Mentoring resilience from a Romani feminist perspective.
The work Romani feminists have endeavoured to employ in various sites around the world serves to elicit answers to the question posed by W.E. B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk: “How does it feel to be a problem?" (DuBois 1996: 3-4). 1
Rather than seeking to ‘liberate’ women from their culture, or become mired in what Saba Mahmood (2004)2 characterises as the “deeper tension within feminism attributable to its dual character as both an analytical and a politically prescriptive project", Romani feminism grapples that tension in a form akin to the double consciousness analysed (again) by DuBois:
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity" (DuBois  1996: 5). 3
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity - W.E.B. Dubois
As Romani people and as women, as Romani women and as feminists, we live this double consciousness in manifold ways. However we are now made more aware than ever of the general populace's ‘amused contempt and pity’- spilled forth from the comfort of their homes into the dreaded ‘white space’ of social media comment sections whenever there is a Roma related news story.
This confrontation is a representation of re-emerging paradigms in humiliation that the community is currently negotiating - the heightening of security measures by European state agencies (in relation to restrictions on mobility, evictions, and deportations) on one hand, and a populace who feel entitled (and are emboldened by the current political climate) to dehumanise and humiliate without impunity on the other. 4
Romani people are cosmopolitan and heterogeneous, immersed within multiple cultural formations and sites of belonging. Yet, our international standing is far from benign, for movement within and across nations is correlated and met with multiple violences, state and non-state committed. These acts of violence, now available for public consumption on social media, join the steadily growing pantheon of black and brown suffering at the hands of state agents on platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.
The international standing of Romani people is far from benign, for movement within and across nations is correlated and met with multiple violences, state and non-state committed. These acts of violence, now available for public consumption on social media, join the steadily growing pantheon of black and brown suffering at the hands of state agents on platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.
A ‘deficit inclusion’, a community only mentioned in the public space and/or media in a negative context (e.g. stereotypes of criminality, mental deficiency et al), or at social policy level as a ‘pariah nation’ or ‘problem’, has had its Romani intellectual counter-clash in the form of a certain essentialism. Our modern day DuBois, Sociologist Paul Gilroy, offers an important insight into the dangers of such a trap, and what I believe to have been an impediment in the fruition of a both Romani and feminist civil rights movement that could be instrumental in providing a grassroots online presence by and for young Roma women.
In the last of his early trilogy ‘Against Race’ (2000)5, Gilroy provocatively reinvents the notion of ‘diaspora’, linking it to a notion of culture he considered to be one of the most debilitating and destructive aspects of modern cultural and political thinking- that of ‘ethnic absolutism’. By this means, people are indelibly marked by a single and unchanging identity; culture being the mere reiteration of the ‘same’, fixed, and with a potential to become insular and homogenous. Ironically both our emancipation movements and opposing xenophobic rhetoric is steeped in this form of identification- and it’s problematic.
Economic and social exclusion have taken Roma positioned at the bottom of the social strata, particularly Romani women, into the heart of the European metropolis. Majority populations are presented with not only a physical (and/or videoed) presence of Romnija from this demographic in their daily lives, but the manifestation of their internal fears and prejudices.
Economic and social exclusion have taken Roma positioned at the bottom of the social strata, particularly Romani women, into the heart of the European metropolis. Majority populations are presented with not only a physical (and/or videoed) presence of Romnija6 from this demographic in their daily lives, but the manifestation of their internal fears and prejudices7.The ghostly presence in the psyche of the body that has never ‘fit’ or had a place in mainstream society- childhood fairy tales, the romanticised body of the captivating Esmeralda, the singing, dancing femme fatale, or the older representation of Romnija, the witch, crone, and spell caster. Real yet invisible; zombies, ghosts, presences to fear and alienate.
As a mentor of young Roma women and girls, I am constantly questioning the effects of these dilemmas, those on and off line, on their own self-empowerment. Questions of embodiment are central to the racist and sexist practices that mark the lives of Romani women and girls, thus Romani feminism has the potential to be an audible voice regarding embodiment, racialisation, sexuality, and subjectivity. All point to the importance of recognising Roma women’s activism; of our power and the possibilities opened up by the recognition of that power on the one hand, and the oppressions we face as raced, gendered, sexualised subjects on the other- in life, and online.
Visibility is the answer as ultimately, we cannot be what we cannot see. However, a homogenised representation of Roma life is not the answer either.
Visibility is the answer as ultimately, we cannot be what we cannot see. However, a homogenised representation of Roma life is not the answer, and after talking to a select group of Roma girls aged 15-17 about how they represent themselves online, I am confident that Generation Z will be the ones able to display our true diversity through their knowledge of social media and technology.
In the words of Indian feminist Uma Narayan:
“We need to move away from a picture of national and cultural contexts as sealed rooms, impervious to change, with a homogenous space “inside" them, inhabited by “authentic insiders" who all share a uniform and consistent account of their institutions and values" (Narayan (1997): 21-39). 8
And so, when I interviewed a small group of 15-17 year old Roma young women (living in Scotland, but migrants of Central European countries) on how they felt about witnessing violence against Roma online, I was given some encouragingly resilient answers. (Questions with a consensus of opinions are below).
