Contesting Myths and Struggling Realities

Angela Kocze, Professor at Wake Forest University, poses for an environmental portrait on Monday, April 25, 2016.Angéla Kóczé is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Wake Forest University. She is also a research fellow at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Institute of Sociology, and an affiliated research fellow at the Center for Policy Studies of Central European University. Angela heads Institutionalization of Romani Politics After 1989 in Hungary, a research project funded by the Hungarian Social Research Fund. In 2013, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington D.C. honoured Kóczé with the Ion Ratiu Democracy Award for her interdisciplinary research approach which combines community engagement and policy making with in-depth participatory research on the situation of Roma.


Sardelic & Kocze - image of JulijaJulija Sardelic is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the School of Law and Social Justice, University of Liverpool. She is also affiliated with the European University Institute as a Max Weber Fellow. Her research is focused on the position of Romani minorities. She is interested in the position of Romani individuals particularly as citizens and migrants. She is conducting a socio-legal research on the impact of the ‘refugee crisis’ on Roma. From September 2017, she will be a Marie Curie Fellow at the KU Leuven focusing on ‘invisible edges of citizenship’ and how they effect the position of Romani minorities in Europe.



One of the well-known characters in European literature is the seductive and exotic Carmen, a Romani woman. She was most famously portrayed by two French men: by the writer Prosper Mérimée and the composer Georges Bizet. Their depiction of Carmen embodies virtually all the stereotypes and myths about Romani women in their (but also today’s) societies. These societies still produce a textual and discursive canon that determines the performance of Romani women. Both in Mérimée’s novella and Bizet’s opera, Carmen is a beautiful woman who is a free-spirit and who transgresses the boundaries of a patriarchal society: she lives on the margins involved in different petty criminal activities; she is frivolous in her sexuality; and she can tell fortunes. In both cases, she paid for her ‘transgression’, which was essentially that of being a Romani woman, with death. She was killed as a vain Romani woman who refused a white man, a symbol of patriarchy.

Such folkloristic tales do have an effect on today’s perception of Romani women. Romani women are still considered a danger and even a threat in most European societies. To understand the root causes of their persecution and stereotyping, we have to analyse the content and function of the metanarrative that legitimates a particular claim about Romani women. Jean-Francois Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition examines and critiques the metanarrative, as a discourse that produces and legitimizes a specific perspective and meanings of a larger narrative manifested in a local context. So, in some respects, the discourse on the Romani woman as unpredictable, transgressive and dangerous, or even as evil witch, reflects on her perceived transcendent power over men. It also reflects the operation of the discourse used as justification to delegitimize and marginalize Romani women in their everyday lives.

The discourse on Romani women has developed through literary texts such as the novella La Gitanilla by Miguel de Cervantes (1613), the poem The Gypsies by Alexander Pushkin (1827) and Mérimée’s novella Carmen (1847), mentioned above, adapted into various art works, including the famous opera by Georges Bizet. These important texts create a literary canon that portrays Romani women as characters. Yet at the same time they develop a Romani female archetype that goes beyond the realm of literature. It creates a canon that is widely used within everyday discourse, in the media and even in academic texts to provide the infrastructure which grounds the Roma as a group and Romani women in particular as the European internal ‘Others’.

The manifestation of this pernicious canon is most traceable in the media. Romani women epitomise two media portrayals. First, they are presented as unwanted, dirty and threatening, for example, as ‘benefit tourists’ exploiting more generous welfare systems in the European Union or as beggars on the streets. Secondly, they are also represented as wild, free-spirited, serendipitous, magical women who still threaten the emasculation of patriarchy. Despite the aesthetic difference, in both cases they are depicted as mysterious and dangerous as well as using their power to ‘exploit’ the patriarchy.

