The First Roma Feminist

Ilona Zambo

Ilona Zambo

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com.

In the United States, women of color frequently experience the double burden of discrimination. They are discriminated against by race and also by gender. The same applies to Roma women in East-Central Europe. And sexism imposes its own double burden, for Roma women must confront not only the prejudices of society as a whole but also discrimination within traditional Roma families.

I met Ilona Zambo in 1993, after she’d already set up her Gypsy Mothers’ Association. She was focusing at the time on family and social welfare laws that discriminated against Roma women, and she was also hoping to adapt affirmative action to the Hungarian context. She was a powerful advocate of women and children when many organizations focused on Roma men. When re-interviewing her last May, I was surprised to learn that her advocacy did not come so much from her own experience as those of other Roma women she had met.

The Gypsy Mothers’ Association “was formed in 1991,” she told me last year as we talked in her apartment over several plates of delicious homemade cookies. “The idea came from having been part of a Roma dance group where my son was dancing. There I met other Roma mothers who led much more traditional lives than I did. I come from a more assimilated Roma background. I was very surprised to hear about the traditional pressures on Roma women and what they had to live with. Many Roma organizations were forming around that time, but none was for women. Talking to these women, I thought, ‘Why not gather them together and form a Roma women’s association?’ Bela Osztojkan, who was a Roma leader, called me the first Gypsy feminist for standing up for the rights of Roma women. He did not mean it as a compliment.”

Through this organizing experience, Zambo was able to get a picture of the status of women in more traditional families. “Women are the lowest in the family hierarchy,” she explained. “After they get married they are only allowed to do what their husband allows them. Women have to endure infidelity, physical and emotional abuse, humiliation. Violence against women is widespread. For me it was a great shock to learn of the oppression of Roma women. I knew men from the Roma NGOs who kept strict order in their homes and were seeing women on the side.”

As she continued her work as an accountant, Zambo brought the issue of Roma women to the Hungarian parliament, to Europe-wide institutions, and even to the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing. She was able to secure more scholarships for young Roma and held summer camps that brought together Roma women from a variety of backgrounds.

Eventually she left Hungary and spent a total of six years in Canada. There she discovered that, in a new environment, even Roma women from traditional families could break free of their constraints.

“I met with a lot of Hungarian Roma people there,” she said. “It was amazing to see how happy women were to have jobs there, women who had no access to employment here in Hungary. There was one woman I talked to who was telling me with tears of joy about how her husband allowed her to go to work, that she can wear pants and talk to anyone she wishes to (all banned for women by traditional Roma customs). People can make ends meet there and can support their families.”

The Interview

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I was in Hungary. I was very happy to hear about the fall of the Berlin Wall because I felt it was inhumane to keep a nation separated, to keep people, families apart. I don’t think it was a huge shock to us. It was sudden, but not unexpected. Germany became a more open society after that.

When did you decide to form the Gypsy Mothers’ Association, and what was the inspiration for that?

It was formed in 1991. The idea came from having been part of a Roma dance group where my son was dancing. There I met other Roma mothers who led much more traditional lives than I did. I come from a more assimilated Roma background. I was very surprised to hear about the traditional pressures on Roma women and what they had to live with. Many Roma organizations were forming around that time, but none was for women. Talking to these women, I thought, “Why not gather them together and form a Roma women’s association?” Bela Osztojkan, who was a Roma leader, called me the first Gypsy feminist for standing up for the rights of Roma women. He did not mean it as a compliment.

When you say that you grew up in a more assimilated lifestyle, was that in Budapest or outside of Budapest?

The first part of my life I lived in Hajdúnánás, on the eastern border of Hungary. I went to school in Debrecen. I come from a more educated family. My uncle, for example, graduated from the Music Academy. In our community I was not used to the discrimination that I confronted in the capital. Here I met women living in traditional households, who had to completely obey their husbands.

