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Fakali: Feminist Gitano Voices

11 min read

Ensuring that Roma women are heard – an interview with Fakali

My name is Sandra Heredia. I’m 33 years old and from Córdoba. I’m responsible for international, national and EU relations at the Federación de Asociaciones de Mujeres Gitanas Fakali. I also collaborate with the Consejo Estatal del Pueblo Gitano and my background is in sociology and gender studies.

My name is José Vega. I’m Roma, 33 years old and I’m a social worker. With Fakali I work in schools raising awareness of Roma culture and anti-Gypsyism. I also manage community relations and our social media channels.


Sandra: Fakali is an organisation that came out of a group of feminist, Roma university students. Imagine all of those three things together! Mainstream society just couldn’t imagine that people like us existed. We wanted to shatter myths and prejudices and make sure that Roma women’s voices were heard.

I really don’t like to homogenise Roma. This happens a lot when you’re talking about ethnic minorities. Everyone has a series of variables that affect them, such as class, gender, health, location and functional diversity. We come from Roma families, but in many cases, we don’t conform to the stereotypes associated with us by majority society. People often say to us, ‘Oh you don’t seem like a Roma.’ It’s because we have a university education and a job. It’s all about intersectionality. For Roma people who conform to the typical stereotype, their daily reality is totally different from ours.

Sandra Heredia from Federación de asociaciones de Mujeres Gitanas Fakali. Photo by Bex Wade

Sandra Heredia from Federación de Asociaciones de Mujeres Gitanas Fakali. Photo by Bex Wade

We felt that we needed to give a different name to the type of racism we suffer as it differs from the racism other groups suffer, and so we came up with the phrase anti-Gypsyism. It can range from a joke in a bar, to not being served in a shop, to how the media disseminate a very stereotyped image of Roma – we’re always the thieves, the illiterate ones, the ones who give society a bad name. We’re the problem, the mirror that majority society views itself in to feel how good they are and how bad we are.

In Andalucía in the 1970s and 80s there were anti-Roma groups who forced us out of small towns and villages. It was like the Middle Ages. Just a few years ago in Huelva and Jaén some Roma families almost lost their lives when they were caught stealing and a group of villagers tried to burn their houses down.

The anti-Gypsyism that we experience here in Spain ranges from the most subtle to incredibly violent forms of racism. Many members of our community have no access to decent jobs, live in huge neighbourhoods where poverty is extreme; where your human rights are not even guaranteed; where if you go in to a shop the assistant follows you around; where you are prevented from entering a nightclub, or someone crosses the road to avoid walking near you.

This is not just our perception. There are studies in Spain, and within the EU in which they collect the views of majority society. In a Eurobarometer survey a question was asked about who you would least want as your neighbour giving a range of options, such as extreme right wing, extreme left wing, people with mental health problems, gypsies. And who do you think won? Yes, Roma of course.

Anti-Gypsyism permeates everything. It’s structural and goes back centuries. The last study that the WHO did revealed that Roma people may expect to live 15 years less than majority society.

The reality

José: Roma often live on the outskirts of the city. For example, in Sevilla there are six very disadvantaged areas on the periphery where more than 80% of the population is Roma. In the Triana neighbourhood, which is in the centre and traditionally the place where there were most Gypsies in the city, they evicted the Roma families and rehoused them on the outskirts in poor conditions with a lack of basic services. There, life expectancy is drastically reduced and mental health problems are rife. We see this lack of provision of basic services by the state as a manifestation of anti-Gypsyism.

In education too, it is evident. Far too often there is no reference in school books to the Roma population nor the indispensable role they played in the creation of flamenco. Andalucía is often defined as the part of Spain most associated with flamenco, and it’s no coincidence that this is where most Roma have lived, yet it’s so often invisibilised. We’ve also noticed that in the schools where there are more Roma, the numbers of teachers and services provided are less than in schools where the Roma population is smaller.

José Vega from Federación de asociaciones de Mujeres Gitanas Fakali. Photo by Bex Wade

José Vega from Federación de Asociaciones de Mujeres Gitanas Fakali. Photo by Bex Wade

Let’s also talk about political representation. In Andalucía, which we think has more than 600, 000 Roma, in all of the years since we’ve had democracy not one Roma has become a member of the Parliament. It’s the same story at a state level. There has been exceedingly scarce representation in all of the legislatures.

As a result, there is no social policy which contains cultural and ethnic elements appropriate for Roma. It’s taken until now for a three-year plan to be created in Andalucía for the social inclusion of Roma. We really hope that it isn’t just a bundle of good intentions, but instead something that truly works towards improving the situation for the Roma population.

Roma people need to be able to defend the rights of Roma. We have a huge population, although we don’t even know exactly how many we are in Spain, but we are political subjects ourselves and we need to be present in all of the government’s decisions. We can’t be apart from that, because so many of the decisions which affect us are not taking in to account our daily reality.

Confounding stereotypes

Sandra: We always say that Roma women were among the first feminists. We are accused of being a patriarchal society, where women are invisibilised, but the reality is totally the opposite. Back in the day when women from majority society didn’t occupy space in public life, Roma women, who were strongly associated with art and culture, worked in cafes and theatres. They travelled to other countries to buy fabrics and antiques. They worked in the domestic environment, but they also worked in the street. They had double lives. In so many ways they were emancipated. They were often the main wage earners for their families.

