Feminist Roma Women Defending their Rights in Spain
FRIDAY FILE - “When we speak of Roma women, discrimination becomes three-fold: for being women, for being Roma and for belonging to an ethnic minority”, say Maria José Jiménez Cortiñas and Aurora Fernández, President and Secretary of Asociación Gitanas Feministas por la Diversidad (AGFD)[i] , who AWID interviewed to learn how Roma feminist women work to tackle the discrimination they face on a daily basis.
By Gabby De Cicco
AWID: Why did you establish Asociación Gitanas Feministas por la Diversidad (AGFD)?
Aurora Fernández (AF): One reason was to fight against Roma women’s multiple discrimination, and invisibility syndrome, as an insurmountable barrier for our political and social participation. It renders us unable to influence cultural, social and government decisions. The result is that we are not allowed to fully exercise our citizenship.
Maria José Jiménez Cortiñas (JJC): Our work also seeks to promote real and effective equality between Roma women and men, at the socio-psychological, work and political levels, as well as in all aspects contributing to our personal development and growth. This is why we seek to identify and promote Roma women’s skills and competencies, as a way to legitimize our role as proactive agents of multidimensional and interdisciplinary change and transformation within our culture.
We want to make the identity, gender and sexual diversity that exist in our culture visible and legitimate, revealing that each person is unique and different but at the same time an indispensable component of our culture and the broader society. We seek to encourage and strengthen a European Roma identity that will lead to an effective and real exercise of our citizenship.
AWID: How do carry-out this work?
AF: We have designed different strategies according to the context, from workshops to awareness-raising groups, taking actions to make our rights visible and to claim them. These activities are not only aimed at the Roma population but also at mainstream society and public institutions. One of these activitiestook place on April 8, International Roma Day, when we read our Manifesto and highlighted, in a round table, several of the issues we are discussing here.
AWID: What is Roma Feminism about?
AF and JJC: Grounded in democracy, it seeks to build effective equality between Roma women and men. Feminism requires a transformational political process that allows Roma women to act and eliminate the different unequal situations that we endure within and outside Roma communities. We would like to see a shift in class-consciousness that leads us to act together.
AWID: What is the triple discrimination that Roma women face and how does it affect them?
AF: Let us first consider discrimination against Roma people. It is based on the detestation towards our people, and results in an indubitable invisibility. Roma women and men are often discussed based on stereotypes and biases that ridicule and marginalize us. The identity features of an age- old people having a common language, anthem, flag and idiosyncrasy, and that has made significant and important cultural contributions to mainstream societies, are not recognized or respected. When we speak of Roma women discrimination becomes three-fold: for being women, Roma and belonging to an ethnic minority.
If we consider the “image” of Roma women, things get even worse. Throughout history and currently in the media, Roma women are portrayed in three ways. The first and most widely exploited in current TV shows[ii], is as ridiculed, illiterate and ignorant beings, totally deprived of any fashion sense, who only know how to give birth to kids, clean, sing and dance. The second is the poetic image of the pure, submissive, tender, care-giving and fertile Roma woman. And the third is the Flamenco dancer, the artist, taboo-breaker, that has become the “Roma but” – that is, society acknowledges her as Roma but she does not fit into the traditional, stereotypical model.
All this comes into play, for instance, when a Roma woman applies for a job. The stereotyped, biased assumption is that she is lazy, a thief, a liar, uneducated, etc. In Spain, most businessmen and women are unwilling to hire Roma women and men - their ethnicity weighs more than their resume.
JJC: AGFD wants to deconstruct the distorted image of us, and together build a new feminist approach grounded in the acknowledgement of our identity. We also want to advocate for Roma women’s needs and concerns to be integrated into the broader Feminist agenda, addressing not only labor issues but also gender-based violence against Roma women, from perspectives that contribute to its complete eradication.
AWID: How are patriarchal mandates regarding the family, and sexual and reproductive rights being confronted within Roma communities?
AF: Roma communities are an exact reflection of mainstream societies and as such strategies have to be agreed upon by all stakeholders, as much as possible. As in all patriarchal societies, changes are never easy. Organizations like ours play a key role in transforming, raising awareness and moving towards a real, effective and fair democratic society. Our organization seeks to create small circles for women’s collective reflection that will become transformation agents and the vanguard of a Roma Feminist movement.
AWID: Is there any kind of work being done within your communities with lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex persons (LGBTI)?
AF: This is highly invisibilised among Roma youth and adults, but they have more tools to access different platforms and organize, etc. AGFD contributes to, supports and participates in European-level initiatives that address this and other issues directly affecting Roma youth. One of them is the “Forum of European Roma Young People” (Feryp). Another organization working on these issues is Ververipén, Rroms por la Diversidad”.
AWID: Fundación Secretariado Gitano (FSG) reported that eight out of ten university graduates are women, but only 2% of Roma women access that education level. At primary school level, dropout rates for Roma girls are high. What needs to change for making access to and completion of school equitable?
AF: The first thing that needs to change is the Spanish educational system. For Roma students, it becomes very hard to spend hours in an educational setting where our people’s history, language, culture and contributions to mainstream culture are not reflected in any of the textbooks approved by the Spanish State. Most teachers are not trained and lack the necessary resources to work properly with their diverse students, and Roma students get bored, frustrated and finally drop out. Education is one of our main areas of work, it is very clear to us that we need to work with schools to show why there is a need to amend the laws.
AWID: In 2011, the European Commission adopted a European Union (EU) Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies mandating member States to submit their own National Strategies on an annual basis. Does this Framework include a gender perspective that will facilitate implementing policies that take women’s rights into consideration within this broader framework?
AF: National Roma integration strategies have been developed for several years. The problem is that, when EU member states incorporate them, as in the case of Spain, they don’t do what is needed for the strategies to be effective and actually reach the Roma population. The national integration strategies are reduced in ways that aggravate and perpetuate the lack of advancement for Roma populations. The same programs have been reproduced year after year, with the same goals, but these projects have never been designed, developed and evaluated by professional technicians who are also Roma. It is a classic case of for the Roma but without the Roma.
A gender perspective has not been explicitly included, nor have there ever been specific measures aimed at promoting Roma feminism. Women are marginally mentioned in the area of education and work. The data that FSG has circulated on education (quite a bleak scene) show us how little success these national strategies are having.
For further reading:
v Roma demanding equality and human rights. http://www.amnesty.org/en/roma
[i] Feminist Roma Women Association for Diversity based in Madrid, Spain
[ii] Shows like “Palabra de gitano” (Spain) or “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”.