The History of the roma women

The History of the roma women


Romani women have played a leading role in the history of the Romani People, which is usually denied to us. While the public authorities through anti-Roma laws have given specific treatment to Romani women, society through the arts and other expressions of popular culture has generated a stereotype of Romani women who are marked by labels of excessive fertility, hypersexualization and exoticism.
To begin with, the fact that Romani women were called "Egyptian" in the Byzantine Empire, together with the fact that Romani clothing made them perceived as "Oriental" made the popular imagination grow in the idea that the Romani People was originally from Egypt. This idea was also assumed by the cultural elites so that when Andrew Boorde writes his The Fyrst Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge —a kind of encyclopedia of the time— in 1547 he confuses the real Egyptian speech with the Romani language and reproduces as a specimen of Egyptian speech a conversation in the Romani language.
In the painting the impact of the Romani women was such that during the sixteenth century the great painters painted the Virgin Mary dressed as a Romani woman: with the traditional shawl (a shawl on the shoulder and falling to the feet, which allowed walking without difficulty and carrying one or more daughters) over a blouse and touched with the berno, a kind of braided turban on a wooden support, which Romani women carried on their arrival in Europe.
Although the differentiated treatment of Romani women has taken place throughout history, the following sections deal with how Romani women were treated in the historical episodes that we consider most outstanding and characteristic of our three countries. In addition, we will include two sections whose scope covers the entire continent.

The slavery in Romania

The slavery imposed terrible conditions of inhumanity on all people subjected to such a macabre system, however, had a specific impact on women[1]:


The daughters and sons born of a mother slave were slaves by law and belonged to the master of the slave.

Slaves could not marry without the master's consent[2].


If the contracting parties belonged to different masters, they could raise their daughters and sons, but when they reached the working age they were divided equally between the two masters[3].

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Boyars had the prerogative of the Ius prima noctis, that is, the right to have sexual relations with any famale slave who was going to marry one of their slaves[4]. Masters always considered the bodies of the female slaves, whether they were girls or older, as meat for their pleasure[5]. The wives of the boyars chose the girls they considered most beautiful to warm their children's beds. Several slaves are in charge of taking care of the master's room, cleaning it, heating it, making his bed, washing clothes, preparing the child's bath, and in many cases, taking care of all aspects of his life and personal hygiene[6].

The boyars had their favorite slaves who warmed their feet to warm them and to sleep peacefully. After that formula of convenience, that euphemism of "warming the feet", the sexual privileges of the boyars over the slaves were hidden.

It used to happen that the boyar father slept with the slave and the son of the boyar with the daughter of the slave incurring incest relations since they did not consider those slaves as sisters. This fact shows us to what extent the dehumanization came on slaves and women in particular.

The most beautiful female slaves were often sent to massage the feet of important visitors (see note 43).

This practice generated an ethno-erotic stereotype that presents Romani women with an excess of sensuality which is still present in the popular imagination. Female slaves were used as nurses who nursed the sons and daughters of the boyars[7]. Female slaves used to marry very young, to have many sons and daughters and thus increase the wealth of the master.

Deportation to the Portuguese colonies

The specific anti-Roma legislation in Portugal, as in other countries of Central and Western Europe, punished the forms of expression of the Romani culture as offenses: nomadism, group displacement - even if they were merely family groups -, the practice of divination and witchcraft, to speak calaõ (Romani dialect spoken in Portugal), to use traditional Romani clothing... in short to be Rroma and Rromnǎ.

The degredo, the exile or deportation to the colonies, as punishment for the Romani population appears in 1538[8].


The first official record of the arrival of the Roma to Brazil dates from 1574 and consists of a decree of deportation of João Torres and his wife Angelina to the Brazilian land for five years (Lopes Da Costa, 2005).

Soon, this legislation sought the separation of men and women by providing for different punishments for each other. Thus, the law of August 28, 1592, in addition to imposing the death penalty on the Roma, stipulated: "the wives of the ciganos who are imprisoned in the galleys that are in the port of this city [Lisbon], or any other that has joined them where they are, they will [leave the country] within said four months" (Lopes Da Costa, 2005)[9].

In the alvará (law) of October 24, 1647, it is established as a specific punishment for Romani women their exile to Angola and Cabo Verde for life without being able to take their daughters or their children with them[10].


Another alvará of November 10, 1708 determines the exile to Brazil for Romani women while men were sent to the galleys[11].

The destiny of the Romani women in the colonies was to "live gathered, taking care of the jobs that the rest did," that is, servitude in the stately homes.


In exile they did not get rid of the anti-Roma laws. During this period, Luanda City Council launched a series of orders prohibiting, for example, the use by Romani women of black shawls and other clothes considered indecent for the streets of Luanda[12].

We have offered some examples of how Portuguese anti-Roma legislation had a differential treatment for Romani women but, unfortunately, we do not know what happened to these poor women exiled to a hostile land without their daughters or their children, knowing that their husbands were imprisoned or fulfilling penalties of galleys. In this sense, it is necessary to promote a clear policy of support for research that allows us to access knowledge of that reality that is still denied to us.

