‘Their voices are missing, and this persistent erasure or negative representation reflects […] a cultural and political violence towards these women’
Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) women are rarely mentioned within academia, particularly in feminist thought. In the rare moments when they are considered, they are perceived as ‘having problems, being polluted, [and being] unclean’. Yet one could argue that they are the women most in need of feminist consideration; as Casey states, being a Traveller woman usually leaves one with the ‘triple burden’ of gender, class, and race, with xenophobia against Travellers being described in one report as the ‘last respectable form of racism’. Racist attacks are frequent, and due to prejudices, many women in these communities are not afforded access to healthcare, education, and other public services.
On the surface, it seems as though GRT women are fighting a battle that they simply cannot win. Whilst being perceived as impure by the ‘outside’ – or ‘gorger’ – community, they have many time-consuming cleanliness rituals in order to uphold the image of the respectable, non-polluted woman within their own societies. Many Traveller women clean the outside of their trailers, and the contents, every day, in order to observe complex rituals associated with ideas surrounding pollution. For many women – particularly Romani Gypsies – the lower part of the body is considered to be unclean, and as such, menstruating and pregnant women are expected to isolate themselves from other members of the community, particularly whilst eating. As Paddy Doherty states: ‘A reputation as an unclean woman? That’s an insult that’s as below the belt as they come in our community’.
Yet many reports detail that these women feel a sense of pride in upholding the gendered cultural heritage of Gypsies and Travellers. The issue that many Traveller women have, they state, is the responsibility of negotiating between general social expectations, and cultural, community norms.
They are, then, under pressure to accept the feminist archetypes of non-Traveller women, whilst also lacking trust in these very women for overlooking and belittling their culture. Further, it is noted that many GRT women accept gendered roles not only because of social coercion, but because of deeply held beliefs about their responsibilities to their families, and their culture as a whole. The notions about ‘decency’ with regards to womanhood undoubtedly inform ideas about being able to ‘know oneself’: particularly in the face of widespread hostility and calls to integrate, which threaten their attempts at cultural survival.
Something that many do not want to acknowledge, however, is that much of the threat to GRT women actually comes from outside Traveller communities. There are many reports of institutional prejudice; one recent government study, for example, shows that since 2009, the number of Roma children in care has increased by 933%, and the number of Irish Traveller children in the same situation has also surged by 400%. This is stark in comparison to the national increase of 19%. It is apparent that this is motivated, in part, by attitudes towards the GRT community, with one social worker even commenting that the women in question ‘don’t know how to promote a child’s health or development’ : an assumption that leads more than ¾ of GRT people to hide their ethnicity on paper for fear of persecution.
On top of this, whilst Traveller men are between 5-10 times more likely to be imprisoned than the general population, the risk of imprisonment for Traveller women is as much as 18-22 times higher than the average in Ireland. Unlike other ethnic minority prisoners, Gypsy, Roma and Irish Travellers have not even been monitored within the Criminal Justice System, and as such, there is a complete ‘blind spot’ in official government data.
Therefore, it is impossible to even measure the sentencing statistics, much less the discrimination that GRT people – particularly women – suffer institutionally. It is difficult to imagine such carelessness being expressed towards any other ethnic group, but this xenophobia against Travellers is seemingly commonplace. As Conservative MP Andrew MacKay said in 2002: ‘They are scum. People who do what these people have done do not deserve the same human rights as my decent constituents’. Little fuss seems to have been made about MacKay’s comment; he served as an MP for another 8 years until – ultimately proving his own ‘decency’ – he was ordered to stand down due to an expenses scandal.
The statistical data surrounding the racism and sexism GRT women face is undoubtedly alarming. One 2007 study found that 81% of Irish Traveller women had experienced direct domestic abuse, and a significant amount of these women are not aware of the services available, or cannot access them, due to low literacy levels and racism from GPs, who often do not accept Travellers onto their practice lists. They also live 12 years less on average than women in the general population, face an excess prevalence of miscarriages, stillbirths and deaths during childbirth, and despite the overall high levels of mental illness within GRT communities, women are twice as likely as men to experience mental health problems. They are often ignored by healthcare professionals, which is only emphasised through the fact that Gypsies and Travellers are not even included in the NHS’ seventeen national ethnic codes.
So, what can feminists do in order to stop the oppression that GRT women, and their communities as a whole, suffer? It is clear, firstly, that the feminism for non-Travellers, and that for Travellers, will not look the same. It is easy for non-Travellers to express disgust at the sexist expectations these women endure, yet in doing so we only exacerbate their isolation. What we can do is listen to their voices, understand their reluctance to trust in ‘gorger’ social institutions, and question the arrogances expressed within discussions about GRT communities. And if it makes us recoil when imagining someone describing other ethnic minority groups as ‘filthy’ or ‘thieving’ or ‘scum,’ then it is a clear sign that we must do all that we can to bring this oppression to an end.
Resources for information on GRT issues:
Bibliography (quotes/statistics in the order presented):
All images courtesy of Jamie Johnson.
Originally published in The Clandestine.