Dževrija, a sex worker and heroin addict who lives in a Romani community within Serbia. Aleksandrija Ajdukovic/Vice. All rights reserved.
The mountainous lands that serve as both bridges and buffers between “civilizations” have endured waves of horrific abuses. World wars, domestic massacres, international bombings, and most recently, an ongoing refugee crisis, have challenged the fabric of Western Balkan nations and created new victims of oppression. The media, political analysts, and many NGOs rightfully report on the many current abuses committed by Balkan and European governments as Syrian war refugees attempt to flee to safety. This attention must not waver and should indeed magnify. Yet unwittingly, an exclusive spotlight on the recent, acute humanitarian crisis can sometimes mute more persistent, normalized forms of oppression in the region. Women of the Balkans, for instance, are constant victims of oppressive societal structures and perceptions. They suffer from normalized domestic violence, honor killings, socio-economic barriers, cultural shaming – among many other harms.
Gender can be quite the crippling social factor. Just being female makes one vulnerable to a wide range of human rights abuses. So, what if you happen to be a woman who also lives on the outskirts of acceptable, mainstream culture? What if your sources of oppression intersect in the most complex of ways? The Roma women of the Western Balkans face injustices that arise from their gender, skin color, socio-economic class, and cultural ways of life. A Roma woman must battle against a maze of societal oppressions on daily basis – she has done so for centuries and continues to do so today as new humanitarian crises rise and fall.
Who is she?
The Roma identity generally refers to a traditionally nomadic ethnic group, with various linguistic dialects and many sub-groups, living mostly in Europe, and originating from Northern India over a thousand years ago. By the fourteenth century and in tandem with Ottoman conquest, the Roma became established in large numbers throughout the Balkans. Presently, out of an estimated 10-12 million currently in the whole of Europe, some six million live in the European Union (EU), while around one million of Roma live in Western Balkans countries. Most Roma are bi- or tri-lingual, speaking a Romani dialect as well as the official languages of their countries. Wherever they reside, however, their lack of a territorial base and permanence marks them as outsiders – the perfect “other”.
A child growing up in Albania, for instance, is never immune to cultural indoctrination against the Roma population – “the gypsies”. No matter how progressive a family may be, they will either implicitly or directly introduce their children to many negative stereotypes the culture throws at the Romani. At a very early age, society warned me to never open the door for a gypsy. Gypsies stole little children and dabbled in evil dark magic, my neighbors would so convincingly tell me. But my eight year old self adored the way that the local “gypsy woman” dressed, and I so desperately wished to be like her.
This was long before I began to understand the intricate social web of limitations, taboos, and expectations that Roma women had to contend against. I still don’t understand nor will I ever grasp the full extent and nature of this oppression, as it is distinct and more deeply permeating than what I could ever experience as a white Albanian-American woman. The argument I try to formula below, however, is that the intersection of gender, race, culture, and class in the Balkans makes for a potent, perpetual cycle of oppression – and as political systems, leaders, ideologies, and economies come and go, the Roma woman remains at that intersection of her marginalized identities.
Being Romani and a woman
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