From the Hunchback of Notre Dame to TLC's My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, public perceptions and stereotypes of Romani people in Europe have remained remarkably consistent. For hundreds of years, the men and women of this ethnic minority have faced violence, discrimination, and marginalization — much of which continues today. But there are activists determined to change the future of their communities, and many of the most dedicated are women.
Between 5 and 6 million Roma women live in Europe today, according to the Open Society Foundation, and they face challenges of sexism both within the Roma community and in modern society at large. Confronting sexism and anti-Roma racism is a massive undertaking. From changing media portrayals of Romani people as lazy, itinerant criminals to supporting women in desperately poor Roma communities as they move into public activism, it's overwhelmingly women who are doing the work.
"It’s really important to maintain a dialogue with non-Roma, to build relationships and build friendships," Anna Mirga told Refinery29.
Mirga is a Polish-Roma graduate student and activist dedicated to expanding opportunities for Roma men and women in culture and art. "We need to build solidarity across movements."
The European Roma Institute is one way Mirga wants to change the way people think about Roma communities. The narrative of Roma women as beggars, or as hypersexualized bodies who at the same time have too many children, doesn't just exist for non-Roma people; without counter-narratives, young Roma internalize those messages, too. "It stigmatizes a whole community and ethnicizes a problem that is rooted in social inequality, in discrimination, in unjust societies."
Those cultural messages didn't deter Carmen Gheorghe while she was growing up in a small community in Romania.
"I come from a Roma family with two sisters and a brother, so since I was very little, they told us that because we are girls, we are not supposed to do some things that boys are allowed to do," Gheorghe said. "All these differences between boys and girls really frustrated me and created the sense that there is no justice for us only because we are girls."
Ahead, some of the amazing female Roma activists transforming their communities.
Caption: Roma activist Anna Mirga has worked with both Roma and non-Roma people to make progress on key issues.