Isidora is building a new feminist movement with and for Romani women across Europe to not only reclaim history but also to become part of building the future. This new movement rewrites history from women’s perspective and prepares the young Roma women for the future by equipping them with the right tools and mentors. Through RomaniPhen, Isidora creates a safe space for Roma women to come together and reclaim their place in society.
The New Idea
Racism against Roma communities is very common across Europe, affecting women more than men. Despite the duplicated discrimination they face in everyday life, Roma women are also seen as second class in their communities due to the highly patriarchal cultural codes. Neither the racism issue nor the patriarchal paradigm has been tackled properly until recent years: the German state only accepted in 1982 that Romani were also victims of Nazi genocides. Although Romani was the second most crowded victim group of the Holocaust (following the European Jews), their losses are still not mentioned in the educational materials or holocaust memorials. Roma children grew up not knowing the consequences of their ethnic difference, the history of events, or the important leaders of Roma communities, let alone the female leaders. On top of these historical issues, there are now newcomer Romani in the region who migrated there upon the fall of communism. These new Roma groups often come from the Balkans, not having the same privileges as their Sinti peers (Sinti is a branch of Roma with ability to speak German and often times with citizenship of Germany or Austria). There are even incidents of Balkan Roma being discriminated against by Sinti as these communities often have different languages, religions, cultural norms, etc. A feminist born in Yugoslavia and raised in Germany, Isidora sees an opportunity among these many conflicts to bring women together under a feminist agenda, despite their differences.
On the first level of her work, Isidora aims to not only rewrite the Roma history from women’s perspective but also bring Roma women of different histories together to work on a shared goal which is to shift the dominant narrative about their identities. Rewriting history is crucial and urgent for RomaniPhen as the existing resources on Romani including their losses during the Nazi era are written by non-Roma or men. To do this, RomaniPhen works with the most underserved Roma women to give them the vocabulary to be vocal about their past and current sufferings. As these women learn more about the patriarchy, systemic racism, colonialism, and holocaust; they acquire tools to break the vicious cycle of knowledge about them being produced without them. RomaniPhen organizes intergenerational spaces for Roma women to come together and share their stories. Findings of these stories are documented and shared in relevant spaces including a Holocaust memorial, schools, kindergartens, research pieces, and so on. In addition to this work, RomaniPhen also reaches out to existing scholars and professionals with Roma identity and gives them the space to talk about the issues of Roma women. By doing so, Isidora leverages the power of already existing Roma women leaders in shifting narratives and triggers them to create a new language for Roma women’s issues.
On the second level, RomaniPhen aims to support the younger generations to continue this movement. The first piece will already provide young Roma girls with stories and role models to accept their Roma identity and then fight their issues with this knowledge. Isidora believes in order for these girls to become owners of these stories in the future and live up to their true leadership potential in their communities, they need additional resources. Thus, they organize workshops for these young girls to gain confidence, networks, and skills to help them express themselves (e.g., developing a podcast, shooting informative YouTube videos). RomaniPhen does not stop there and reaches out to the teachers from the schools with high Roma student density. Going through workshops and trainings, these teachers become available to their young Roma women students’ needs of mentorship and coaching.
With the rise of discussions around racism and diversity, RomaniPhen organizes a timely response to bring citizenship to all Roma women of Europe. Scaling through existing Roma-led groups, Isidora aims to spread this movement across all the continent, affecting the thinking and narratives of majority society as well as the Romani.
It is estimated that 15-20 million Roma people live in Europe and 150,000 are currently residing in Germany. Having migrated from India to Europe around the 14th century, Romani have always been discriminated against in different shapes and forms. All across the continent, Roma communities fought through systemic racism and slavery until the mid-20th century. By 1930s, Romani had managed to enroll in mainstream education, get involved in city life, and own property. However, with the rise of Nazi rule in half of the continent, all of these gains were lost during the Holocaust. It is estimated that 500,000 Romani were killed in concentration camps meaning Romani are the second most populated group following the Jews, suffering from the Nazi genocides. Until 1982, this was not even recognized by the German government. Due to the oral history nature of the community, no written evidence was left pre/post genocide. Even after its recognition, the issue is still not taught in schools or not mentioned at most of the holocaust monuments. Feeling unheard and unseen, Sinti (German/speaking Romani) grew disappointed.
