Esmeralda takes over the Internet : How social media has helped Romani women to reclaim visibility
Émilie Herbert-Pontonnier (@romani.herstory), Belgium
The exotic "Gypsy" heroine born under the pen of the French literary giant Victor Hugo and popularized by Disney studios with their Hunchback of Notre Dame. In the beloved animated film, Esmeralda is a dark-skinned woman with thick black hair and eyebrows. Gold jewellery, a low-cut and off-the-shoulder bodice, long colorful skirts and a tambourine complete her look and have contributed to shaping an image of Romani femininity that has remained popular since the release of the film in 1996.
As a French woman of Romani descent, who was born in 1986, I cannot pretend that my childhood was not marked by The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I watched the cartoon when I was ten and at that time, Esmeralda was the only Romani female role model in popular culture that I could look up to. She did not reflect my experience but vaguely resembled my mother and, most importantly, was my only option in a world of white-skinned, blue-eyed Disney princesses.
The Romani roots of my maternal family were something my parents advised me not to discuss publicly — and especially not at school. In the popular imagination, Roma were (and still are) frequently associated with lawlessness and disorder. My identity was then defined by secrecy, shame and intergenerational trauma. I would later discover that such secrecy is quite common among Romani families: by prompting their children to hide their ethnicity, parents are protecting them from a world that has historically been hostile to their prescribed Otherness. It is a survival strategy.
The representation of Romani women in popular culture has not improved in twenty years. In many countries across Europe, Roma still face social exclusion, lack of access to quality healthcare services or education, as well as challenges in finding employment and proper housing. Romani women are statistically more likely to experience sexual assault and abuse than non-Roma. Media has largely helped to shape an image of Romani femininity that either fetishizes Romani women (as fortune tellers, witches or exotic mythical creatures) or discredits them (as dirty and illiterate beggars).
The scarcity and whitewashing of Romani female characters within popular culture has contributed to denying our most basic humanity.
Yet, Romani women are an essential part of European societies: as citizens, artists, scientists, writers, activists, Romani women have contributed to improving their environment in a myriad of ways. Many of them have made their mark in disciplines as varied as the arts, politics, STEM or fashion. We are not at all suffering from a lack of positive role models: we are suffering from a lack of visibility.
As a proud feminist, I have always been interested in the idea of reclaiming the history we were written out of as women, of writing our own HERstory, centered around our experiences. So when, on International Women’s Day 2020, I opened up the photo-sharing platform Instagram to create a new account, I naturally named it @romani.herstory. I had little experience with social media — in fact, I don’t even own a smartphone, something that I quickly realized would be problematic ! —, but I hoped that @romani.herstory could somehow help to pluralize Romani women’s representations. Two to three times a week, I write and publish a short biography recounting the life journey of a woman of Romani descent, an unsung heroine or trailblazer who refuses to conform to stereotypes. On this account, you will find the story of Panna Cinka, the 18th-century Hungarian violinist who challenged the gender conventions of her time; Swedish politician and human rights activist Soraya Post; the two Serbian actresses and rappers Simonida and Sandra Selimović or the extraordinary 19th-century wild beast tamer Ellen Chapman, who was also known under her stage name, "Madame Pauline De Verre, the Lady of the Lions".
I chose Instagram because it allowed me to offer short, accessible and compelling portraits, which could potentially reach a wide and diverse audience. Soon I had to make time to answer the daily messages of support that were sent from — primarily, though not exclusively — Romani women. I am regularly sent the names of women whose story my "followers" would like to see published on the account. Launching @romani.herstory made me realize that alternative and collaborative forms of knowledge production could be built online and, on a personal level, it has helped me to shape with more confidence my identity as a young woman of Romani descent living in a digital era.
The internet and social media have enabled Romani women to create new patterns of activism and to connect beyond geographical borders.
Women coming from all walks of life can now interact more easily and share strategies of resistance while bonding over various elements of a shared ethnic and cultural heritage. Online social networks, in particular, offer the opportunity to create new definitions and new images of Romani culture, otherwise largely invisible in mainstream media.
Romani women take an active part in this change of paradigms and, through their conversations, embody what they otherwise seem so rarely allowed to be in the dominant media:
funny, creative, smart, playful, curious, complex and supportive of each other. By claiming these virtual spaces, we are affirming that our existence is valuable, in a world that has largely been denying it for centuries.
However, I am aware that the celebration of things like the @romani.herstory Instagram account might appear as somewhat elitist to vulnerable Romani women, who may have more pressing issues than scrolling down the social network. Furthermore, many Roma may not have access to communication technologies or may lack the digital literacy required to effectively use social media. In other words, Romani girls that I wish my "herstories" could inspire may simply never be able to read them.
This is why, two months after launching @romani.herstory, I decided to push the project further and to create a Ko-Fi account. Ko-Fi is like a virtual tip jar: the platform allows anyone with a PayPal account to donate a small amount of money for a piece of content they appreciate. I decided that each month, I would donate whatever amount had been collected on Ko-Fi to a different grassroots organisation helping vulnerable Romani groups, with a particular focus on those working towards Romani women and girls' empowerment. The first organisation I wanted to donate to was E-Romnja, a Romanian association for Romani women's rights, which was created in 2012. At that moment, E-Romnja was collecting money for their "COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund", which aimed to provide supplies, groceries, non-perishables, diapers, soap, disinfectant and other basic necessities to Romani families in need. The response was enthusiastic: in less than four days, my initial target of 100 euros had been reached, with donations ranging from 1 to 30 euros, everyone participating within their means. Albeit virtual, the fundraising campaign meant that the project could become more grounded in social reality and therefore more effective to build collective, feminist and inclusive solutions to improve Romani women’s lives everywhere.
I don’t want to fall into the trap of technological utopianism and pretend that new technologies will solve all the problems of antigypsyism overnight – in fact, online hate speech towards Roma and Travellers continue to be a concern for most of us. But digital technologies and social media help us create social change and visibility beyond the stereotypical representations that the dominant media continue to use to describe our experiences.
Our realities cannot be silenced anymore: Esmeralda has taken over the Internet and is reclaiming her seat at the table.
“Si las marronas lo permiten”
Nayare Soledad Otorongx Montes Gavilan (@paellaypaelle), Madrid, Spain
In a racist state whose name I do not want to remember, lived the color of the earth, the color of gold, the color of the sacred. We protect our bodies ourselves.
“Fabrics, Passion, and Rebellious Fashion”
Salma Soliman (@salamii360), Los Angeles, USA
My existence is both a form of rebellion and rejection. I am constantly creating my own blueprint on how to exist in this world - one that’s on my terms. My wardrobe embodies creativity, vibrancy, and confidence that actively works to reject patriarchal and capitalist structures and norms.