Yet there is little or no discussion in contemporary media about what hurdles does today’s society constantly reproduces in order to ‘control’ what it perceives as the Romani woman. According to the anthropologist Svetlana Slaspak, the position of Romani women today society is marked by triple stigmatisation: their gender and sexuality, their ethnicity and their social position, which is a combination of the two first two. Such triple stigmatisation results in everyday discrimination of Romani women on the labour market and in relation to their access to education and healthcare. Nevertheless it can also have the most devastating consequences: it was only 10 years since many Romani women in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary were being forced to submit to sterilization just because they were identified as Romani women, who had an ‘uncontrollable sexuality’. While awaiting their caesarean section, usually in a great deal of pain, medical staff in the hospital would give them piece of a blank paper to sign so the procedure could begin. Little did they know that this blank paper would be used later on supposedly to prove their written consent to sterilization.

Against this backdrop, many women of Romani background, face a constant struggle being often forced to answer the question what does it mean to be a Romani woman in their everyday lives. We illustrate this with some very short case studies.

Tina Friedreich, who is just finishing her university degree in Russian and German language, had to face this while she was as student. Because of her fairer skin and hair, Tina has not usually been identified by others as a Romani woman. Once she found herself in a lecture hall listening to her fellow students giving a presentation about education of Romani children. One of her fellow students stated that their presentation did not include university level education of Roma. According to their presentation this was because of a well-known fact that there are no Roma, and especially no Romani women, who get as far as the university level education. This was considered as a joke: most students and also the professor, who was leading the seminar, laughed. Yet this was not a laughing matter for Tina. At the end of the seminar she addressed both her fellow students and the professor by identifying herself as a Romani woman. The laughter still echoing in the lecture hall was all of a sudden replaced by awkward silence as they were faced with a Romani woman who transgressed the boundaries which marked what they thought were Romani women.

Samanta Baranja is a PhD Candidate in General and Comparative Linguistics and the first Romani woman to complete a PhD programme in Slovenia. She has worked throughout her professional and academic career to turn what society considers to be her weakness into her strength. Her PhD thesis deals with the development of Romani language. For most Romani children, whose mother tongue is Romani instead of a majority language, this was a huge obstacle to their equal access to the education system: that was the reason why many of them were placed into segregated classes and even into schools for children with special needs. Instead Samanta turns this around: ‘I consider that being a native speaker of Romani is an advantage and I could not have developed my PhD thesis as well if this were not my mother tongue.’ Additionally as a researcher at the Educational Institute, she uses her knowledge to help other Romani children to integrate into the educational system in a more equal ground.

Tina likewise views growing up in a multilingual environment as helping to develop her talent for multiple languages. After finishing her degree, she wants to help refugee children with integration in society in Austria, where she now lives.

Another true story of a Romani Woman which we want to draw upon is that of Adriana (a pseudonym). Adriana is one of the first Romani girls in her community to finish high school. Throughout her high school years, she faced bullying both in her school and from her Romani peers. Both teachers and her peers have often suggested that she only goes to school for the subsidised meals and in order to be in a warm place during the winter months. They don’t give her the credit of actually wishing to pursue an education. Additionally many of her Romani peers questioned the point of getting an education, when she will not be able to get a job due to the discrimination against Roma. Adriana’s mother gave birth to her just after she finished her education in a school for children with special needs: this was also known as a ‘Roma school’ since at the time most children placed there were of Romani background. Furthermore, Adriana’s grandmother Nada never had an opportunity to access the official educational system and that was the reason she was illiterate and unable to access any kind of job in a formal labour market. Still she was able to provide enough means to take care of 10 children through different informal jobs. This is why she was perceived as a dangerous woman: a woman who was able to survive herself and provide for her family despite many severe obstacles put there on her path by the society she lived in.