At the same time, new Roma communities arrive in Germany every day, mostly from the Balkans and Central Eastern Europe. These communities have differences from Sinti, such as the language they speak, the religion they practice, and the cultural norms they believe in. While Sinti has official minority status in Germany, most of these newcomer Romani do not have any status in the eyes of the state, meaning they have no access to minority benefits and rights. The newcomers are also discriminated against by their Sinti peers due to their cultural differences, reducing the community’s ability to unite and work together.
This situation disproportionately affects Roma women and girls, who face structural inequalities (social, cultural, economic), which prevent them from taking active societal roles. There are very few knowledge pieces written by Roma women about their experiences and specific challenges. Most of the literature is written either by Roma men or non-Roma people who elude their perspectives and erased or downsized Roma women's identity for centuries.
Discrimination has consistently denied Roma women personal development, self-esteem, decent living conditions, livelihood opportunities and institutional services. Beyond the exclusionary practices of majority society, gender relations within Roma communities contribute to Roma women’s multiple marginalities. The Roma patriarchal family model affects Roma women’s access to basic human rights and exposes them to all forms of violence. They experience oppression as men make the rules through which women must live. In a recent survey across 11 EU Member States, results show that the situation of Roma women is worse than that of Roma men in key areas of life such as education, employment, and health. In educational attainment, for example, 23% of the Roma women surveyed say they cannot read or write, and 19% never went to school. Their participation in decision-making at all levels (i.e., in families, at the community level and politically) is often limited. The intersecting aspects of Roma women’s marginalization have been left largely unexposed.
Historically, the learnings, teachings and experiences of the Roma population have been systematically excluded from contemporary educational institutions and from Eurocentric knowledge systems. They have been studied without having their own voices considered in the interpretation of their cultural practices and social behaviors, which has strengthened negative stereotyping. Interpretations of the image and lives of the Romani are permeated with misperceptions, myths, and assumptions based on stereotypical definitions. Moreover, academic discourses have treated Roma population largely as a single homogenous group, thus omitting the particular experience faced by Roma women. In Germany, 99 % of academic and expert writings on Roma people are created by non-Roma researchers. This creates a vicious cycle: By remaining unchanged, policy documents, technical articles and teaching texts and books merely strengthen prejudices and educate future helping professionals, including social workers, inappropriately – and reinforce unfavorable societal discourse. This affects particularly Roma women who are frequently displayed as uneducated, thieves, dressed in an exotic way, and sexualizing them. This contributes to the development of their distorted image of themselves.
In order to bring citizenship to the Roma women of Europe, Isidora carefully organizes a movement:
First, Isidora has worked with a core group of women over many years to carry this movement to the next stage. In this group, artists, academicians, and social workers of Sinti and Roma origin identify needs and opportunities in their fields of work and build partnerships with other team members. For instance, social workers might help identify an emerging need of Roma kids or academicians may realize a gap within the system when it comes to the history of Roma and Sinti in Europe. This team is crucial for understanding the community's current needs and designing solutions in collaboration.
Once the Roma women are brought together, with the help of the core team, they come up with either new narratives or action plans about their issues. If there is a new narrative (e.g., Roma also suffered from the Holocaust) or a new story (e.g., a Roma woman is fired without any apparent reason) to be shared, Isidora reaches out to her media partners which include Roma influencers, young social media enthusiasts, and mainstream media professionals. For instance, RomaniPhen has been working with the management of holocaust memorials to insert QR codes that would lead the visitors to internet pages providing the Roma perspective on the Holocaust. When the first QR codes for the Living Archive about the Holocaust were put up in Berlin, their young volunteers organized a social media campaign to help others realize this new contribution of Roma women to history. If the women come up with an action plan about their specific issues, Isidora then turns to the institutions, be it the municipality or the non-profits. By setting up the ground for Roma women to speak up, by finding allies in each and every institution, and by setting the right tone, Isidora prepares the room for the advocacy of Roma women. This work is done not only in non-Roma institutions; traditional patriarchal Roma organizations are also made part of this.
