Reviews From clients to agents. Roma feminist activism in the special issue of Analize

Analize – Journal of Gender and Feminist Studies, New Series, Issue no. 7, 2016, The Romanian Society for Feminist Analyses AnA, 2016, 101 pages.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Bw 3:2017 82-84
Published on on November 9, 2017

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The special issue of the Romanian journal Analize — Journal of Gender and Feminist Studies, devoted to Envisioning Roma Feminism, is an important landmark in the advancement of Roma empowerment, and particularly Romani women’s activism, with a focus on “reframing Roma women from a social issue to a political subject” (15), to quote the editorial written by Carmen Georghe. Issues of Roma discrimination and Romani women’s stigmatization have been widely discussed in recent years due to their growing visibility and urgency in the European context, as well as a need for more adequate and just policies on the part of the EU and individual countries in relation to Roma. Yet even now relatively little attention is paid to significant differences between the Western European and the postsocialist genealogies, representations and agencies of Roma subjects. In its periodic attempts to assimilate the Roma (similarly to a number of the present neoliberal policies) the Socialist model with all its diversity and double standards was different from the predominant essentialist Orientalism and stigmatization of the Roma. This does not mean that it did not distort or erase Roma identifications, cultural heritage and epistemic and ethical models.

In South-East Europe, Roma history and destiny was specific and in many cases even more tragic than in other spaces. Therefore the emergence of such a special issue with the main focus on the policies of the South-Eastern European countries in relation to the Roma and Roma bottom-up social movements in response to these initiatives is quite timely and significant. The importance of its feminist bent is also hard to overestimate as the special issue takes a Roma perspective to address the topical issue of the clashes and lacunas between Western mainstream feminisms, postsocialist feminist agendas and various non-Western gender discourses that refuse to be emancipated according to legitimized feminist models.

One of the most interesting articles is written by Ildiko Asztalos Morell and refers to Roma women’s NGOs in Hungary. The author reflects on the complex and often contradictory dynamics of the Western liberal feminism flooding the postsocialist countries in the 1990s but thinning today, the local models linked with the socialist legacy of forced assimilation and at times annihilation of the Roma, and the contemporary often ultra-right and conservative Eastern/Central European states opposed to any feminist agendas. Most importantly she demonstrates how in these complex conditions the Roma women’s NGOs turn from being instruments of Western feminist indoctrination and charity, regarding Romani women exclusively as clients and not as agents (116), into quite independent social movements in which Roma women play the main part. This shift allows us to finally see, along with habitual Roma women stereotypes, their quite real problems as contemporary people and inhabitants of contemporary Europe, which regularly expels them outside modernity (in issues of education, housing, employment, healthcare, etc.). Thus instead of the habitual accent on the violence against Roma women, a much more important problem is their need for empowerment and social representation. Prostitution then becomes a consequence of poverty rather than a traditional Roma way of life, which shows that Roma women are not the proverbial subalterns who cannot speak and need to be liberated. Being well acquainted with activists of the Roma NGOs and the specific difficulties they face, and being aware of the general problem of feminists from postsocialist countries — a gap between academic feminism, where it exists, and women’s activism — the author argues for the cunning negotiating possibility of maintaining the international connectivity and the genuine interest in the real problems of real Roma women, using this intersection for the benefit of the bottom-up movements (118). This would allow negotiation between mainstream feminism, mainstream Roma organizations and the specific activism of Roma feminists.

The general methodological approaches of this article emerge from participatory sociology and working with the Roma women rather than merely for them. Yet it still needs more theoretical independence from Western interpretations, instead of merely serving as an attempt at verification of their ideas with the help of the local examples. It would perhaps be more useful to forget the Western analyses of non-Western NGOs and start immediately from the Roma cosmology, ethics, epistemology, and gender models as they are rethought in the agency of the Roma feminist activists. A better acquaintance with other global South and semi-periphery feminist initiatives would also be beneficial as a further step in the decolonization of knowledge and thinking.

