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Conflicting Loyalties - Rights Activism and Roma Identity
by Nicoleta Biţu - Programme Coordinator with NGO Romani CRISS

Each day, we all play different social roles that we have taken on. These roles embody different identities and statuses. Take, for example, my identity as a Roma woman who was raised and schooled in Romania, I can trace back several roles which I have assumed, responsibly or otherwise,  and which can sometimes be quite conflicting.

I am a Romanian citizen, and I want to play an active part in building a new society that is different from the one I have been living in consciously for the past 17 years and unconsciously from a civic point of view before that. And I do that using two dimensions of expression: one to do with the protection of human rights for Romanian citizens living in Roma communities and another one relating to the promotion of gender equality as part of the Roma mobilisation movement.

© Ovidiu Rom/Davin Ellicson
Roma child from Vizuresti

I am Romanian, in part because I was born of two parents who were Romanian citizens; but also by my family upbringing, as my mother tongue is Romanian; by the years I spent in the Romanian education system; by my passport and the books I read.

I am Roma because I was born of two Roma parents, one who spoke the Romani language and the other who did not; because I am descended from families of fiddlers and coppersmiths  one with a sort of “aristocratic” demeanour and the other used to submitting obediently to its fate as a result of having been deprived of freedom of movement and settled on a farm. I am Roma by the Romani language I learned in a distorted and intermittent way from one side of my family: for I have embraced this identity with all the stigmas surrounding it by the music and customs of my families; by the racist experiences that I suffered as a child; by my “black colour,” internalised for years; by the heartbreak I felt when hearing the word “gypsy” as a child and as a grown-up. The list could go on.

I am a woman by birth and by the social roles I have taken on, or learned, or that were imposed on me. I am a woman who fights for gender equality and partnership because as a child and later as a teenager I could never understand why the women were beaten by their husbands and brothers, why my female cousins would marry so young, why the “virginity sheet” had to be shown to the whole world. I am a woman because I play the role of daughter, mother and wife.

Roma boy with his younger cousin

At a meeting held by the Intercultural Institute of Timişoara in Bucharest, during the very week when we were celebrating the abolition of Roma slavery, I said that our multiple roles assign us multiple iden-tities. Mr. Călin Rus responded with a remark which gave me another way of analysing the potential conflicts between my identities: he suggested that we should use the term “multiple affiliations” instead of “multiple identities”.  Thanks to this approach, I can now say that my affiliations to the women's group fighting for gender equality, and to the human rights activism group, are inconsistent with my affiliation to the Roma community/national minority.

How can I reconcile all these affiliations? When is it possible and when impossible?
Being perfectly aware that some cultural practices of Roma communities violate children's rights,  boys' and girls', but also that abandoning such practices may lead to the loss of what I have previously defined as identity, I sometimes wonder where the limits of feminist ideology and cultural, ethnic identity-based ideology lie.

The solution can be found in the efforts to build a modern Romani culture that negotiates its values with human rights values, regardless of whether the human is a woman or a man. A culture that we can start passing on to our children not just orally, but also in writing, through books, history and personal stories. A culture open to innovation. A culture where the definition of “rom ciacio/ romni ciaci” (true Roma man / true Roma woman) refers not only to our lineage, but goes beyond those boundaries to build a sense of belonging to the wider Roma bloodline. A Romani culture where solidarity goes beyond the family. A Romani culture where children get to enjoy their childhood and are not forced to take on too much responsibility for their age. A Romani culture where the language and history are learned both at home  in the family  and at school, but not as a flag flaunted by governments to show how much they care about Roma children's education.

Maybe all of this could come true if we were more eager to learn  other than dogmatically  from the experience of other disadvantaged groups. Maybe it could happen if we accepted that we had a lot to learn from the women's mobilisation movement and if we stopped snarling at the mere mention of “gender equality” or “feminism”.

Recognising and accepting these multiple affiliations could help us make a connection between emancipation, rights, gender equality and identity-focused speeches and the names, faces and stories of real people.






Unite for Children
No 4, 2009

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