BERLIN (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Hungarian actress Franciska Farkas revealed that she was Roma four years ago, there was “of course” a negative reaction, she said, but she also received letters from girls belonging to the persecuted minority declaring her their new idol.
Many Roma who are in the public eye in Hungary, which has one of Central Europe’s largest minorities at 800,000 people, never reveal their identities.
“I want to be a role model,” Farkas told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, walking by the river Spree in Berlin, where she is rehearsing for her next project.
Farkas is not alone in trying to encourage young Roma women to feel proud of their ethnicity, as a new generation of Roma artists and actresses across Europe are embracing feminism and challenging negative stereotypes.
To mark International Roma Day on April 8, Farkas is one of 13 Roma actors and artists descending on Berlin to take part in the first Roma Biennale – a series of art exhibitions, theatre performances and music events organized by the community.
With ancestral roots in India, the Roma migrated to Europe in the 10th century and have a history marked by persecution. There are some 11 million Roma living across the continent, particularly in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Spain.
Roma communities are usually poorer, less educated and have lower life expectancies and employment rates than the overall population. In Hungary, they have been openly vilified by the far-right who blame them for crime and insecurity.
While Roma women are not represented in any of the European Union’s national parliaments, they are coming to the forefront in arts and theatre to reclaim their public image.
Berlin has become a focal point for activism since last year’s opening of the European Roma Institute of Art and Culture, an international creative hub set up to reduce prejudice towards the Roma. It is headed by two women.
“Human rights progress concerning Roma generally is impossible without significant advances in the field of Romani women’s rights,” said Aniko Orsos of the European Roma Rights Centre, which litigates to combat anti-Romani racism.
“Romani women continue to face pressure by families and communities to comply with certain customs and traditions (that are) degrading to women,” the women’s rights officer, who is based in Budapest, said in emailed comments.
Participants in the Biennale’s main performance, the majority of whom are female, include Romanian playwright Mihaela Dragan and the Selimovic sisters, Austria-based actresses and rappers.
“It’s really, for us, very important to be kind of role models for our girls,” said Sandra Selimovic.
“We want them to know they don’t have to end up being the nice girl in the kitchen having kids. They don’t have to be dependent on a man and marry very early.”
At home in Vienna, she uses her feminist theater company Romano Svato to challenge stereotypes of Roma women by assuming roles that are not traditionally feminine.
She raps or sometimes plays men on stage: once she played famous Sinti-German boxer Johann Trollmann – the Sinti are a Romani group, living mostly in Germany and central Europe.
“We are not just housewives, whores or beggars,” said the 37-year-old in a phone interview from Berlin.
“We are businesswomen. We are very tough, strong women and role models.”
The Selimovic sisters also debunk stereotypes in Roma Armee, which has been running at Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theatre since September.
Riah May Knight, an actress in the show, who will also participate in the Roma Biennale, watched villagers in England burn an effigy of a Romani caravan when she was a child.
She still remembers the cardboard children melting in the fire and the crowd shouting, “burn them!” on Britain’s annual Bonfire Night celebrations.
When her mother reported the incident to the press, their home was targeted by far-right groups, with faeces posted through their letterbox and insults scratched on their car.
“Racism against Roma is the last bastion of acceptable racism,” said the 21-year-old actress, singer and songwriter.
Fighting discrimination is still the main aim of the Roma civil rights movement but a focus on women’s rights can impact both Roma women and men, said Knight.
“Feminism for me is all about self-empowerment - about what makes me, a woman, feel confident and empowered to go out into the world. Those ideals can be applied to any movement that suffers from discrimination,” she said.
“You can’t have a community that is empowered if half are suppressed in some way.”
This idea is echoed by Delaine Le Bas, the Biennale’s British co-curator.
“Equality should exist everywhere for everyone,” she said.
“There has always been strong female participation within the Roma rights movement ... I think the Biennale is good reflection of the progressive way things are moving forward.”
Reporting by Morgan Meaker; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.