This article is marked by an economic reductionism whereas the next, written by Diana Elena Neaga — “Empowering Roma women in Romania — gender or/and ethnicity”, is an example of a more culturalist interpretation. Neaga further develops and problematizes the intersectional approaches to the analyzes of Roma women. The indispensable value of this work is that the author is extremely fluent in the dynamics of figures and facts demonstrating the complex discrimination of Roma women in Romania, and at the same time accurately analyses the lacunas and voids about which these figures and standard approaches to the Roma situation are silent. The author demonstrates how exactly intersectionality functions in this particular case: what is sacrificed by Roma women in order to gain rights in a society — their Roma (ethnic-cultural) or their women’s identifications; how the women’s movements promoting traditional gender roles differ and intersect with those that challenge the power relations between genders; and why is it sometimes necessary to take a tactical position, refusing to see the feminist agenda as the main goal for the sake of coalitions with other movements and reaching the common aim of empowerment. The latter intersects with many postcolonial women’s movements, including Muslim feminism, Chinese feminism, etc. At times the author seems to simplify the situation a bit when she limits herself to only three basic original elements of intersectionality — class, race and gender — which erases some important nuances. Neaga raises a crucial problem for most minoritarian communities — that of the preservation and revival of Roma identification without sliding into essentialism, and steadily preventing any efforts at assimilation.

Marion Colard’s article “L’émancipation de la femme dans la société rom traditionnelle de Roumanie” is mostly informative and draws heavily on intersectional theory, focusing on the possible role of emancipated Roma women as champions of reconciliation of mainstream society with that of the Roma communities. Admitting that the latter still suffer from exclusion grounded in the intersection of ethnicity and poverty, which in itself is a rather incomplete portrait of Roma discrimination, the author predictably completes this list with gender and proposes a hypothesis that women with their complex discrimination can be mediators of all other forms of discrimination. However the author operates with the outdated binary opposition of the modern and traditional values, and in her interpretation the Roma woman still has to choose between or attempt to live in the two worlds (145). However, both of these worlds seem to be highly constructed and stereotyped, and the whole opposition of the traditional Roma world and contemporary modern society hardly holds. In addition, it is not clear where this work is coming from, in the sense that the author’s positionality is hidden or indirectly presented as external to the Roma — thus reproducing the much criticized scientific objectification once again.

More methodologically promising, though at times economically reductionist, is the article “The racialization of Roma in the New Europe and the political potential of Romani women” written by Eniko Vincze. This work goes beyond the national discourse of a concrete Eastern European country and addresses global geopolitical tendencies, the correlation of the old and the new (Eastern, poor) Europe, within which the Romani women’s condition becomes token money, whereas their interests remain irrelevant. The author also reflects on the dangers of depoliticization in multicultural rhetoric, distracting from the issues of social and economic inequality and offering rights on paper rather than in reality, leading to the racialization of poverty. Multiple examples of trans-border discrimination against the Roma and wider, Eastern Europeans in the EU, testify to this tendency.

Vincze understands intersectionality in a most attractive dynamic way, focusing on the important issue of the complicated double critique, which is urgent not only for Roma feminism but also for other forms of women’s activism. In this case double critique refers to the criticism of both the Western liberal distortions of Roma history and identity, and the patriarchal control within the Roma community itself, as well as the still existing blindness to the interconnections of different forms of discrimination, particularly if it refers to elements of gender and sexuality entering the Roma discussions rather late. This article becomes a reflection on the meaning and the reasons for the failures of multiculturalism and universalism. The advantage of this work is that the author is familiar with critical race theory, trans-border discrimination, critical political science, theories of nations without states and other contemporary discourses. Particularly interesting are the author’s reflections on the nature of neoliberal racism using the example of Roma discrimination in the EU. The article dwells on the shift from the orientalist annihilation to today’s progressivism and the deficiency of the human and cultural rights discourses in the analysis of the Roma situation and their instrumentalization in today’s conditions of neoliberal capitalism or, as the author puts it, making the Roma into a “useful labor force for a market economy” (162). A consequence of this policy is addressed as a specific rivalry of poverty-stricken groups in relation to their racial and cultural stigmatization. When it appears to be impossible to integrate the Roma into a neoliberal society, they are dehumanized and their lives become dispensable. One could agree with the author that the political or repoliticized intersectionality of the Roma women, in alliance with other ethnic and social groups and genders, can be an important factor in the revival of the Roma struggle for their dignity and rights of production, reproduction and representation.

