“this game seems to be a curse,
and I’m always the princess,
and each day a poor woman,
somebody is playing with me
and this game is no longer a game
… somebody is playing with me
and day after day is throwing me
down into the lions pit”
– Luminița Mihai Cioabă
“Talking isn’t doing,” Maami said to me as we sat outside in the sun topping and tailing beans. A group of old men sat across the way, muttering together, heads bowed. “They’s always talking,” she nodded as if I knew exactly what she meant, “and talking doesn’t get you anything.”
In my childhood, women didn’t have voices, not the same as men did. We told stories in the late afternoon sun or over steaming pots in the kitchen. We sang or spoke in mixed company only when expressly asked to do so. Or at least, that’s how it was supposed to be. Maami Babka was never very good at holding her tongue, though.
I think, maybe, that’s where I learned this from.
I remember her trying to explain the word “ratinel” – to resist – and her journey from the ‘hungry smoke’. My grandmother committed small acts of resistance every day. It took me years to realize it, but when I finally did, it was so liberating. Maami never followed the rules – she never asked, “may I speak now?” and she never was silent on issues she felt mattered in our families and community. She was a matriarch – and a vocal one. Some of her ability came from being one of a handful of my family to survive the Holocaust and one of an even smaller number of women. Although we came from an abjectly poor settlement in Slovakia, she refused to let that be an end of it.
Every day, my grandmother cooked for our family. Every day, she chose what we ate and who was served first. Every day, she (and my mother and aunts) were responsible for raising the children – giving them stories and songs, teaching them how to be Romani in our changing world. The stories she told us as we swept, picked, peeled, or cooked all contained some small symbolism – the mother who gave herself to the devil so that her children would be well fed; the daughter who climbed nine mountains so she could ask the heavens to return her brother; the angry father who became so angry he lost his entire family in a storm…
Every day she spoke words, wrapped in the shawls of our ancestors. She spoke of fires, smoke, and horses. She spoke of life as a woman, even though I didn’t know what she was doing.
She was, in short, a feminist – she supported the women in our family, as much as she could, in becoming strong, fierce women. She tried to temper the fire of patriarchy wherever she could. She was the cool water to the burning hot coals of her husband.
She was the only one who supported my education. Not even my own mother would go that far for her daughter. Daj believed it was safer for me to stay in the community, get married, have children. Maami wanted me to be educated. To be something other than a poor Gypsy. Trouble is, when the community doesn’t agree, no education in the world will help. My resistance became my learning. It became telling my family stories from books, from other cultures, from long dead heroes. It became reciting Tennyson and Donne by the fire, instead of Aunt Kali from a hundred years before. And in the end, it became making a new life, a life without my family.
As women, every one of us live small moments of resistance daily. How we dress, how we speak, what we eat, what we do. As a Romani woman, my voice – this blog – is my resistance. Faced with racism on a daily basis, we are forced to defend the more harmful practices of our culture – early and arranged marriage, embargoes on education and certain forms of healthcare, and the patriarchal structure of our society. Whether or not we agree with these things, we find ourselves jumping to their defense – to our own defense – so that we may live in a little more peace.
But, as Ethel Brooks argues, “for me, Romani feminism creates the possibility of a simultaneous call for and claiming of responsibility. For far too long, non-Romani experts – what some of us call gypsylorists – have dominated knowledge of Romani history and ways of being. In their judgment, tautologically, our culture explains our oppression, and our salvation would preserve their superiority over our historically and socially determined practices and situations” [The Possibilities of Romani Feminism. Signs. Vol 38, no.1, 2012]
As my Maami would say, “it’s time for the butterflies to sing”.