To equip younger generations with similar tools, RomaniPhen has started an initiative group for girls, called Romani Chaji as a space for them to discuss topics nobody teaches them at home or at school (e.g., racism against Roma and Sinti; child marriage, sexual and reproductive rights). In weekly workshops, they learn to organize themselves as a group and design and explore ways to represent themselves and Roma culture (e.g., through podcasts, theatre plays, photo projects, school workshops on discrimination). Moreover, coming together with adult beneficiaries of the organization later on, these girls do not only learn about their history and identity but also meet with potential role models and are building a community of activist allies for the future as a foundation for intergenerational collective action.
Since 2016, the Romnja Power Month (the flagship event of RomaniPhen) has become more and more known, and the number of visitors and cooperation is growing. On average, in Berlin, between 20 and 50 people come to the 15-18 events; between 150-200 people take part in the closing event. In 2020, the Romnja Power Month was replicated by other Roma organizations in Romania and Austria.
RomaniPhen were the first to introduce the use of gender-inclusive language for Roma and Sinti (Rom*nja and Sinti*zze) in German writing which have since become common practice and is adopted in official government reports and by other grassroot organizations. Roma women are invited by other organizations independently of RomaniPhens’ mediation showing their work and knowledge are valued. The materials and work results produced by RomaniPhen are requested and used in day-care centers and schools, in political spheres and in academic publications and teaching.
In the long run, Isidora aims to create a pan-European community of Roma women who can weave together a new narrative about themselves. RomnjaPower Month was launched in 2016 by RomaniPhen and was held as a nationwide event every year since then. In 2019, just before the pandemic struck, it was taken up by other European self-organized groups of Roma women for the first time. Isidora envisions it becoming institutionalized across Europe as a means to build collective power beyond borders.
Another goal of the team is to maintain and develop close conversations with universities, academia, educational institutions, and public agencies in the following years. Building on her own experience in establishing Germany’s first Roma women-led organization, Isidora is now working with other organizations and networks representing marginalized populations, including but not limited to Roma organizations (for example, the Initiative for Black People in Germany). By providing toolkits and blueprints on establishing and managing community self-organizational structures and networks, she wants to enable them to develop their own community-led responses regarding their exclusion and misrepresentation.
Born in former Yugoslavia as the granddaughter of fascism survivors, Isidora grew up with much awareness and attention around the issues of ethnicity and gender. When she moved to Berlin in primary school, she got to experience most of these issues firsthand. Despite dealing with migrant issues such as the language and cultural differences, she also had to endure racist discrimination, like being put up in a separate classroom, teachers advising her to become a florist (an occupation done in poor conditions by most Roma women) and being bullied by other students for having a darker skin color. Getting over these challenges with the help of her grandparents and close community, Isidora also built awareness around climate issues. When she realized the amount of garbage the lunchroom created, she organized her first activist event. She convinced a group of peers to collect all the garbage and stock them in the middle of the cafeteria to make the problem visible. With this event, she not only achieved the goal of producing less garbage in the lunchroom but also gained the respect and acceptance of many other students.
In her studies of the historically grown persecution of Roma and Sinti and her growing engagement in movements of Roma and Sinti, she learned that the institutional barriers are (re-)produced by laws, routines, and norms, but behind them are people and their interpretations of the world. Here she learned that while we work for human rights, some people are not equally recognized as people, not as creators, feelers, or complex persons with personal and collective histories. So, she started to work on processes of knowledge production- to learn and to counteract the dehumanization of Roma communities.
When she started her professional career as a social worker, she saw dehumanization in action. In a very systematic way, Romani migrants together with some other groups including Africans, Arabs, etc. were only given access to direct social aid packages whereas white migrants would be led to psychological help and occupational courses, which would ensure their integration into the majority society over time. Roma and Sinti children in difficult situations would be treated much differently than the German kids. This experience not only shook her trust in the system, but also made her realize that to fix the system, she first needs to shift the thinking of the majority of society around her own community. Since then, she has been working on collective actions to foster mutual learning and reflection between Roma and non-Roma communities.