La Représentation. René MAGRITTE (1898–1967)

Roma Women’s Voices

The Roma population in Greece does not constitute a homogenous group. There are notable differences between each community. Some of them are more integrated into society, while others remain in the outskirts of cities and Greek civilization. They self-identify as “Greek Tsiganoi/Athiganoi or Greek Roma”, terms that are politically correct compared to their former identification; Gypsies (Yiftoi), a derogatory term which carries negative connotations of dirty, evil and dark-skinned people. There are various Bulgarian, Romanian and Muslim groups who are even more isolated than Greek Roma.

According to David Close (2009) in his article: Divided Attitudes to Gypsies in Greece, many opinion surveys show that the Roma population are the ethnic group which occupies the last rank in the social structure of Greek society. They are situated even lower than Albanians, an ethnicity which has always been the primary recipient of racism in Greece. Many Roma in Greece have to struggle with the lack of access to adequate housing, to healthcare, to the job market, and education. Their inhumane living conditions, much worse than any other vulnerable social group in Greece, lead to a lower life expectancy and higher levels of poverty. One thing that is worth mentioning is that the Greek government does not acknowledge the status of ethnic minorities, apart from the Muslim minority. Although the use of the term “minority group” is acceptable in Europe, Greek Roma do not feel this term represents them. Thus, they prefer the designation: “vulnerable social group”, members of Greek society, who are forgotten and mistreated.

There are many reasons responsible for the perpetuation of racism towards Roma. One of them is the misrepresentation they face. The Roma have been stigmatized and excluded from the socio-political context of Greek society. They are often accused of drug-trafficking, violence, child abductions and petty theft. The media and the press are equally to blame for cultivating this negative image of Roma, this negative “visibility” (a pertinent term borrowed by Elvira Krithari: 2018), and the increase of racist speech towards them. During my research for this article, I simply googled the situation of Roma in Greece. The results were deafening. The news spoke mainly about child abductions, Roma women who were victims of domestic violence, etc.

The Greek Roma are fighting a battle against constant racist attitudes and hate speech. A significant number of Greek citizens express openly, in public, without any moral hesitations, their hostility towards Roma. They do not hesitate to comment on their dirtiness and impurity, their criminal nature and blaming them for choosing this lifestyle, along with their refusal to integrate into society.

Then, there is a more subtle form of racism, the denial of racism towards Roma. It can be read between the lines in everyday speech, for example, the certainty of Greeks that Roma people receive equal opportunities to them. Whether they use the opportunities offered to them, it’s their responsibility. The statement that often accompanies this rhetoric is that they refuse to educate their children and condemn them to an uneducated life, riddled with poverty, making them social pariahs. The logic behind this statement is that since they do not fulfil their duties towards society, they should not expect to have the same rights as other social groups do. However, Roma parents understand the importance of education for their children. ( ERRC/GHM: 161). Another statement articulated in everyday speech is that they passively receive help, such as welfare and health care. Still, they do not pay taxes or contribute in any other way in society. Even the jobs they have are illegal; they work in open-air markets called “laikes agores”, scavenge from rubbish dumps, manufacture metalware, repair old furniture.

There are many incidents, indicative of the racism and the negative portrayal of Roma in our collective conscience. A recent example that illustrates better the denial of racism manifested in Greek society is the case of a Roma settlement, in the city of Larisa, where 35 people were sick with COVID-19. The Roma did not trust the government and its health officials and refused to leave the settlement. Their reaction is understandable as it is unclear up to this point whether they were informed about the seriousness of COVID-19 by government officials and the precautions they should have taken. The situation escalated, and the police intervened. The sick people got transferred to the hospitals, and the Roma settlement remained in quarantine for 14 days.

The situation of Roma women is particularly challenging as their lack of access to proper healthcare leads to higher cases of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Dr. Moraitou, after conducting field research in the quality of healthcare provided to Roma women found out that 87,5 of them have lost one child, many of them had to give birth without the presence of doctors, with only the help of midwives, in unsanitary conditions. Due to being ignored by health officials, 32,4% of them did not know the use of Papanikolaou test.

The questions being raised are whether there is a use for feminism in identifying identity and gender relations in Roma when they are struggling to cover their basic needs.

In this environment of fear and hostility, how can feminism help to improve the quality of life of Roma women? Roma women are caught between two worlds, in a battle between their ethnic identity and their gender identity. Many Roma women often misinterpret feminism as a condemnation of men and, by extension, their Roma identity. For Roma women, their sense of duty towards the community and their family is what makes them who they are. They must preserve this identity and not get corrupted by the “others”. Their long history of persecution and forced sterilizations can explain this fear of assimilation and white people.

Roma women face violence and discrimination both from their ethnic group and from society. The women who find a sense of belonging in feminism, face the backlash of the community, by having their identity and values as a “Roma” woman questioned. Apart from the intra-community oppression they face, there is also the matter of racism, when they reveal their ethnicity to the outside world. On the other hand, Roma scholars and activists argue for the incompatibility of white feminism to their reality. They feel that the feminist conversations articulated about them do not convey their needs, are elitist and unpragmatic. Romani feminists also think that they are excluded from feminist discourses and that the ones talking about them are other women, non-Romani “experts” in the field of Roma feminism.

