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Tina outside her caravan in Swedenphotography Mikael Good

Breaking down the stereotypes that plague young Roma women

The women of Roma feminist theatre company Giuvlipen give voice to a vibrant community surrounded by myth and prejudice

Europe’s 12 million Roma people are the continent’s largest minority, yet their isolation means few of us actually know much about them. Where communication is dire, myths begin. A self-defined Roma feminist theatre company, called Giuvlipen, wants to bust these myths and stereotypes.

Their name, Giuvlipen, combines the Romani words for woman, giuvli, and the suffix ipen, which stands for crowd. It’s the closest Romani language gets to feminism, says actress Mihaela Drăgan, one of the founders of the theatre and a graduate in Romani language studies. She hopes to add the word to the Romani dictionary.

Based in Bucharest, Romania – the country with the largest Roma community in the EU – Giuvlipen gives a voice to Roma women and opens the stage to Roma actors, who get more roles in Indian and Arab films than in local productions. Dazed talked to Drăgan and her colleagues, actress Zita Moldovan, and director Mihai Lukacs, about the stereotypes about Roma women and communities, as well as the tensions that divide them.

One of the oldest myths about Roma women in Western pop culture, they explain, is that they’re hot, wild and hetero. “When you go on a date with a non-Roma man, he throws clichés at you immediately, that you’re passionate, wild, that all Roma women have big breasts and a hot pussy” says Drăgan. But exoticising and hypersexualising someone is objectifying them. This was one of the messages of Giuvlipen’s first show, Gadjo dildo (gadjo is the word for a non-Roma person in Romani), a cabaret-inspired performance speaking about Roma women’s sexuality.

The show also introduced the story of a Roma lesbian woman who dated men to avoid gossip. After a heartbreak, she turned towards women. This is a tough intersectionality, as many Roma people claim there is no such thing as LGBT Roma people. 

When the organisers of a Roma arts festival in Romania found out that Gadjo dildo included a lesbian character, they withdrew their invitation to Giuvlipen to perform the show. “The Roma communities aren’t ready for that yet,” they said. Meanwhile, Moldovan worked with Roma women from Bucharest in a community centre run by two Roma gay women. No one seemed unprepared for that.

“I don’t promote the traditional Roma woman. I promote the woman in general” – Zita Moldovan

Women’s dress is another source of tension between the more and the less traditional Roma communities. For the past ten years, in addition to acting, Moldovan has also presented a TV show about Roma people, called I was also born in Romania. She used to get dressed in traditional and colourful long skirts at first. When she moved to another TV channel, Moldovan started wearing short skirts. A traditional Roma man attacked her, saying she wasn’t a ‘true gypsy’. “But I don’t promote the traditional Roma woman. I promote the woman in general,” was her reply. Still, these negative reactions were a minority.

Despite their image in the media, only a small percentage of Roma communities are traditional. One TV report about Moldovan had the title ‘From the tent, straight to the greatest stages’. “But I have always lived in flats,” comments Moldovan. Her father was a maths teacher. Although Moldovan and Drăgan had luckier upbringings, they see it as their mission to speak about the less privileged Roma.

It’s among poorer communities that girls marry at 12 or 13, leaving school. But even within these communities, there are women who fight it. One of Giuvlipen’s latest performances, Who killed Szomna Grancsa?, is about a 2007 teenage suicide that shocked Romania. Szomna was a smart and studious Roma girl of 17 from the Transylvanian village of Frumoasa. Her parents refused to let her go to high school because they wanted her married, and were worried about the costs of travel, clothing and books but also feared losing control over her virginity and, ultimately, over her. At the priest’s insistence, and his offer to pay expenses, they gave in, but only if Szomna was accompanied by a male relative at all times. Caught between her family’s traditionalism and the school’s Western values, between the suspicion of her Roma community and the racism of her classmates and teachers, the girl hanged herself leaving an inscription on the wall, which said “The school is me”. Little more is known.

The director of the performance, Mihai Lukacs, thinks this is an economic rather than a cultural issue. “Romania has a big problem with school abandonment compared to Western Europe, affecting Romanian and not just Roma children. It’s not a choice. Some people simply cannot afford the costs.”

Begging isn’t a choice over work either. One of the communities Giuvlipen worked with, in the village of Valea Seacă in eastern Romania, was so poor that dozens of its inhabitants left to beg in Sweden. One girl slept in a box while she did it. 

“There was a woman, Narghita, who said that she kept praying to find an old person to look after them. “I was crying, standing up, crying, kneeling back down,” she said, in Drăgan’s words. But Narghita didn’t speak Swedish. Failing to get by selling flowers, she started begging. It was humiliating but it allowed her to build a home in her village.

Roma communities are divided according to their occupation. Valea Seacă’s residents are căldărari, which translates as ‘bucket makers’ – a traditional Roma occupation which has now become a sign of poverty. The Roma lăutari, on the other hand, meaning musicians, are among the better off. 

But they don’t escape stereotypes either. “There’s this idea that Roma people are naturally spontaneous, they play music and act and don’t have a technique; they simply have talent,” says Drăgan, who comes from a lăutari family. “A lot of people tell us, wow, you act so well, wouldn’t you want to go to drama school? And we tell them – we already have a degree in drama, why is it so hard to believe that?”

You can find out more about Giuvlipen here