Romani women who are considered as particularly dangerous are those who are either academics or activists. Rebecca (also a pseudonym) defines herself as a scholar-activist. She belongs to the very few first generation high school graduates in her family. But she then went on to earn a PhD. She says that she has struggled to be recognized as a women in her community as well as in the wider academic scene where Roma are still perceived as an object of various studies instead of people who have an agency to shape the language and academic discourse around and about them. ‘I believe that the perception about me is largely shaped by the social and cultural canon about Romani women. Being an educated, critical, feminist Romani women, I use to be demonized by the Romani patriarchy and also by the non-Romani power-structure in some specific settings. My subverted existence as Romani woman is perceived as a threat to any authority (not exclusively male) that based their power on the classic mechanism of patriarchy.’ As Rebecca pointed out, the subversion of the Romani women stereotypes plays an important role in challenging patriarchy, but at the same time strengthen and enrich the representation of ‘dangerous’ women. Rebecca also talks self-reflexively about how Romani women are supposed to behave. This is a performance imposed by a socially and culturally constructed script. ‘Sometimes, I am performing subliminally the Romani women’s canon, mainly the free-spirited, serendipitous, whose life is involving chance, coincidence, and also who has magical power to change situation’. Rebecca’s reflection is based on the notions of performativity coined by Judith Butler, who defines it as series of stylized repeated acts.

The cultural canon about Romani woman is constructed as a counterpart to the ‘benevolent white woman’ who demonstrates filial piety, chastity, innocence, obedience and approval of the white patriarchy. Romani women represent moral freedom, evilness, transgressions, arrogance and treacherous behaviour. This perceived behaviour lends legitimacy to efforts now and in the past to demonize and marginalize them as dangerous women who threaten the patriarchal infrastructure across Europe. Therefore, Romani women in their everyday lives have to be heroes: they are smart, and reflexive because they are constantly contesting the power structures of patriarchal society by irony and by putting up a mirror to reflect those structures back with the image of their very existence.

References and further reading

Brooks, E. (2012). ‘The Possibilities of Romani Feminism’. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 38(1), pp.1-11.

Kóczé, A. (2009) ‘The Limits of Rights-based Discourse in Romani Women’s Activism: The gender dimension in Romani politics’ in Contemporary Romani Politics in Europe: recognition, mobilization and participation, ed. N. Trehan and F. Sigona, London: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2009. pp. 135-159.

Kóczé, A. and Trehan, N. (2009). ‘Racism (neo-)colonialism, and social justice: The struggle for the soul of the Romani civil rights movement in post-socialist Europe’ in Racism, Post-colonialism, Europe ed. G. Huggan, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009, pp.50-77.

Kóczé, A. (2009). Missing Intersectionality: Race/Ethnicity, Gender, and Class in Current Research and Policies on Romani Women in Europe with contribution from Raluca Maria Popa, Policy Papers, CEU Center for Policy Studies, Budapest: CEU Press.

Lyotard. J (1984). The Postmodern condition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Oprea, A. (2012). ‘Romani Feminism in Reactionary Times’. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 38(1), pp.11-21.

Sardelić, J. (2015). ‘Romani Minorities and Uneven Citizenship Access in the Post-Yugoslav Space’. Ethnopolitics, 14(2), pp.159-179.

Slapšak, S. (2001). Ženske ikone 20. Stoletja. Radovljica: Didakta.

Sigona, N. (2014). ‘Campzenship: reimagining the camp as a social and political space’. Citizenship Studies, 19(1), pp.1-15.

Tomasovic. E. (2011).  ‘Robbed of Reproductive Justice: The Necessity of a Global Initiative to Provide Redress to Roma Women Coercively Sterilized in Eastern Europe’. Columbia Human Rights Law Review 41, pp. 765 -823.

van Baar, H. (2012). ‘Toward a politics of representation beyond hegemonic neoliberalism: the European Romani movement revisited’. Citizenship Studies, 16(2), pp.287-296.

Vermeersch, P. (2005). Marginality, Advocacy and the Ambiguities of Multiculturalism: Notes on Romani Activism in Central Europe. Identities, 12(4), pp.451-478.