The special issue also contains historical works, important for the understanding of the genealogies of today’s processes. Thus, Mihai Lucacs’ article “The Critical ones: another tale of slavery” is a thorough analysis of the phenomenon of slavery in Romani history and an effort to compare it with the African case. The parallels that are traced adequately explain the racialization of the Roma and their resistance in all historical and contemporary versions of modernity. The main mechanisms of dehumanizing African slaves and the Roma are similar, up to today’s boutique multiculturalism and excluding the neo-noble savages from modernity. The author analyzes the emergence and development of the stereotypes of Roma femininity (as an animal/biological rather than cultural condition) in the social control and reproduction of inequality. He introduces into the more accessible context the issues of specific abolitionism in relation to Roma slavery in Moldavia and Walachia, the role of the local feminists in this movement and the problematic civilizing mission in relation to the Roma, seen as passive victims of slavery, as objects and even as the ones to blame for their own enslaved condition, up to a denial of their victimhood. Lucacs dwells on the economic and social aspects of slavery and post-slavery as a condition of permanent poverty and lack of rights, and a loss of culture and identity in exchange for assimilation and questionable freedom, and attempts to explain the emergence of some criticized Roma customs (such as early marriages) by the slavery experience.

The author demonstrates an excellent knowledge of particular features of the Roma mentality, epistemology and ethics. Roma women are seen as the keepers and transmitters of this knowledge through the centuries, as those who can oppose something to the Gadje (non-Roma) view of the Roma. Even the Roma slave women are not devoid of subjectivity, and Lucacs does not see them as passive victims. On the contrary, it was through their resistance that the contours of independent Roma femininity and identity, based in its own and not imposed principles, first started to be shaped.

One of the most ethically and emotionally charged articles on intersectional and postcolonial feminist understanding of the Roma in East European societies is written not by a Roma researcher but by a European feminist anthropologist, Julia Hasdeu, in a most interesting form of a personal epistemological manifesto. For at least two decades she has been reflecting on the difficulties, distortions and silences in the collective interpretation of their experience of the Roma. She also dwells on the blindness of privileged researchers to these Roma wounds. Her position, enriched with knowledge of postcolonial theory, critical race studies and other contemporary discourses of deprivation and resistance, is combined with a deep knowledge of the factual material and a creative rethinking of theory in the light of this material. At the same time Hasdeu, is well aware and critical of her own position as a Gadje researcher, not free of racism in relation to the Roma.

Moreover, she questions the principles of anthropology as a Eurocentric, ideologically biased discipline that in the case of the Roma people ignores the issues of power, and avoids discussing events that are inconvenient for European society, such as the Roma holocaust, slavery, genocide, and today’s extreme racialization. The author focuses on the previously neglected affects, traumas, emotional reactions and subjectivities produced by and in the Roma and the changes in their racialization principles and their mediation in the temporal and political contexts. She thus successfully attempts to enrich anthropology with non-Western feminist theory. Hasdeu is marked by an attractive critical understanding of gender and a dynamic intersectionality in the interpretation of the Roma that is evident in her striving to be more silent, humble and listening, leaving space for the Roma feminists themselves (187).

The latter is quite similar to the principles of indigenous anthropology and echoes other non-Western feminist discourses, such as Muslim feminism, an interesting example of which is offered in the last article of the special issue written by Abla Hasan and devoted to a rereading of the Queen of Sheba’s story with the goal of restoring justice in the interpretation of this important figure and advancing support of female public leadership in contemporary Muslim societies.

Envisioning Roma Feminism was conceived as a timely and important special issue consisting of somewhat unequal yet generally quite interesting articles. The overall impression is slightly spoiled by an insufficiently theoretical and conceptually inept editorial, full of annoying mistakes and misprints (the journal seems to lack a good proof reader which, is obvious in several articles, but especially in the editorial). For example ‘essentialism’ in the interpretation of the Roma women is mistakenly called ‘existentialism’. In addition to this, the editorial does not offer anything conceptually new or original, except for reproducing the same basic intersectionality discourse once again. It is largely a result of the relatively recent discovery of this concept by Roma feminists and its interpretation as a step forward in relation to identity politics or assimilation. But this seems to be the main mistake — it is much more rewarding not to apply someone else’s categories but rather to create or recreate one’s own. And several authors of this special issue attempted to do just that. Hopefully this important work will be continued in the future. ≈


  • by Madina Tlostanova

    Professor of postcolonial feminism at the Department of Thematic Studies (Gender studies) at Linköping University. Previously professor of philosophy at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, also previously professor of history of philosophy at the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia. The author of eight scholarly books, over 250 articles and two postcolonial novels, Tlostanova focuses on non-Western gender theory, decolonial and postcolonial theory, and postsocialist studies.

  • all contributors

Analize – Journal of Gender and Feminist Studies, New Series, Issue no. 7, 2016, The Romanian Society for Feminist Analyses AnA, 2016, 101 pages.