The attempted extermination of the Roma in 1749: the Great Round-Up in Spain

The attempted extermination of 1749, also known as the Great Round-Up or general imprisonment of the Roma, is the oldest known attempt at genocide. It lasted until 1763, the year in which the general pardon was decreed. Its consequences persist to this day, since during those years family structures were destroyed and, therefore, the traditional channels of cultural transference were broken. Thus, for example, the deterioration of the Romanó accelerated until it lost its ability to communicate.

Practically all the Romani people who lived in Spain at that time (between 9000 and 12000) were captured[13]. The raid had the stated objective of "exterminating such a pernicious race"[14].


And while that pernicious "race" was extinguished, they would take advantage of whatever they could: men would serve as slave labor to rebuild the Spanish Navy in the Naval Stations (naval shipyard and naval base) and women would serve in "women's work" in hospices and houses of mercy (Martínez Martínez, 2014).

More than 600 Romani women with their children (girls and boys) under 7 years of age were imprisoned in the Real Casa de Misericordia of Zaragoza[15] (which occupied the space on which today stands the Pignatelli Palace, seat of the Autonomous Government of Aragon). This infamous place was the largest prison, the place where a greater number of Romani women suffered this condemnation. But there were other places like the Hospital del Rey in Valencia or the Antiguo Convento de los Agustinos Descalzos in Barcelona where our ancestors were imprisoned and subjected to forced labor for the mere fact of being Romani women[16].

The Romani women imprisoned in the Real Casa de Misericordia of Zaragoza were not docile or submissive[17]they rebelled, flooded the wells, went naked through the house, violently hurting the modesty of the priests and nuns, avoiding mass or forced labor

The day of the Romani Resistance (May 16, 1944)

Samudaripen and Porrajmos are two terms that are commonly used to describe the genocide to which the European Romani population was subjected during the Nazi regime (1933-1945)[18] The repeated figure of 500,000 Gypsy fatalities during the Porrajmos has become a convention. According to Professor Hancock[19] the death toll is probably double or triple.
The Zigeunerlager (Gypsy camp) —a specific camp for Roma families located in the Auschwitz complex— was created by a decree of Himmler in December 1942[20]. There were about 23,000 Romani peoples held captive[21].
On the night of August 2, 1944, the 2,897 Romani people of all ages remaining in the Zigeunerlager were killed in the gas chambers[22].

There was a previous attempt to liquidate the Romani families's camp on May 16, 1944 and we remember it as the Day of Resistance since a rebellion of both Romani men and women prevented the Nazis from carrying out their extermination plan. That day Romani women had a special role[23].


They armed themselves with sticks, stones, tools and raised barricades that prevented the SS from liquidating that unfortunate day the gypsy camp[24].

Forced sterilization of Romani Women

One of the most serious violations of human rights against women is the practice of coercive sterilization. This practice has been directed specifically towards Romani women in the following countries of Europe:

Germany: On July 14, 1933, the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases[25], que determinaba la esterilización forzada de ciertas personas con discapacidades físicas y mentales. La «Ley de esterilización» no se dirigió específicamente a grupos raciales, como los judíos o los Roma, aunque los Roma (hombres y mujeres) fueron esterilizados bajo esta ley como «asociales» desviados.
German bureaucracy applied the miscegenation clauses of the Nuremberg laws to sterilize Roma. Already from 1933 to 1939 the German Police had confined many Roma to zigeunerlager where the Office for Research on Racial higiene implemented the racial registration of Roma which in turn often resulted in involuntary sterilization of Romani prisoners[26].
Sweden: en 1934, Suecia aprobó una ley que permitía las esterilizaciones forzadas de miembros «inferiores» de la sociedad, categoría que incluía a las personas romaníes, las personas encarceladas, las personas con discapacidad intelectual y las mujeres que habían intentado interrumpir sus embarazos. Esta política estuvo vigente hasta los años 1970’s[27].
Switzerland: coercive sterilization policies influenced by eugenics ideology were applied in several Swiss federal cantons from the 1920s to the 1980s. They targeted mainly young socially disadvantaged women diagnosed with some type of mental disorder but affected a significant group of Sinti[28] and Yenish women[29].
Norway: had coercive sterilization policies in force from 1934 to 1977 that affected some 600 Tatar[30] and Romani women[31].
Slovakia: despite the Slovak government's claim that these policies ceased to be practiced in 1989, with the advent of democracy, 110 Roma women were sterilized after the fall of communism[32].

Czech Republic: in the former Czechoslovakia, a Public Order on Sterilization, in force since January 1972, allowed public authorities to take programmatic measures to encourage the sterilization of Roma women and women with disabilities located in mental institutions to control their birth rate. Hundreds of Roma and disabled women were sterilized under that decree.

