Intersectionality serves a tool of analysis in feminist theory to study the intersection of identity, privilege, and oppression. It operates on the fundamental principle that some identities come with privileges and some come with oppressions and that the individual can live within many overlapping identities whose privileges and oppressions interlock—some working with each other, others against. For those who identity as Roma, many pre-conceived identities are combined into how they are perceived by non-Roma identities. Thus, Romani scholars and those who seek to delineate the female Romani experience often employ intersectionality to analyze the oppressions and privileges that compose their identity. Many argue that the Romani woman’s experience is so unique that it provides a powerful tool for both activism and analysis.
Petra Gelbart, a female scholar, writes about her experience as being both Romani and a feminist, in her article “Either Sing or Go Get the Beer: Contradictions of (Romani) Female power in Central Europe”. She writes extensively about her intersecting identities of Romani and feminist and how these two identities both influence her view of Romani culture and Romani culture within a global context. By introducing her own background, she lays the groundwork for how her analysis can provide crucial information for both Roma and non-Roma individuals. Throughout her writing, she begins to describe the experience of a constructed “other” identity, with an implied negative denotation. A more privileged identity—often in her writing Europeans with a nationality—can work to make “other” identities, such as Roma, feel uncomfortable by defining their oppressions and privileges. In the case of Romani, as Gelbart writes, the discomfort with which the larger European population addresses Roma is a tool to further their “other” identity; the outward expression of social discomfort is a way in which society reaffirms certain identities as “lesser” or “undesirable”.
To counter the flattening of the Romani identity, Gelbart looks to the entirety of the Roma people, which varies hugely in race, geographic location, and class. As she states: “The effects of both class norms and geographic location should be considered separately from race, lest we use the language of women’s rights to exoticize an entire ethnic minority that exists within a range of majority societies” (26), and thus she articulates the need for intersectionality. The danger she is trying to articulate is that Western women, or feminisms that identity as non-Roma usually work to depict Romani women as oppressed by their identity. Gelbart’s analysis must then work to both delineate her own experience while also stating the fallacy of other’s interpretations of it. There certainly are oppressive forces facing the Roma people, but using another culture’s (in this case non-Roma) definition of oppressive gender relations to analyze Romani culture is overlaying a framework of analysis that has no meaning. Gelbart’s article calls for the naming of oppressions by those who have directly experienced them: for the Roma people, men and women, to identify that which oppresses them, not for a non-Roma culture to observe them externally and declare their oppressions for them.
She doesn’t deny that the Romani culture is a potent example of how a multitude of identities such as gender, education, urban vs. rural, class, and race can intersect among one culture, in fact, she repetitively draws attention to this point for it is the foundation of why intersectionality is necessary. She uses an example of how inter-cultural frameworks can lead to misinterpretations, under the example of swimsuits. Gelbart explains that,
“If we wish to seek out subtle differences in cultural meaning, we could conceivably perceive the ethnically Czech swimsuit competition as demeaning (arguing that Czech men have a history of treating women as objects) but the Romani swimsuit parade as liberating (arguing that Romani men have a longer history of forcing modesty on women)” (Gelbart, 27).
Yet the example of swimsuits is the tip of the iceberg in the history of Roma-non-Roma paradox that seeks to define Romani women’s experience. The treatment of Roma as both a separate race, and a lesser one, has plagued the Roma experience. Policy, written by the European Union, aimed at ‘helping’ to address and correct poverty within Romani communities is framed in the context that their socio-economic status is a “result from individual failures to adapt to the market economy and can be improved through specific projects focused on the improvement of individual skills” (Vincze 437). In this way, the policies for the “other” identity onto Roma and blame them for systems that inherently disable them. To those identifying as Romani, these policies feel like thinly veiled blame put on the entire Roma race, as opposed to an analysis of how socio-economic status is a result of their continued treatment as an “other” or marginalized identity. In some instances, the experience of Romani women is far more dire because of their identity as women, which gives them a frightening double-standard:
“Their sexuality is expropriated from two directions: on the one side they are viewed as bearing the obligation for the biological reproduction of their own ethnic group, and on the other side they become targets of racist fertility control and dehumanizing discourses according to which they give birth to children with less value than majority mothers’ children (as practices of sterilization or discourses on Roma and non-Roma fertility demonstrate)” (Vincze, 440).
Romani women in the Czech Republic and Slovakia were specifically targeted for sterilization while receiving abortions and Cesarean sections between 1971 and 1991, and it is estimated that around 90,000 women became infertile in these countries because of these actions (Stoyanova, 2013). Ultimately, “the justification for sterilization practices…was ‘high, unhealthy’ reproduction” (Stoyanova, 2013), which furthers the obvious bind of Romani women, who live at the intersection of their identity and the influence of both their culture and the non-Roma.
Yet, by sharing their stories, protesting, and raising awareness about the Romani women’s experience, many Romani women have garnered the attention of human rights and legislative powers. Through the continued debate and articulation of the Romani experience through intersectionality, one can hope to counter the injustices faced by Roma people. “There are signs in Romanian public life of the political potential of Roma women activists. This politicization seems to be happening exactly around their experiences as women” (Vincze 441) and can address system injustices “in an intersectional way” (Vincze 441). Through activism and scholarly analysis, Romani women are successfully working to articulate their experiences and challange the identification of Roma as an inferior “other”.
Gelbart, Petra. “Either Sing or Go Get the Beer: Contradictions of (Romani) Female Power in Central Europe.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 38(1). 2012: 22-29. Web.
Vincze, Eniko. “The racialization of Roma in the ‘new’ Europe and the political potential of Romani women” European Journal of Women’s Studies. 21(4). 2014: 435-42.
Stoyanova, Galya. “Forced sterilization of Romani women – a persisting human rights violation.” ROMEDIA FOUNDATION. 07 Feb. 2013. Web.