In Fakali we make sure that all the visible and decision-making roles in the organisation are occupied by Roma women. We work very closely with Roma girls and boys in schools and strongly believe that they need to have positive and diverse Romna role models. They can see that Roma women can be teachers, psychologists, lawyers, doctors. We especially concentrate our efforts in the disadvantaged neighbourhoods, where poverty, exclusion and inequality indicators are so high.

Protest signs in the Federación de asociaciones de Mujeres Gitanas Fakali office. Photo by Bex Wade

Protest signs in the Federación de Asociaciones de Mujeres Gitanas Fakali office. Photo by Bex Wade

We reject the word integration. We don’t like it. We don’t see why we have to integrate with anything. We think that there should be models of coexistence where our identity is respected, and not homogenised. Our diversity is our wealth!

It’s said that Roma women suffer double discrimination, but I think we suffer multiple discrimination. In Fakali we also have male employees, because we think it’s important as feminists to have male allies. Our feminism makes no sense without our men. We also never talk about our feminism without taking in to account anti-Gypsyism.

I don’t like to talk about privilege, but some of us have had more opportunities. If we lived in a society which could guarantee equal opportunities, above all for minority groups, this inequality wouldn’t even exist. We are here with you talking about the realities of our community, but we know that in the poorest neighbourhoods of Andalucía there are Roma ghettos, where there is no way out of the spiral of poverty. So, we want give a voice to those Roma women who do not have access to the same opportunities as us. We want to guarantee their rights, but without them or us losing our identity. It’s our way of putting in to practice our feminism, always in alliance with other feminisms. We take part in many different platforms with our sisters, we want to give voice to non-hegemonic feminism, to form alliances with our Muslim and afro-descendant sisters. We think we share so much more with them. We also of course support the idea of Romani dissidence, and the Roma LGBTIQ community. Without feminism you can’t talk about Romani dissidence.

An international Roma family

José: There are barely any differences between Roma and gitanos, especially taking in to account the diversity present within Roma society. As Spanish gitanos we are conscious of being Romani, and we’re very proud of it. At the same time, our culture also includes aspects of the culture of our Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters. And this of course is then intimately linked with Andalucian culture.

Federación de asociaciones de Mujeres Gitanas Fakali literature. Photo by Bex Wade

Federación de Asociaciones de Mujeres Gitanas Fakali literature. Photo by Bex Wade

Our relationship with our Roma sisters and brothers around the world is very positive. For example, after the statements made by the Italian minister Matteo Salvini, we went out on to the streets to protest. This has had a direct effect. In the Spanish Congress a letter condemning the ethnic census that Salvini is proposing was read out. We hope that our Italian Roma cousins know that they are not alone. We are the biggest minority in Europe and we are more than 12 million people worldwide!

Sandra: We went to Manchester as part of a project called Real Rom and met up with other Roma. We felt at home straight away with them. We met with migrant Roma from other parts of Europe, suffering double discrimination, as migrants, and as Roma. A group of them came to Sevilla too. It was really valuable for us, like being part of a big family. We don’t have land or a nation, we don’t have economic power, we have survived La Gran Redada, the Holocaust, persecution, attempts to annihilate us simply because of who we are, and here we are still fighting.

Fear of a census

A census of the number of Roma in Spain doesn’t exist, we really don’t know how many of us there are. In many families there are people who simply don’t identify as Roma and therefore as time goes on the connection with Roma culture has been lost. I understand why this happens, Fakali’s President talks about it in terms of coming out of the ‘ethnic closet.’ It’s totally understandable because of our history of repression. Also, there are people who hide their Roma identity, such as those who have jobs with a lot of responsibilities in the public and private sector and don’t outwardly manifest their identity for fear of losing their status.  We respect those who take a step forward and show their Roma identity publicly. But it is so important that as a community we are visible.

There is a lot of fear about a census, on how the information might be used in a perverse way, as we have seen in the case of Italy. This was exactly the case during La Gran Redada. The Catholic church organised a census of gitanos in order to be able to expel them from their homes. It’s complicated. We need to know how many we are in order to know if we are represented. So yes, it’s a double-edged sword, on the one hand access to power, on the other a deep mistrust because of our history.

José: In the national census there is no provision for self-identification in terms of ethnicity. Most of the data that exists on this comes from the data we provide to the Ministry of Work and Social Services. However, if there was ever a meaningful census of Roma in Spain, where people felt able and safe to reveal their identities, I think that it would show that there are at least one million of us.

On the future

José: In the short term our path is one of struggle. Our main problem is anti-Gypsyism. The economic crisis which Europe has been experiencing means that minority groups have ended up being the scapegoats for many situations. But at the same time as the extreme right have been pushing their message, we have been growing in strength. We have many more allies than we had ten years ago. And many more people are interested in Roma culture, in multiculturalism, in recognising that Andalucía is what it is because of the input from so many different cultures.

Sandra: I have three fundamental points for a hopeful future. Firstly, reparations. All of the attempts at annihilation must be recognised. We have been victims of a racist system. Secondly, recognition of the input from Roma people. We are central to what makes Spain what it is today. And lastly, emancipation. We need to become political subjects ourselves, with our own voice. We don’t need interlocutors anymore – we’re prepared to speak for ourselves. Nothing about us without us.

Fakali 5

The Federación de Asociaciones de Mujeres Gitanas Fakali team in Seville. Photo by Bex Wade


Written by Emma Eastwood

Photos by Bex Wade