Resilience in the Face of Racial Antagonism: Romani Women's Voices

By: Sebijan Fejzula

Resilience in the Face of Racial Antagonism: Romani Women’s Voices

Confessions of a mother,

Not just any mother, a Romani mother, a racialized mother,

a non-white mother,

who intimately holds the fear of raising a child

in a so-called democratic world where

a white, blond blue-eyed child has more value

than those with darker skin.

It is that intimate fear that one more Roma child

will have to face racism during their entire life,

as did and still do many Roma,

Many non-white people.

It’s also that type of fear that gives you strength

to keep fighting against such so-called democratic world.

No other option,

but to point out the hypocrisy of human rights,

rule of law, the justice system. Cuz they failed us!

It is the fear that turns into an obligation to fight,

to do better, to be a better person,

to not sell yourself for a couple of euros,

cuz our children deserve better.

A year and a half ago I gave birth to my first baby girl, Sofia. When she was only two weeks old I wrote and published the aforementioned text/poem. As women, we understand the weight of becoming a new mother, especially when giving birth in a foreign country far away from the support and care of our family. The fear of facing the multifaceted challenges of motherhood is already an emotional, physical and psychological burden that women often bear. However, the fear I attempted to convey in the poem is different—it is the fear of racism, a fear that only non-white, racialized mothers can truly comprehend and relate to because it has deeply influenced our generational experiences. It’s the fear of raising a child in an anti-Roma/Black/Muslim Europe, where our children are not viewed or treated as children but rather as per white imaginary and racist fiction that primarily hinges on notions of superiority. This sense of superiority is an integral component of racism, defined by Audre Lorde as “the belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all other and thereby the right to dominance, manifest and implied.”[1] (2018: 22).

This racial fear is the driving force behind the poem. In my case, I am not sure if poetry is as vital a necessity for my existence as Lorde suggests, but I do concur with her that “poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives” (p. 3). Racialized mothers are acutely aware that this fear is not random; it’s an integral facet of the interlocking structures of race and gender that have historically governed our lives, resulting in systemic, ongoing, and normalized violence. Shockingly, data from 2021 shows that Romani women have an average life expectancy 11 years shorter than that of women in the majority population (FRA, 2022)[2]. As we delve into the history of Roma slavery, Samudaripen (Roma holocaust), forced sterilization of Romani women, and various other anti-Roma events, we uncover the undeniable role of whiteness as the foundation of Europe. This whiteness systematically dehumanizes the Roma body, rendering it non-human, something to be feared and controlled. This dehumanization takes on modern forms, including labor exploitation, ghettoization, racial profiling, physical violence, and, in some instances, even death.  Lastly, the so-called “Roma integration” policies have converted us into an object of intervention[3]­—In my analysis, these policies fail to effectively address the urgent need for combating structural anti-Roma racism and pursuing emancipatory projects for collective liberation. Instead of acknowledging race and racism as primary contributors to racial inequality, these Roma targeted policies, over the past two decades, have consistently positioned Roma individuals as objects in need of correction or repair, thus impeding any real prospects for meaningful change.

For instance, while there are numerous reports discussing the educational underachievement of Roma children, very few, if any, address the violence that our children endure. I am not only referring to the omission of significant historical events such as the Samudaripen, La Gran Redada (the general imprisonment of Spanish Roma in 1749 by the Spanish Monarchy), and Roma slavery from European educational materials. I am also alluding to the various forms of violence that leave an indelible mark on our children from a very young age—the mark of being labeled as “the other.” A few years ago, I met a 20 year-old Roma boy from Madrid, and we discussed the different types of violence he faces when he leaves his home. This violence ranges from police harassment in street markets to racial profiling in the metro. However, one particular memory stood out. He was only nine years old when he attended a history class, during which his history professor used Roma culture as an example to illustrate what an uncivilized culture is, and how all Roma men are supposedly macho and violent toward Romani women. In response, he bravely stood up and said, “That is not true; my father is not like that.” This story always stays with me. Another story that has stayed with me for nearly a decade is one my husband shared with me. He used to teach in educational centers considered “dysfunctional” or “problematic,” where Roma and other racialized children were often placed. One day, he posed a typical question to the children: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The response from a Roma child was disheartening: “I don’t know what I want to be, but I know what I don’t want to be—a Roma.” The system had already made sure that this child was acutely aware that his identity and culture were deemed a “problem” for society. Regrettably, these examples could be representative of the experiences of many Roma and racialized children, illustrating the violence they endure during their early educational journeys. As we grow, academia continues to perpetuate different forms of violence. When we write, we are often labeled as “too emotional” or “not scientific enough.” Power dynamics are normalized, and racism, a lived reality for many, is rarely discussed. Here, I want to emphasize that these forms of violence are often invisible in reports on “Roma failure in education.” Instead, Roma parents and their culture are frequently blamed for these failures. This blame results in the systemic control of Romani women through social services interventions, reinforcing their categorization as “bad mothers” and “unfit mothers.” This is the relationality of the racial system and its institutions.

So, in the context of the fear of raising a child in an institutionally racist environment, we must ask how we can trust a system that has repeatedly failed us. Examples abound, such as the long struggle of Romani women in Macedonia to secure a gynecologist in Shuto Orizari, a Roma municipality in Skopje, because no one wanted to provide check-ups to Romani women. In maternity centers, we are either denied access to healthcare or subjected to racial comments like “oh you Romani women have so many children.” Even these examples of racial violence against Romani women are largely excluded from reports and policy-oriented approaches, not to mention being overlooked by white feminist movements, as if race was non-existent, as if race was non-intersectional with gender, as if I am not a Roma and a woman! Helios Fernández Garcés, a Roma intellectual and poet, captures this struggle well with the verses from his poem “Mi abuela no ha leído a Marx”  (“My Grandmother Hasn’t Read Marx”):

In response to Spivak’s question,

Can the subaltern subject speak?