In our town, I didn’t feel discrimination growing up. By the time we moved to Budapest in 1989 graffiti saying “Gypsies get out” started appearing on the walls. We had a business in Hajdúnánás. We ran a bar, and after we moved to Budapest we still maintained the ownership. But now that I think about it, the anti-Gypsy remarks started after we had already begun to do well in the restaurant business. Maybe it was because of envy, but that’s when they started to call us “Gypsies” in a derogatory way.

And if I recall well, that is when my husband and I decided to move to Budapest, so our three children would not face this kind of name-calling. We were hoping that in a large town, we would not be so visible. There was a “glass ceiling” for us economically. They allowed us to prosper to a certain degree, but then the local Party leadership put a stop to it. They let us achieve only mediocre success, but when we really started to prosper we were stopped.

You experienced racism economically, but was there more general racism as well? You mentioned there were some slogans on the walls before 1989.

The graffiti started after 1989. My husband and I both have college degrees in restaurant management. In the 1980s, we applied to run an establishment, and someone much less qualified but with Party backing got the license. I called the local Communist Party office, and also called a journalist from Budapest and told them that this was obvious discrimination because of our ethnic background. Three days later we received the license. Did I do the right thing? I was young and I wanted to work and I wanted justice.

When you moved to Budapest, you said that you kept the business in Hajdúnánás. But did you also establish a business here in Budapest?

Not in Budapest. We ran a large restaurant near Lake Balaton in the summers. We also both had 9-to-5 jobs as accountants, which we are certified to do. This was right after 1989, after German reunification. All the divided German families who had been meeting at Balaton until then stopped coming. I hate accounting, I like to be moving about, but I did it nevertheless. We ran the Balaton restaurant for two seasons in the summer, and we also gave up the bar finally in our hometown. It was impossible after a while to run a bar long distance.

Prior to that there was an arson attack. The police investigation never confirmed whether this was a racist crime or not. We received no compensation. Because our subletters stopped paying the insurance, we couldn’t even collect the insurance. That event really hit me hard. All that we worked for over so many years seemed to have been in vain. But then I stood up and began again. After all, this is what human life is about, to be able to get up when you are really down.

When you stopped the restaurant in Lake Balaton and after the fire in Hajdúnánás, did you continue as an accountant or did you start a new enterprise?

I kept working as an accountant. I was doing the accounting for a Roma non-profit organization, and that is how I got into the Roma public life. Here I was able to get an overview of how to run a non-profit, but I also got a deeper understanding of the suffering of the Roma people. As you heard, when it was needed I stood up for myself and fought for my own rights. But I had no view of the overall discrimination.

You said you started the women’s organization because you met women who grew up in more traditional culture and encountered problems in those circumstances. Can you describe some of the challenges these women faced in a more traditional setting?

Women are the lowest in the family hierarchy. After they get married they are only allowed to do what their husband allows them. Women have to endure infidelity, physical and emotional abuse, humiliation. Violence against women is widespread. For me it was a great shock to learn of the oppression of Roma women. I knew men from the Roma NGOs who kept strict order in their homes and were seeing women on the side.

When you created the organization, what were the initial actions?

We wanted to set up a nationwide network. Once people learned about the establishment of the organization we were getting enthusiastic mail from all over the country. We wanted to join a larger umbrella, so we approached the Roma Parliament, which was prominent at that point. But we were not welcome.

Of course discrimination against women is a mainstream issue. And the same kind of discrimination that applies to all women, like lack of representation and inequality of wages, also applies to Roma women.

Would you describe your organization primarily as a service or as an advocacy organization?

Advocacy was our main profile: to represent Roma women internationally and nationally at different levels. To do service work would have required more funding. Educating and advocating for Roma youth was another focus, for that was a major concern of Roma mothers. We approached the Education Ministry and were quite successful in starting scholarship programs for Roma youth. We were fundamental in the establishment of a program that provided a university preparation program for high-school graduates who got into university without an entrance exam if they passed with a 70% average in the program. Roma youth struggle with lot of inferiority complexes. They get blocked and tend to do much worse in exam situations.