In 1979, Czechoslovakia also initiated a program of financial incentives for Roma women to undergo sterilizations motivated by the need to "control the highly sick Roma population through family planning and contraception".

Female sterilization was a state policy in Czechoslovakia until 1993, when the Sterilization Directive was abolished. However, the practice of sterilizing Roma women and women with disabilities against their will did not end with the abolition of the legislation that allowed it, but continued during the 1990s and 2000s, with the last known case produced on such a recent date as 2007[33].

There have also been reports of forced or uninformed sterilization of Romani women in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

Sources of material

[1] Djuvara, N (1995) Între Orient şi Occident. Ţările române la începutul epocii moderne. Bucarest: Humanitas

[2] Marushiakova, E & Popov, V (2009) Gypsy Slavery in Wallachia and Moldavia. En Kamusella, T & Jaskulowski, K (eds) Nationalisms Today. Oxford: Peter Lang, 89-124

[3] Achim, V (1998) The Roma in Romanian History. Budapest: CEU Press

[4] Bercovici, K (1928). The story of the Gypsies. London: Johnathan Cape

[5] Colson, F (1839) De l'etat present et de l'avenir des principautes de Moldavie et de Valachie suivi des traites de la Turquie avec les puissances Europeennes et d'une Carte des pays Roumains. París: A. Pouguin

[7] Piasere, L (2014) Dora d’Istria y los gitanos rumanos. Revista andaluza de Antropología, 7, 23-43

[8] Coelho, F A (1892) Os Ciganos de Portugal com um estudo sobre o calão. Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional

[9] Lopes Da Costa, E M (2005) Contributos ciganos para o povoamento do Brasil (séculos xvi-xix), Arquipélago história, 2ª série, IX, 153-182

[10] Andrade e Silva, J J (1854) Collecção Chronologica da Legislação Portugueza. Lisboa: Imprensa J. J. A. Silva

[11] Coelho, A (1892) Os ciganos de Portugal com um estudo sobre o calão. Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional

[12] Pantoja, S (2004) Inquisição, degredo e mestiçagem em Angola no século XVIII. Revista lusófona de ciência das religiões, (III) 5/6, 117-136

[13] Gómez Alfaro, A (1993) La gran redada de gitanos: España, la pri¬sión general de gitanos de 1749 Madrid: Presencia Gitana

[14] Martínez Martínez, M (2014) Los gitanos y las gitanas de España a mediados del siglo XVIII, El fracaso de un proyecto de "exterminio" (1748-1765). Almería: Universidad de Almería

[15] Gómez Urdáñez, J L, (2004) La Real Casa de Misericordia de Zaragoza, cárcel de gitanas (1752-1763). En García Fernández, M & Sobaler Seco, M A (coords.), Estudios en Homenaje al profesor Teófanes Egido. Valladolid: Junta de Castilla y León.

[16] Martínez Martínez, M (2015). Nunca Más. Homenaje a las víctimas del proyecto de “exterminio” de la minoría gitana iniciado con la redada de 1749. Almería: Círculo Rojo

[17] Gómez Urdáñez, J L (2002) El absolutismo regio en España durante la Ilustración. Brocar, 26, 151-176

[18] Courthiade, M (2017) ¿Cómo llamar al genocidio perpetrado contra los gitanos en la época nazi? O Tchatchipen, 97, 37-42

[19] Hancock, I (2005) Las cifras del Holocausto Gitano. I Tchatchipen, 85, 33-39

[20] Hancock, I (2000) Genocidio de los gitanos en el Holocausto. I Tchatchipen, 30, 13-16

[21] Zentralrat Deutscher Sinti und Roma (1992) Memorial Book. The Gypsies at Auschwitz-Birkenau / Ksiega Pamieci. Cyganie w obozie Koncentracyjnym Auschwitz-Birkenau /Gedenkbuch. Die Sinti und Roma im Konzentrationslager Auschwitz-Birkenau. Munich: De Gruyter Saur

[24] Keen, E (2014) Right to Remember - A Handbook for Education with Young People on the Roma Genocide. Estrasburgo: Consejo de Europa

[25] Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses

[26] Milton, S. (1991). Gypsies and the Holocaust. The History Teacher, 24(4), 375-387

[27] Ministry of Culture of Sweden (2015) The Dark Unknown History White Paper on Abuses and Rights Violations Against Roma in the 20th Century. Estocolmo: gobierno Sueco

[28] Las gitanas sinti se diferencian de otras gitanas en algunas características culturales como por ejemplo en el uso de una variante dialectal romaní propia. La mayor parte residen en Alemania pero también hay comunidades sinti en Italia y en Suiza

[29] Las yenish no son étnicamente romaníes pero a lo largo de la historia han sido tratadas como si lo fueran y han padecido y padecen el antigitanismo

[30] Grupo étnico no romanó pero tradicionalmente tratado como si fueran gitanas y gitanos y que, por tanto, han padecido y padecen el antigitanismo