The poet replies,

but can it be heard?

PS: The subaltern speaks,

ask the centuries[4]

These lines resonate with many of our experiences in white spaces, reflecting both the struggle we face and the resilience of Roma resistance. Not long ago my husband and I were invited to be lecturers at the summer school organized by a white leftist organization in Barcelona. After I delivered a two-hour talk on racialization, racial ghettos and control in Europe, during the question and answer session, a white middle-aged leftist militant stood up and asked me “when will Roma stop victimizing themselves?” The unfortunate moment wasn’t defined by his question, nor the silence that fell upon the room filled with white feminists in the face of an attack on a Romani woman by a man (not surprisingly, as far back as 1981, bell hooks asked, “Ain’t I a woman?”). What truly troubled me was that I wasn’t surprised at all; in fact, I had anticipated it. It has occurred so many times, both in militant and academic spaces, perpetrated by white men and women alike. It is a manifestation of their incapability to understand anti-Roma racism in Europe. This reaction is a manifestation of whiteness, clearly visible in the right-wing threats, and manifested in more subtle ways also within the white left and progressive movements, which have consistently failed to engage in a meaningful dialogue about anti-Roma racism and acknowledge their own privileges at the expense of our exploitation and suffering. It is within this context that we revisit the first two lines of the poem and recognize that when we, as Romani women, courageously voice our truths, we become the bodies and voices that disrupt whiteness. In response, whiteness neglects, ignores, dismisses, and conceals our deeply imbedded experiences, rendering us invisible as Romani women.

I am writing this short text not in the form of a complaint, but to narrate and expose the racial antagonism experienced by Romani women and therefore to think Romani women’s struggle from an anti-racist perspective. This piece serves as a testament to our struggle as Romani women. It also represents a political act aimed at unveiling the presence of whiteness in democratic societies. It constitutes a crucial contribution to the discourse on race and gender, drawing from the experiences of Romani women. It is also about recognizing the enduring strength we’ve had to build over centuries against whiteness through the power of love for our families and people, the power and resilience to keep our loved ones safe. I firmly believe that this is what has sustained us throughout 500 years of oppression. As I also conclude in my aforementioned poem “Confessions of a Mother,” it is fear that empowers us to keep fighting with the hope of creating truly equal societies. As my dear friend Helios eloquently expressed, “The subaltern speaks, ask the centuries!” Romani women have always spoken, but in our languages, and we have always resisted, albeit in our own ways. We have consistently acted with our own agency, and this autonomy is what terrifies whiteness—despite their efforts, they cannot control us.

In terms of political participation, as our sister Ana Mirga Kruszelnicka recently highlighted in her presentation at Humboldt University[5], there has been significant growth in Romani women’s movements. Despite the diverse organizational structures, they all represent the collective interests of the Roma community. While the so-called “Roma movement” is predominantly male-dominated, it is Romani women who are at the forefront of addressing anti-Roma racism, whether in academia or as activists. Thanks to the efforts of various Romani sisters, anti-Roma racism is finally receiving the visibility and political attention it deserves. It is gradually being recognized as a critical component of the broader anti-racist movements in Europe. As highlighted by the Roma anti-racist collective, Kale Amenge (Roma for Ourselves), it’s essential to understand that true liberation for Romani women can only be realized when we are freed from the shackles of anti-Roma racism. This oppressive racist system still benefits many women, and dismantling it is a vital step toward Romani women’s liberation.

[1] Lorde, A. (2018). The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. Penguin

[2] FRA – European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. 2022. “Roma in 10 European Countries – Main Results. 

[3] For a detailed explanation of this concept check out Fejzula, Sebijan, and Cayetano Fernández. 2022. “Anti-Roma Racism, Social Work and the White Civilisatory Mission.” In Handbook of Critical Social Work, eds. Stephen A., Webb. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 389–402.

[4] In the original language: Ante la pregunta de Spivak ¿Puede hablar el sujeto subalterno?

 El poeta responde, pero ¿es qué acaso se le escucha? PD: El subalterno habla, pregunten a los siglos

[5] This lecture was part of part of UniRomnja: Romani and Sinti Feminism – History(s), Movement(s) and Theory(s), open lecture series at Humbold-Universitat, organized by RomaniPhen in cooperation with the federal Agency for Civic Education

Sebijan Fejzula serves as a researcher at the Centre for Social Studies and concurrently pursues a Ph.D. in Human Rights in Contemporary Society at the University of Coimbra. She assumes the role of co-editor for the book titled „State Racism: A Collective View from the Perspective of Autonomy and Racial Justice“ (2023) and boasts authorship of several articles, including: „De-Whitening of Romani Women’s Intersectional Experience“ (forthcoming); „Anti-Roma Racism, Social Work, and the White Civilisatory Mission“ (2022); among others. Furthermore, Sebijan stands as a co-founding member of Kale Amenge (Roma for Ourselves), an independent anti-racist Roma political organization dedicated to advancing the collective emancipation of the Roma people and the establishment of Roma political autonomy.

This article does not represent a statement of opinion by the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth.

Responsibility for the content is borne solely by the authors.