Being a woman and Roma

by Noemí Fernández Navarro

I am thinking about Romani women who came to Spain six hundred years ago, women who wore brightly-coloured dresses, who had no objection to working outside the home and who were free or at least freer than Spanish women of the time.

I can picture those very conservative women from that feudal society. Imagine how they could have been upset because Romani men were free, how they would have viewed the fact that Romani women enjoyed freedoms that in that Spanish society were confused with licentiousness. It was not the best example of normality, Romani men and women living as equals. How could the eyes of a non-Romani woman of the time react to actions such as not putting up or hiding one’s hair? They were merely signs of a sinful life.

I personally think that Spain was not prepared for Roma, and the worst of it is that we had to give up part of our identity in order to survive.

But it should be made clear that Romani women had never been conformist, but rather had always fought against injustice. As an example of the rebelliousness of Romani women, one can refer to 16 May, Romani Resistance Day.

That day SS officers from the Auschwitz concentration camp arrived with the intention of exterminating Roma in rural areas. Romani women resisted the attack and rebelled, showing that they would not give in or submit. They used everything within their reach – bread sticks, wood sticks, iron bed posts and stones in order to stop the extermination of their people. It should be noted that this is the only case of rebellion known to have occurred at Auschwitz.

Another case of rebellion took place in Zaragoza in September 1752. At the jail of the Real Casa de Misericordia (Royal Mercy House), Romani women were not resigned to be imprisoned after their husbands had been sent to the galleys. When women arrived to the prison they did so on numerous occasions naked and barefoot as an act of rebellion, and to show that they had always been free. They thus confused the prison officials and were able to avoid the presence of priests and missionaries, as well as the obligation to attend mass. In addition, it was noted that on numerous occasions Romani women escaped from this facility – also in the nude, resulting in considerable consternation in the town.

Romani women were not submissive then, nor are they today.

According to census records from the 18th century, Romani women worked in the following trades: sellers of clothes and jewellery, artisan basket makers, laundresses, seamstresses, fritter sellers, spinning machine operators, street vendors, food product sellers, bakers, animal handlers and domestic service workers. Some also worked as jewellery brokers, and some even served as midwives. This long list of jobs demonstrates that Romani women of that time had the skills and training to enter trades. Today Romani women are present in virtually all employment spheres and sectors, although to a lesser degree than other women. However, these facts show that Romani women have a great capacity to work hard and particularly to adapt to external circumstances.

Romani women suffer from triple discrimination: they are female, they belong to a subordinate ethnic minority and they often do not have the formal training needed to enter the workforce under conditions of equality. They also suffer disadvantages with respect to other areas of social and citizen participation. We should emphasise that their lack of training can be attributed to, among other factors, the prejudiced belief that Romani women will not get far because they marry young. This is a prejudice we must be aware of which arises from attitudes held by non-Roma society which portray Romani women as being submissive.

As Rosenthal and Jacobson state in their “Pygmalion Effect” concept: “The expectations and predictions that teachers have about how students will do precisely leads to the behaviours that the teachers expected”.

I would also like to talk about sexism within Romani culture. The fact that society itself is sexist means that we must once again take the Pygmalion effect into account. Romani men reproduce the same power structures that are predominant within the non-Romani population, and included within such structures are ways of treating women. But this does not mean that Roma are a sexist people.

It will be necessary to invest plenty of hard work and determination to ensure that all these prejudices are eradicated. Allow me to offer an example: when Romani women are able to overcome this first hurdle and get a formal education, they arrive to the labour market and experience a second form of discrimination for being Roma. This discrimination extends to other areas, such as when they try to lease a flat or enter a leisure facility and are denied access for no reason.

The majority society must begin to see Roma as a heterogeneous population in which different ways of thinking, living and feeling coexist.

For this reason it is very necessary not to project stereotypes onto Romani women that make them out to exist within a single model and subject to a preconceived image of submission. We Romani women are surrounded and shaped by a variety of situations; but when we find ourselves beset by the difficulties this society imposes on us we will stand and fight.