Don't Call Them Gypsies — & Everything Else You Need To Know About Roma Women

Photo: Akos Stiller for the Open Society Foundations.
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.
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Photo: Akos Stiller for the Open Society Foundations.
How did you decide to get involved in activism?
Anna Mirga: "I think my life story is kind of special, in the sense that I feel that I have been very lucky and privileged in some way. On the one hand, my father is an activist, and that's been a part of my life since I was a little girl. I knew of prominent Roma leaders coming over to my house, it was part of my environment. It was not only my father, but uncles and aunts and older cousins who were involved in Romani rights.

"I grew up in Krakow in a big city, and I was always the only Roma child, and everybody knew that. But I had good grades and I had a lot of friends, I had a lot of positive experiences because teachers would take me out and ask me to tell everyone about my family and the Roma lifestyle.

"I felt special and unique because everyone else was just Polish and I was Polish and Roma. I grew up feeling cool about my identity, but as I grew up that there was another part to it. Many of my cousins that grew up in the Roma settlement where my family is from faced discrimination in school, from fellow students and from their teachers."

What was surprising to learn as you became more aware?
"When I was younger, I didn’t realize that Roma were slaves in Romania for hundreds of years. Slavery was only abolished in the mid-19th century. You don’t learn Roma history in textbooks.

"I went to Auschwitz, and when I was there I found a picture of an Anna Mirga who died in a concentration camp. It was a strong experience, to realize that I am living such a good experience, and it is very different for many people of my background."

Anna Mirga poses for a portrait in the Eighth District, Budapest, Hungary, in October.
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Photo: Björn Steinz for the Open Society Foundations.
"Roma women are very practical and they need practical things; if you do things that will help their families and communities, they can be really fierce and powerful," Carmen Gheorghe said.

Romina Kajtazova, right,working as a paralegal for NGO Kham, talks to Ljutvia Demyrova, a 29-year-old mother of eight children, at her home.
Demyrova and her family live in the local Roma community in the city of Vinica in Macedonia.
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Photo: Björn Steinz/Panos for the Open Society Foundations.
E-Romnja, Gheorghe's organization, has helped 500 women through campaigns related to health and civic participation, and 300 children through organized events.

"Women are more marginalized in the Roma community than women in Romania or southeast Europe. They face racism and sexism. When we go into a community to say, 'We want to work with Roma women first,' there is reluctance from men, but women have been taught the rules of patriarchy very well," Gheorghe said.

"I don’t want to do a hierarchy of the top three challenges we face, but there is a very strong structure in communities where women are silenced."

Roma activist Carmen Gheorghe is the president of E-Romnja, an association for promoting Roma women's rights, in Bucharest, Romania.
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Photo: Björn Steinz for the Open Society Foundations
How do women factor into your work specifically?
Anna Mirga: "Being a woman is tough, even in Western countries. Being Roma on top of that is difficult, [and] added to that, being poor in a rural setting. Discrimination is a big challenge. Earlier generations of Roma women have been pioneers of bringing feminism into the picture…

"In the Roma community, we are rooted in the collective. Independence and empowerment can create identity conflicts. You want to be an emancipated feminist, but you want to be a member of your community. It creates an uneven speed of change for women. We do gender projects for women, we speak among ourselves, we don’t bring men into these spaces — some things that are obvious to us, maybe for the men it isn’t so."

Romina Kajtazova, with members of the local Roma community during the European Immunization Week in the city of Vinica in Macedonia.
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Photo: Björn Steinz/Panos for the Open Society Foundations
"We use community development to increase women’s participation and to encourage them to become role models for younger generations. These are poor communities with a lack of access to services, there is institutional racism that influences the prosperity of that community," Gheorghe said.

"In these communities, there are a lot of young women who don’t have opportunities, who drop out of school. We want them to know that they can have a better future. It is very important to bring this optimism to these communities."

Portrait of Roma activist Carmen Gheorghe, president of E-Romnja — an association promoting Roma women's rights in the streets of Bucharest, Romania.
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Photo: Björn Steinz for the Open Society Foundations
When Gheorghe and her colleagues started working with women in Roma communities in Romania three years ago, they faced suspicion from both the communities and from local authorities. But initial challenges are just part of the process.

"Our premise is that where there are no women involved in communities, communities don’t progress, from education to health care to infrastructure. What we do practically is to go into a community and work with women, and to organize activities that will reflect their life and experiences and needs," Gheorghe said.

These projects can encompass things such as building roads or improving access to health care, but the key component is to make sure women feel empowered in their families and communities without forcing them to abandon the things that matter most. "Roma women are very practical and they need practical things; if you do things that will help their families and communities, they can be really fierce and powerful," she said.

Romina Kajtazova teaches a workshop related to Roma health issues in a kindergarden located in the city of Vinica in Macedonia during European Immunization Week. Almost all of the women in attendance are from the local Roma community.
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Photo: Akos Stiller for the Open Society Foundations
What is the European Roma Institute?
Anna Mirga: "It is an institution to [recover] our heritage and [promote] our arts and culture, as well as understand who we are….We are speaking about Roma leadership. We want it to be driven by Roma scholars, Roma artists, and Roma creators across Europe, to have an institution as a point of reference for ourselves and future generations.

"We want to establish a network of Romani artists and bring people together under one goal. I’ve been wanting to create spaces for dialogue across different groups — ethnicity, nationality, gender, generations."

Anna Mirga visits Gallery 8 in Budapest, Hungary, in October.
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Photo: Björn Steinz for the Open Society Foundations
What have some of your big successes been?
Carmen Gheorghe: "We started to work three years ago to convince local authorities to build roads in one community because it is very poor. They don’t have streets, electricity, water. We pushed them and succeeded in convincing them that they need to invest in that community and build some roads. That project was done with support from Roma women.

"They raised petitions, participated in council meetings, and made their voice heard, so after three years of working with these women, we convinced them. Now we have 11 streets. In other communities, we tried to build community centers, build health points for Roma women, organize cultural events if that community is more prosperous."

Paralegal Romina Kajtazova, right, in conversation with NGO Kham client Sazije Fazlievik at the office of the organization in the city of Delcevo, Macedonia.

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