If I look back, I think our organization covered a lot of ground by taking small steps. We began very naively and ended up contributing to the UN CEDAW report on women, participating at the Women’s Forum in Beijing, and contributing to meetings at the European level.

Being able to speak on behalf of Roma women, calling attention to the particular plight of this minority that many people have not even heard of was groundbreaking at that point in time. That was a success.

The organization coincided with the disintegration of Hungarian heavy industry and industry in general. While in 1985, 80% of Roma were employed, by the beginning of the nineties 80% were unemployed. The economic hardships facing the Roma community were sudden and getting worse at this point. The economic crisis led to increased scapegoating of the Roma population. People forget that when there was employment, there was no begging on the streets.

You mentioned that Bela Osztojkan was not very sympathetic toward your organization. Were there other Roma men leaders who were supportive?

Yes. Down the line I became more vocal within the Roma non-profit sphere, and I started to have more perspective on how things were operating. I think I gained respect and learned who were our allies. And yes there were men who were supportive: Jozsef Raduly and Aladar Horvath for example.

You talked about the greater visibility of Roma at international forums as a very important accomplishment. Was there any other accomplishment that you are proud of today?

We organized summer camps for four or five summers where we brought together more educated and more traditional Roma women. In the beginning they were wary of each other. More educated Roma sometimes don’t want to have anything to do with the less fortunate. Here in these camps there were bridges built between the women. We also contributed to the AFSC Roma youth program by referring participants to it. We held forums in the countryside to tell women how young people can apply for scholarships and to disseminate practical information. These were the accomplishments that made it worthwhile, even if we had negative experiences along with the positive.

Would you be willing to talk about the negative experiences as well?

On many occasions we were treated with disrespect. I will carry these scars in my heart. In the town of Esztergom, for example, we wanted to establish a vocational school for Roma youth in an abandoned Russian military compound. We did not want to create a problem; we wanted to bring a solution. The mayor did not even see us. We approached him on several occasions. He sent a message with his secretary saying we were “unwanted elements.” We already had an agreement with the state government body that was selling off these properties. We were going to get the buildings for a lowered rate as a NGO. The town bought up the property instead. To this day I regret that I did not file a complaint of discrimination.

We also applied to the municipal government of the 7th district in Budapest for an office and was not granted one. This was one of the contributing factors for why the organization disbanded. We had no place to gather.

Over time we realized that the 100-year disadvantage that the Roma suffer compared to the majority Hungarian population is not a 10-year-long project to make up for. Since then, the economic situation has become so desperate and the situation of Roma has become so aggravated that one feels helpless in the face of it. The local Roma minority government structure was established as a formal elected body within the local municipal governments with no voting or veto power, only an advisory role. How they function is another issue, but we felt some of our work as a non-profit became superfluous. On a local level maybe they can represent problems better than a non-profit can.

Of course the independence of the minority local governments is questionable, given that they are dependent on state funding. Just take the example of Florian Farkas, the head of the national Roma Self-Government body. Which reminds me of another story I forgot to mention earlier that made me really upset. Once, when Florian learned of our participation at a meeting he said, “Good, at least there will be a spot of color at the event.” I don’t know what he thought, maybe that I was so stupid as to only be a source of color, but I made it clear to him that I was there to represent women and he better accept it whether he liked it or not.

The example of Florian Farkas demonstrates the problem of the local minority government structure. Florian is a member of Fidesz, an MP, and the head of the National Minority Self-Government body. How can you represent the government and an independent minority viewpoint at the same time? You can’t. I don’t follow his work very closely, but I don’t hear a lot about his representing Roma people at the level he is at. His role as a Fidesz MP and a representative of the Roma people is in contradiction. But it reflects Hungary’s general attitude towards Roma that there are outright right-wing racists in the parliament who actually win votes with their racist proclamations.

Are there any organizations today that represent Roma women?

