The First Roma Feminist

06/20/2014 10:44 am ET | Updated Aug 20, 2014

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

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?

___________

To read the rest of the interview, click here.