Yugoslavia’s Roma women

Words: Maisie Revel

The close of the Second World War was accompanied by the founding of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). The new socialist state represented an ideological turning point, often regarded as modern and enlightened compared to the pre-war bourgeois regime. Fundamental to Yugoslav Socialism was the core concept of equality: the social elevation of women and the assertion of ethnic non-discrimination, particularly, were proclaimed cornerstones of the new political order; Article 5, Section 24 of the Yugoslav constitution guaranteed the political, economic and social equality of women and men, and Section 21 deemphasized nationality and race as grounds for inequality. 

Roma populations existed as a minority throughout Yugoslavia, and had been marginalised on the grounds of their socio-economic conditions and Indian ethnic origins for decades. Roma women faced additional sexism, too, so the promises in the new state’s constitutional framework appeared encouraging. But a strain of revisionist scholarship has been produced which suggests that the ideological promises of Yugoslav socialism were not fulfilled.

Educational equality can be seen as the first premise by which the SFRY failed to fulfil its constitutional obligations. Despite the fact every citizen was promised an education, inequivalent attainment persisted. Many academic institutions only taught in the language domestic to the region, resulting in a barrier for those who spoke the Romani language; Romani children were often sent to additional needs schools on the basis that they could not understand the mainstream curriculum. Only 17.2 percent of the Roma population completed primary school. 

The shortcomings of the SFRY’s pledge of equality were also apparent in the employment sector. Regardless of the espoused commitment to the economically-autonomous woman, traditional gender divisions were far from eradicated. Persisting importance, particularly, was placed on motherhood. These reproductive expectations often withheld women from the higher professional stratum, leaving them unemployed or in typically female-dominated roles. By 1952, women constituted over 70 percent of unemployed people in Slovenia, with Roma women being some of the worst affected.  

But these inequalities are best explained by the negative attitudes surrounding Roma women’s ethnicity and culture, which were propagated throughout Yugoslavia. Media articles on the Roma community would often appear in crime sections. Access to affluent jobs was indirectly restricted, and the job roles in the entertainment sector that they were permitted to fill were often heavily stigmatised. Roma women would sometimes assume careers as Kafana singers in a bid to achieve any sense of economic independence. Prosperity achieved through these means failed to leave them valued or respected. They often had to adjust their repertoire to meet the desires of the men they were entertaining, which meant including provocative dancing or the wearing of tight clothes. 

Discriminatory attitudes meant Roma people would be chased out of urban communities and denied building permits. Outer-city slums on construction or landfill sites often became centres of residence.

Political inclusion and participation was another basis on which socialist Yugoslavia failed to achieve national equality. The Yugoslav province of Nis in Serbia did not allow a Roma delegate in the municipal assembly, despite the high population of Roma people in the area, and in 1990 officials in Slovenia were seen to wait at electoral booths to intercept Roma populations’ votes. The same year, in the village of Hydei, Roma people had to vote in separate election booths due to the refusal of other residents to share voting spaces.

Inequality concerning social accommodation proved another issue. The provision of adequate housing for all citizens was never achieved, and Roma women were among those who fared worst. The delegation of social housing was often oriented around the employment sector, and male white-collar workers acquired housing while Roma populations consistently missed out on allocations. Discriminatory attitudes meant Roma people would be chased out of urban communities and denied building permits, too. Outer-city slums on construction or landfill sites often became centres of residence. These slums generally lacked clean water or sewage systems and were unattended by local authorities. 

Equality in healthcare seemed promising at the founding of the state. Pro-choice legislation was constitutionally entrenched by 1952 – extremely early by Western standards, over fifteen years before the UK and twenty before the US – and the wellbeing of individuals was directly tied with the health of the country. But effective measures to instil health equality for Roma women never materialised. The prevalence of medical facilities available to Roma communities, particularly those based in slums, was minimal, and those clinics that did exist had stretched resources: one clinic in Srbica had over 18,000 patients and only one doctor. As a result, Roma women in need of abortions would often turn to illegal and unsafe measures, including folk healers, who often worked in unsanitary conditions.

Ultimately, equality was never achieved. As was written in the news magazine Danas in 1983, the SFRY was a country with ‘an incomprehensible gap between what is written and what is done.’ Although women and ethnic minorities were promised equality constitutionally, their subordination remained structurally determined: Roma women, who experienced poor conditions and continued cultural discrimination, continued to exist as the furthest point from the ideological socialist concepts of progression. The state embodied the fact that socialism in itself could not be a corrective formula for all forms of inequality, particularly those like gender inequality, which were most often perceived as organic. Forms of inequality that had gripped the cultural psyche under the previous bourgeois regime still needed to be fought on their own terms. 

learn more

  • BOOK: Social inequalities and discontent in Yugoslav socialism – edited by R Archer and I Duda
  • JOURNAL ARTICLE: ‘The gender gap in Yugoslavia: Elite versus mass levels’ – C Clark and J Clark in Political Psychology (1987)
  • JOURNAL ARTICLE: ‘Roma between discrimination and integration: Social change and the status of Roma’ – B Jakšić in Filozofijia I Društvo (2002)

Maisie Revel is a Human Rights Law master’s student at the University of Nottingham, who previously studied for a history and cultural studies undergraduate degree. Her main academic focus centres on the history of race and gender.