Q1- Does it frighten you when you see violence towards Roma online, especially from your home country in particular? How does it make you feel?
A: “Ah, gadje".9
“I feel like Roma don’t have the freedom to be themselves."
“We don’t have the chance to fight back."
“When it’s from Czech Republic I can’t help but think that it could be my family".
Two interesting things are happening here. The silent resistance and counter- actualisation of the ‘ah gadje’ comment, a performance of withdrawal (and refusal) that they would have learned from their families, counterbalanced by a perspective of seeing their generation as being ‘different’, largely due to being in the diaspora away from their birth countries. The platform that negative information is heard on (or seen, social media rather than by word-of-mouth through family networks) does not seem to be of significant importance.
The platform that negative information is heard on (or seen, social media rather than by word-of-mouth through family networks) does not seem to be of significant importance for these young Roma women and girls.
Q2- Do you ever read the comments underneath these kinds of videos? How do they make you feel?
A: “Only sometimes".
“The comments are upsetting; you read things like ‘they deserve it’".
“Or things like we are ‘scum’, it’s not nice."
Q3- Sometimes I post videos of the violence to raise awareness, but I try to keep it to a minimum as I know you are all on my feeds. As a mentor (auntie) if I post videos of that nature does it make you feel unsafe? Would you rather only see my positive posts?
A: “No! People need to know!"
“Not if it’s to support fighting it or to stop it!"
“It’s important people understand what’s going on and they should be aware of it".
From questions 2 and 3 we can observe that despite their own discomfort of reading hate-speech online, they feel strongly about dissemination for the purposes of fighting discrimination.
Q4- Have you found a way to use social media so it empowers you/each other? Or do you feel it’s not the right tool for that and more ‘just for fun’?
A: “Don’t know really, it’s just a friends thing"
“If it’s something not nice we just don’t watch it. We use it for fun stuff".
Q5- So what things do you see online that do inspire you?
A- “I like seeing opportunities for Roma people."
“Like when someone has a big challenge and gets through it."
“When people are successful, like our age."
“Positive things about us."
Q6- Do you reveal your Roma identity online if you don’t know the person you are talking to?
A- “Yes, totally comfortable with that!"
“Don’t feel I have to hide that to anyone!"
“All our friends would say the same".
“We don’t read the nasty comments, but we don’t hide our identity either. Why would we?"
From their courageous and defiant responses, especially in terms of cultural pride and self- identification, I see an evolution from how their parents’ generation might have responded. Previously in terms of social mobility, Romani women were frequently fighting many internal processes to forge a less traditional path than their matrilineal forbears resulting, in many cases, the choice to not reveal their Roma identity.10
Romani women were frequently fighting many internal processes to forge a less traditional path than their matrilineal forbears resulting, in many cases, the choice to not reveal their Roma identity. By contrast, the young women interviewed are not afraid to tell their stories.
By contrast, the young women interviewed are not afraid to tell their stories. However, the gap identified is the need for a positive, autonomous and youth-led media base that is truly grassroots and outside current silos of Roma organisation. As we continue the conversation, gathering inspiration from other youth movements (especially Indigenous movements) who have created their own networks, I look forward to the future of guiding and watching these young women grow as community leaders- and what Generation Z will create with technology and a whole lot of attitude at their fingertips.
I look forward to the future of guiding and watching these young women grow as community leaders- and what Generation Z will create with technology and a whole lot of attitude at their fingertips.
*Image still taken from video of PSV Eindhoven fans harassing Roma women in Madrid. Re-rendering of image by Namita Aavriti.
1 DuBois, W.E.B. ( 1996) The Souls of Black Folk, Penguin Classics. (Go back)
2Mahmood, Saba. (2004) Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, Princeton University Press. (Go back)
4 From authors own work (2017) Intersections of Feminist Romani Resistance: Building the next Transnational, Diasporic, Indigenous feminist agenda– A Roma/ First Nations/ Dalit coalition. Feminist Futures issue of SID's Journal 'Development' (Society for International Development). (Go back)
5Gilroy, Paul. (2002) Against Race, Harvard University Press. (Go back)
7Please refer to the following video examples-
PSV Eindhoven fans humiliate Roma women in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor- http://elpais.com/elpais/2016/03/16/inenglish/1458140287_047764.html accessed 22nd July 2017
Czech Sparta football fan urinates on Roma woman- http://metro.co.uk/2016/03/18/video-shows-football-fan-urinating-on-home... accessed 22nd July 2017. (Go back)
8Narayan, Uma. (1997) Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminism, New York: Routledge. (Go back)
9A word for non-Roma people, usually indicating the white majority. All said the above simultaneously and laughed. The phrase is a default survival strategy we use as a community, alongside humour, so I expected this initial response. (Go back)
10 Please refer to interview (2011) Enisa Eminovska. http://www.romawoman.org/?page=article&id=256 Accessed 22nd July 2017. (Go back)
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