I don’t know whether Gizella Makai’s organization is active today. I was abroad with my family for six years in total, and we just came home half a year ago, so I am not so familiar with what is going on right now.

When I was in Bulgaria I did an interview with a woman who is an anchor on a TV-show, she is prominent and quite young, in her twenties. It was very important for the Roma community to have someone so prominent so young. I wonder if there were prominent young Roma women in the public sphere.

There are. For example, there’s Livia Jaroka, a Fidesz European Parliamentary member, and Agnes Osztojkan with LMP in the Hungarian Parliament. Timea Junghaus is an art historian and curator. Erika Varga is a Romani fashion designer. Maria Baranyi works as a journalist at Hungarian National Radio. Agnes Szaloky is a folk singer, and Ibolya Olah is a pop singer. And a lot of young college educated women are in social work.

You earlier asked about our achievements, and something else just came to my mind. We were in negotiations with the college of special education to start a positive discrimination program for Roma youth. They said, “You won’t even be able to pull together a list of 10 high-school-educated Roma.” We presented them with a list of over 50 names. I felt this was my responsibility to truly represent.

And I also just remembered another negative incident. My racial characteristics are not so prominent, so I was often mistaken for a non-Roma. At one of the ministry meetings on organizing a parliamentary day on Roma issues, a woman who was representing the Minority Office gave an incredibly degrading speech, not knowing that I was Roma myself. I got so angry that I could barely speak. I introduced myself and whom I was there to represent, and I confronted her with the situation of the Roma people. That’s another example where I could have made a bigger scandal. She was very afraid of me afterwards.

And here’s another negative incident. I was invited to one of the larger TV channels for a Mother’s Day event. One of the production assistants after finding out our name remarked during the break: “Gypsy Mothers? Gypsies and AIDS…” What do you expect when supposedly intelligent people make negative associations like this? However, a 16-year-old girl, a daughter of one of the other participants, answered back and defended us. So that is also a positive memory.

Over the last 23 years, did you change your mind about anything, or do you still pretty much believe the same things that you believed back then?

My big revelation was in the beginning of the 1990s when I started seeing the disadvantages of that many people suffered. Until then I thought you get what you fight for, and that’s when I realized that was not true, and one needed to help the ones in need. I started to have a wider perspective.

The situation of Roma itself has not improved: people eat from the garbage, racism is rampant. Maybe there is more representation. Maybe we got better at representing our problems. But there are no answers to the problems raised. This is such a huge issue that there is no short-term solution.

You spent six years all together in Canada. Did that change your perspective about anything?

Yes. I met with a lot of Hungarian Roma people there. It was amazing to see how happy women were to have jobs there, women who had no access to employment here in Hungary. There was one woman I talked to who was telling me with tears of joy about how her husband allowed her to go to work, that she can wear pants and talk to anyone she wishes to (all banned for women by traditional Roma customs). People can make ends meet there and can support their families.

I end with three quantitative questions. When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed here in Hungary, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?

2 — for the situation for Roma people. The slight improvement is for the improvement of representation. The government only makes promises to the Roma community, so as a whole the situation is worse.

The same scale, the same period of time: your own personal life?

I can’t give a positive number. Two of my children were forced to emigrate because they couldn’t make ends meet. My grandchildren are abroad, so that is not positive for me. At least they make a living and have a better economic situation. I think my daughter would have had better career options here. My son drives a truck with his university degree. He is a teacher and worked at one of the ministries before.

Looking into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for Hungary on a scale of 1 to 10, with one being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?

5. You can’t approach life with a pessimistic attitude, even though my experience of political leaders is very negative. The ones who get into power, like Gyurcsany, always come out better financially than they were before. They sold opportunities for local market and development. The laws hindered agriculture and industries and were not supportive of local development. I don’t mind if they are paid well, but at least they should represent us. Irrespective of my party sympathies I feel that all of our prime ministers are linked to corruption.

Budapest, May 3, 2013

Interpreter: Judith Hatfaludi