesting idea since it lets one appreciate and take pride in one’s identity, but also to be open to changes and transformation. Both are necessary aspects of resisting oppressive practices.
I was reading a South Asian performance group, Darkmatter’s facebook post, which rightly points to how people in power appropriate and have access to flexible identities while marginalized individuals and communities are discouraged to embrace the desire for change. It is not only that they are discouraged to question their lives and identities, but also this act becomes dangerous in many cases. Darkmatter writes,
Whiteness is the only racial position that has the license to contain angst, dissent, and weirdness without serious fear of harm. Whiteness affords a flexibility within and mobility from one’s subject position; whiteness has the option to not be pinned down to one “culture” or “aesthetic,” because its colonizing logics mean that it can participate in everything. Whiteness is the ability to choose to be different, versus be forcibly marked as different.
When Brown — and especially Black people — deviate from norms we are called exotic, radical, criminal, and/or terrorists. Being a Brown ~Weirdo~ is a fundamentally a different type of politics than these white indie kids whose very penchant for rebellion is facilitated by the fact that once dissent goes out of fashion they can return to their suit & tie and no one will notice.
When Brown people choose to be weird we are embracing our racial alterity and deriving our power from it. Our decision to be weird is not because we want to for the sake of being subversive, but because we are fighting for self-determination in a colonial system predicated on categorizing and containing us.
This is a very important claim that shows how those in power are considered to be the only ones who can change, go back and forth between different worlds and identities without any trouble and traumatic experiences. However, the oppressed communities and individuals have no such freedom (it is no wonder that a woman talking with Brooks did not understand how there can be such an identity as a Romani feminist).
As Sara Ahmed emphasizes in her blog, “Welfare as Warfare”, “Privilege does not mean we are invulnerable….Privilege can however reduce the costs of vulnerability, so if things break down, if you break down, you are more likely to be looked after. When support is a question of access you have a support system.” It is not only that marginalized individuals and communities are stereotyped as having fixed identities, but it is simply a question of making oneself even more vulnerable by risking and imagining something other than what you have been told to imagine about who you are. Not having a support system from your family, from your own country and government, not having proper access to legal rights, education or healthcare prevents one to actualize one’s desire to be different. But in cases when this happens, it is never a matter of simply ‘experimenting’ and ‘trying new things out’, but it means that one is resisting oppression and puts one’s mental and physical health in danger. This is why when a Romani individuals claim to be feminists or LGBTIQ community members, they are neither assimilating into the dominant discourse, nor denying their Romani identity. On the contrary, as mentioned, they express a form of “self-determination in a colonial system predicated on categorizing” marginalized individuals. Thus, a political resistance can emerge out of identity politics if it is accompanied by a desire to redefine one’s identity in one’s own terms, rather than choosing definitions imposed by others.
It is still difficult to answer who decides what values define a culture. Ian Hancock quotes Joane Nagel, an American Indian activist, to make a point about Romani culture. Nagel says, “[t]hey [colonizers] invented culture. They need culture so they can get PhD’s and gain power in universities. And people who have that kind of power control culture, because they control the definitions, the symbols and the masks they’ve constructed about culture.” Ian Hancock adds that “Gypsy identity has been in the hands of the non-Gypsy specialist, especially politicians and academics….Folklorists and anthropologists select those aspects of their subjects which appeal to them, while ignoring others, for a number of reasons, creating a new, more easily manageable identity–less threatening, or else simply one more attractive or ‘exotic’.” What one may think one’s cultural values are, in reality could be defined by the popular oppressive discourse. In some cases it is obvious to see which values are imposed by oppressors so that one can reject and redefine them, but in some other cases it might not be so clear. For example, for feminist movements a way to resist patriarchy was to take pride in womanhood, but some qualities about gender that got promoted and accentuated were defined by the patriarchal structure itself, which led to the exclusion of transgender women or women of color from some feminist circles.
The very definition of the Romani culture being essentially patriarchal or homophobic seems to be created by the dominant discourse itself. It is easier to designate a group as the “other” if it is reduced to only negative characteristics that are seen as inherently belonging to the group. We can think of different U.S. southern states, where people are against homosexuality. We can think of European countries like France, where people have massive marches in support of traditional families, against homosexuality or immigration. However, we do not attribute the views of these communities to these nations at all. We think of these countries as “progressive.” “Western” oppressive practices are put in the background. Only those who are not in power are displayed as sources of injustice and violence. Patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, transphobia etc. are problems in Romani communities. To deny this reality would encourage us to ignore struggles of Romani women and LGBTIQ individuals. However, to put these issues in the heart of the culture is not a right move either. In many cases emphasizing such characteristics of a culture becomes a tool to oppress Romani people in general and to justify such oppression by saying that since they are sexist or homophobic, they do not deserve to be respected and it is okay for the outsiders to tell the community members what to do.
This is why Nicoleta Biţu, one of the Roma feminist activists, claims, “[g]enerally speaking, my aim as a Romani feminist is to contribute to the construction of a modern Roma identity, one that considers diversity and equality within Roma communities and that addresses all the problems Roma women are subjected to at the intersection of gender, ethnicity, and class.” It is important to recognize these intersections since seeing struggles of Romani women should not encourage one to forget that Romani men and communities in general are facing racial discrimination or socio-economic injustices as well. And vice versa, seeing the importance of cultural values and recognizing struggles of the entire community, should not encourage one to forget that let’s say Romani women can be oppressed not only by outsiders but by their own family/community members as well. Taking into consideration these intersections and seeing multiple dimensions of identity politics create an opportunity for a better activism and solidarity. As long as the desire for a change and transformation arises within a community, there is a possibility of a dialogue among the community members about these issues and about new approaches to certain cultural values.
 Ethel C. Brooks, “The Possibilities of Romani Feminism.” Signs 38, no. 1, 2.
 Ibid., 2.
 Angéla Kóczé. Gender, Ethnicity and Class: Romani Women’s Political Activism and Social Struggles. Central European University: Budapest, 2011. 53.
 Cressida Heyes. “Identity Politics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL= http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2014/entries/identity-politics/
 “The Combahee River Collective Statement.” Accessed April 17, 2015. http://www.sfu.ca/iirp/documents/Combahee 1979.pdf. 2.
 Angéla Kóczé. Gender, Ethnicity and Class: Romani Women’s Political Activism and Social Struggles. Central European University: Budapest, 2011. 54
 Linda Martin Alcoff. “Who’s Afraid of Identity Politics?” Accessed April 17, 2015. http://www.alcoff.com/content/afraidid.html.
 Darkmatter. A post commenting on “The Unbearable Whiteness of Indie.” Facebook. Accessed April 17, 2015. https://www.facebook.com/darkmatterpoetry?fref=ts.
 Sara Ahmed. “Welfare as Warfare”. Feministkilljoys. Accessed June 4, 2015.
 Hancock, Ian. “The Struggle for the Control of Identity.” RADOC. Accessed April 17, 2015. http://www.radoc.net/radoc.php?doc=art_d_identity&lang=en&articles=true.
 Biţu, Nicoleta, and Enikő Vincze. “Personal Encounters and Parallel Paths toward Romani Feminism.” Signs 38, no. 1, 45-46.