In the words of Ethel C. Brooks, a Roma scholar talking about the Possibilities of Romani Feminism, “ We (the Roma) are a transnational minority and exist in the interstices of the nation-state, vulnerable to its shifts in war, legal structures, and border making — yet without any true recourse to the international as a way of redressing the discrimination, displacement, and, at some points, genocide, that we face.” Intersectional feminism is an approach that could change the way we view and talk about the rights and needs of Roma women, because it manages to capture their position between two cultures, two worlds. Intersectional theory is a tool which if used correctly, could help Roma women build new alliances and empowering them to make their own decisions and strengthen their activism. By doing so, they will discover a new version of solidarity, one drawn with their terms, inside and outside their community. The only way for feminist activists and policies which aim to improve the social status of Roma women is to change the discussion and adopt a new point of view, one that puts Roma women to the centre of the conversation, allowing them to participate in the decision making and the policies that concern them. It is unfathomable how the Greek government expects from Roma to be more favourable to the idea of integration when it refuses to sit down and discuss with them. We should aim to give back to them their power, allowing them to discover the value of their image and identity inside and outside their ethnic group (Munoz n.d.).

Roma women have been disempowered for a very long time, their rights neglected, living as pariahs, facing racial discrimination when they dare to reveal their identity. The solution should come from the inside. Roma women should be included in creating a version of feminism that works for them, addressing the needs of their community. Feminist activists can focus on adopting a new, inclusive attitude where Roma women are not excluded from the discussion on their needs. We should understand the importance of being less judgmental, not overcrowding them with questions about their identity and gender equality. It is crucial to keep in mind when we talk about Roma feminism that their culture remains on the outside of Greek culture. If we manage to approach them by taking account of their “otherness” and by not enforcing our own feminist beliefs on them, there is hope for change.

We should not view them as powerless and helpless but instead, encourage them to find their voice and contribute to the creation of a more egalitarian Roma community. Roma women have a value outside their ethnic and social identities. They are essential allies to our collective battle for the elimination of all systems of oppression, and they should be treated as such. Our concern should be to transform the negative “visibility” of Roma to a positive “visibility”, where they have rediscovered their humanness, as essential members of Greek society.

References:

Batsiotis, Lambros. (2014). “Balkan Roma immigrants in Greece: An initial approach to the traits of a migration flow”, International Journal of Language, Translation and Intercultural Communication, 2: 1–17.

Brooks Ethel C. (2012). “The Possibilities of Romani Feminism,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 38(1): 1–11.

Close, David. (2010). “Divided Attitudes to Gypsies in Greece”, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 14: 207–215.

Daskalaki, Ivi. (2003). “Greek-Gypsy identity and the relationship between Greek-Gypsies and the state”, 1st LSE PhD Symposium on Social Science Research on Greece 2003, 1–24, http://www.lse.ac.uk/europeaninstitute/research/hellenicobservatory/pdf/1st_symposium/daskalaki.pdf.

Ελληνική Δημοκρατία. (2009). «Έκθεση και προτάσεις για ζητήματα σχετικά µε την κατάσταση και τα δικαιώματα των Τσιγγάνων στην Ελλάδα», Εθνική Επιτροπή για τα Δικαιώματα του Ανθρώπου, Αθήνα, http://www.nchr.gr/images/pdf/apofaseis/roma/Apofasi_EEDA_Tsigganoi_2009_FINAL.pdf.

Gheorghe, Carmen. (2016). “Editorial: Envisioning Roma Feminism”, Analize — Journal of Gender and Feminist Studies, 7: 15–18.

Krithari, Elvira. (2018). ‘Roma In Greece: Another Story Of Invisibility’, Medium, https://medium.com/athenslivegr/roma-in-greece-another-story-of-invisibility-68fd91478832.

Ljungberg, Jasmine. (2018). “Lessons from Roma Feminism in Europe: Digital Storytelling Projects with Roma Women Activists from Romania, Spain and Sweden”, (Thesis), University of Gothenburg, 1–76.

Moraitou, M. (2010). “Health of Gypsy women in Greece”, Interscientific Health Care, 2(3): 122–131.

Munoz, Trinidad. (n.d.). “Gypsy Women in the 21st century: Crisis or Opportunity?”, Vidas Gitanas Lungo Drom, https://www.accioncultural.es/virtuales/vidasgitanas/pdf_eng/vidas_git_art3_mujeres_eng.pdf.

Theodosiou, Aspasia. (2011). “Multiculturalism and the catachresis of otherness: Settling Gypsies, unsettling Gypsy belongings”, Critique of Anthropology, 31(2): 89–107.

Feminist disabilities advocate. French/English teacher who is passionate about integrating the visual arts into language teaching and women’s rights