I’m a feminist and part of my ancestry is Roma. I am proud of both of these aspects of my identity, but both remain controversial in their own right. So what is a gypsy feminist? Maybe I’m being deliberately provocative in putting these two words together. But this gypsy feminist creature must be exotic, right? Traditional meets modern with her copy of ‘The Feminine Mystique’ poking out from under her headscarf.
I’m reading two books at the moment. One is ‘The story of the Romani gypsies’ by Yaron Matras and the other is ‘Everyday sexism’ by Laura Bates. Together they make for interesting reading.
‘Everyday sexism’ is based on the stories of over 50,000 women from all over the world and documents the very real sexism that women face in all aspects of their lives. Yet being a feminist has somehow gone out of fashion, or worse, apparently become irrelevant. Let’s face it- it’s become a big fat joke. I can’t put it better than Bridget Christie in her recent Guardian article:
“All feminists are lesbians. There is not a single heterosexual woman in the world who believes that women should have equal rights. Not one. If a feminist says she is heterosexual or bisexual or asexual, she is lying. They are all lesbians.
Feminism is the sole cause of the recession, global warming, terrorism, pandemics, cancelled flights, volcanos, delayed trains and overly pedantic health and safety regulations. You can’t have hot drinks at work now because of feminism, or climb up small stepladders in libraries. You can’t eat a lobster without safety goggles now because of feminists.” (http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jun/22/bridget-christie-feminists-sex-men-book-extract)
Bridget made me laugh out loud (sorry I mean snort behind my hand as clearly feminists don’t have a sense of humour). Humour. In ‘Everyday Sexism’ Laura Bates describes a ‘cloak of humour and irony that is used to excuse mainstream sexism…It’s incredibly effective, because- as we know- pretending that something is just a joke is a powerful silencing tool, making those who stand up to it seem staid and isolated.’ How ironic that challenging ‘traditional’/sexist views or behaviour is the stick-in-the-mud thing to do. Go figure.
All (ironic) jokes aside, I find it much easier to critique ‘mainstream’ Western society and the cling-on to norms and traditions that perpetuate gender roles and stereotypes than thinking about feminism in relation to my Rom cultural heritage. Hell- I even wrote a thesis on it. (Trying to resist temptation to launch into academic jargony gobbledegook…Ok- and I’m back in the room). Now, I know more about feminist theory than I do about Romani culture and traditions. There, I said it. A biological ancestral claim does not give me privileged access to this basket of cultural knowledge. What it has given me is a real interest in finding out more about this cultural heritage and I’m at the beginning of that journey.
I find this embarrassing to admit, but one of my first experiences of this ‘culture’ was watching Channel 4’s Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. Ok, so maybe not the best place to start (and with few Romani families). But what stood out in this compulsive viewing was the strictly controlled gender roles. Big Fat Gypsy Weddings are not only big and fat, but they happen young, to people who hardly know each other and who often lack basic qualifications, and result in a lifetime of cleaning and child-rearing for the young wives.
Watching this programme didn’t feel like getting an insight into my heritage; I felt like more of an outsider than ever. I found it hard to reconcile my life experiences with these teenage brides (despite having married at the tender age of 23 myself).
So why can’t I pick and choose a pastiche of cultural tidbits and trophies that are more palatable to my feminist identity? A tattoo of a wheel on my shoulder perhaps. No make that a miniature wheel (only visible as more than a dot through a microscope) on the inside of my little finger- I’m a middle-class feminist gypsy after all. “Yeah- travelling’s in my blood. All the kids are taking gap years to roam around, but my family’s been doing it for centuries. Check out my wheel. Yes- the dot…The latest national survey on Roma in Portugal you say? Findings that many marry at age 13 and girls receive little formal education? Ummm…” (http://www.theportugalnews.com/news/first-national-roma-survey-released/35158).
Hard as I try I can’t separate out the ‘nice to have’ culture from the marginalisation and hardship that is not only historical, but persists today. My Western-educated feminist-informed self finds it hard to celebrate early marriage and reduced educational opportunities as a successful retention of culture. At the same time, feminist research has helped to pave the way to consider marginalised voices in society, their relationships with the dominant voices and the perpetuation of inequality that can only be understand in the context of this relationship.
The challenges that Rom face in many parts of Europe and the world are often manifestations of their unequal relationship to the dominant culture of the country in which they live. In his ‘Story of the Romani Gypsies’, Yaron Matras describes the ways in which the Rom people have adapted their language, their customs, their culture, in different countries while holding onto something distinctly Roma. In fact, he says that others have much to learn as they are the only ‘nation’ in Europe that has not declared war on another and never tried to subjugate others into adopting its ways. And as a people they have faced a fair amount of that from other nations.
It’s funny, I started this post wanting to talk about the gendered traditions that continue in many Romani families- appropriate dress for women, taboos around menstruation and birth and the strict segregation of household labour. I imagined myself as one of my female ancestors, living in a caravan and cooking and cleaning for my 8 children and my husband. Then the historical picture became sharper. I found Jane.
Jane was my great great great grandmother, born 100 years before my father in 1859. You’ll have to forgive her wrongly-buttoned cardigan; she was a busy woman. She was widowed age 32 with 7 children and 1 on the way. Imagine. She never re-married, but became head of her household (as Yaron says is common) and this photo shows her at work, hawking. The nineteenth century door-to-door saleswoman, if you like. And probably just as popular. My glimpse into Jane’s life can only ever be just that, but I hope it is testament to her (and not just the threat of an incest scandal- another time) that her grandchildren took her maiden name as their own. I do not want to romanticise what must have been an extremely difficult time, of which I can’t even begin to comprehend. But when I look back I am finding strong female characters, and I’m reluctant to judge their lifestyles and culture through my modern gaze.
But let’s not forget that this story of gender inequalities that lives on today (and not only in Rom culture) is part of a much bigger picture of a marginalised culture and deprivation all over Europe and elsewhere. Part of this story is access to opportunities, part of it may be alienation from the mainstream culture where these opportunities are bigger, and part of it may be gripping tighter onto ‘traditional’ culture.