The divide I see between the US and the Europe in terms of Romani self-actualization and autonomy is astonishing. Maslow’s hierarchy aside, for many Romani such attainment is not even part of our world view. Self-actualization involves, among other things, a capacity to function with independence and autonomy from others and the ability to exercise our own will. For many Romani, this simply isn’t a consideration or even a desire.

I grew up surrounded by family – parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents – and my personal wishes were subsumed under the wishes and needs of our bari familija. I had no autonomy or inclination to decide my own path in life. I stepped in the footprints of all the women who walked before me. It was expected of me and I happily complied with those expectations. 

In terms of self-actualization, there have been very few studies focused on women – especially women from such historically and presently marginalized groups as the Romani. However, research has shown that those of higher-class, more privileged communities tend to place more emphasis on self-actualization, and that these differences can be explained by higher levels of education and more intrinsically rewarding work experiences. In fact, the idea that I could step up and choose my own direction in life did not come along until later and it was a direct result of my education.

It also resulted in estrangement from my family. I was acting like a gadži. I was selling my soul. But, more importantly, I was being a traitor.

Even though my family were largely settled, and even though my mother’s parents pushed us to integrate, there was always the ever-present influence of tradition.

For generation after generation my family have fled persecution, oppression, discrimination, and death. More than two-thirds of my family were killed in the Holocaust; 80 percent of all children born in my family before my generation lost their lives in early childhood due to preventable diseases, malnutrition, or accidents. Our separateness was at once enforced by the majority population and encouraged by our own traditions. Such a long history of prejudice easily reinforces distance and self-protection. For Romani, there is a certain safety and comfort in tradition. It is a protective armour that has ensured the survival of our communities for generation after generation.

Whether it was conscious or not, my family prepared me only for a life within our own community and socio-economic status. There was no expectation for growth or change. The only social context provided to me was that of a relatively poor, Slovak-British Romani family. Individualistic ideas such as achievement, success, independence, activism, freedom, and equality were never mentioned. I don’t know if this was a lack of desire or simply an acknowledgement of the lack of opportunities available to Romani children, especially girls. As women, we were always expected to be protected, advised, and accompanied by a man – our fathers and our brothers, then our husbands and their brothers. The idea of autonomy was frowned upon and, in light of our history, makes perfect sense.

For many, there is a tangible link between self-actualization and self-esteem – those of us unable to achieve the former will lack the latter. I don’t think this is necessarily true and seems to hint at projected beliefs from Western academics. The women in my family all had high enough self-esteem, especially around their role as ‘tradition-keepers’. Women always hold much more power within our families than is acknowledged by non-Romani researchers and scholars. How many times have I seen the stereotypical assumption of Romani women as downtrodden mothers with twelve children and abusive, angry husbands?

For women, both family and generation have an influence on self-actualization, as well as location and status – for example, living in a settlement, a ghetto, or worse. My grandmothers’ generation were very insular and very much bound by tradition. They firmly believed that it was the only way to protect ourselves and our culture. Although my parents’ generation could acknowledge the idea of self-actualization (predominantly for men), they believed in the strength of Romani community through the performance and preservation of tradition, combined with minimal ‘code-switching’ and integration in the outside community.

My generation seem to be, in many cases, much more outwardly focused and increasing educational opportunities are helping to foster this idea of self-actualization. What this means for our communities, I’m not entirely sure, as many women find themselves in a similar situation – where continued education motivates hostility from both our families and the non-Romani world.

At the same time, use and knowledge of our language and customs are declining and it seems as though our families are living in ever-worsening conditions, which do not encourage autonomy and outward growth (except here in the United States, where it often seems to me self-actualization and autonomy are more widely, if not explicitly, encouraged and Romani seem to have relatively safe and stable lives. Poverty here in no way resembles the kind of poverty found, for example, in Lunik IX). Forced attempts at both assimilation and exclusion throughout Europe push our children ever further from succeeding and our families into ever more precarious situations. Not to mention the fact that if our women and children are forced to beg in order to survive, their focus is only ever going to be towards survival.

Somehow we need to be able to marry the two forces together – the preservation of our cultural heritage with the pressures of marginalization and discrimination. We need to fight for educational opportunities and encourage more women to become more educated. Being autonomous, educated, and part of the workforce does not make me any less of a woman, mother, or wife, Romani or otherwise. I would argue that the process of becoming self-actualized has instead made me a much better woman, mother, and wife. It’s a difficult fight, however, when such marginalization places us in the grip of abject poverty and we are prevented from achieving even the basic levels of housing, sanitation, education, and healthcare.

Sometimes, I can’t even see a way forward. My father was right: my education and career have so far done nothing to help poor Romani like my family. It would appear I have only, thus far, helped myself… and that’s a very disturbing thought.