Chapter 3 Roma Women’s Local Initiatives in Hungary: Driving Force for Community Participation and Empowerment

In: Populism, Memory and Minority Rights
Erzsébet Anita Német
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Szilvia Rézműves
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In this descriptive-analytical case study, we detail the work, potential, and challenges of local initiatives led by Roma women in Hungary, and examine the social conditions necessary for achieving their full potential. We assert that these initiatives represent “subaltern counterpublics,” operating parallel to the mainstream public sphere and providing opportunities for community discourse. Data was collected through focus-group discussions with representatives of these initiatives and with the use of demographic questionnaires. Fraser’s normative model of the public sphere and Habermas’ concept of civil society serve as the analytical framework through which the data was interpreted. The research indicates that, although these initiatives have been successful in providing fora where community members can voice their opinions and participate in a public arena, few have managed to establish meaningful dialogue with decision-makers outside of the community and with other members of the local power elite.

1 Introduction

In terms of social exclusion, Roma women living in disadvantaged regions represent one of the most vulnerable groups of all due to intersectional disadvantages arising from their gender, ethnic background and class affiliation.1The needs and perspectives stemming from their unique status frequently remain invisible to decision-makers, just as Roma women themselves often remain unseen within the various fora of the public sphere. However, the initiatives of Roma women that have emerged over recent years demonstrate that they are seeking a place in public life and wish to make their voices heard in social discourses. It was precisely this contrast between their social invisibility and their active presence at the local level that aroused our research interest.2 How, under what conditions and in the interest of attaining what objectives has one of the most marginalized groups in contemporary Hungarian society activated its resources? We attempted to find answers to these questions in the course of three focus-group discussions organized in provincial cities in Hungary, involving twenty-six representatives from eleven Roma women’s initiatives. These discussions – interwoven with common, reflective thinking, lively debates and encouraging feedback – helped us uncover deeper correlations in relation to our theme and paint a more nuanced picture. The present study attempts to describe the interpretation that crystallized in our minds in the course of this process. We therefore do not wish to draw general conclusions regarding Roma women who are active in civil society or the civil activism of Roma women. The following is simply an attempt to draw a portrait inspired by the narratives of those who participated in the initiatives we examined. Besides presenting the work, potential and challenges of the Roma women’s initiatives, we also try to shed light on the social conditions necessary for these initiatives to be able to achieve their full potential.

In our study, we have combined critical social-theory and interpretative sociology. The normative dimension provides an analytical perspective to determine the requirements and imperatives of democratic political practice, while the interpretative approach enables us to anchor these in empirical reality so that we can reconstruct the narratives of our interlocutors from our own research perspective. In other words, we examine and construe the discourses and interpretations of our interlocutors through the lens of normative democratic theory, which also serves as a basis for scrutinizing the democratic political practice in these localities.

Grassroots organizations and informal groups springing from civil society open up the possibility of participation and emancipation for Roma women and their communities. We assert that the initiatives examined in the research represent “subaltern counterpublics,”3 alternative public spheres that operate parallel to the mainstream public sphere and provide opportunities for community-themed discourse. Through the consolidation of these narratives, communities – intentionally or unintentionally – construct and express their common identity, thereby entering the realm of the public sphere as a collective group. In the course of this process, they become capable of formulating common positions with regard to public affairs affecting them and framing counter-narratives opposing the dominant discourse, which also serves as the driving force for their activities. With the formulation of common community interests, new issues also rise to the surface, which they try to address, to the best of their abilities, in the ever-widening public sphere. Some initiatives provide an opportunity for interest mediation of varying degrees. However, while they are capable of navigating between the community and local decision-makers, they are unable to participate as an equal partner in consultative mechanisms. Indeed, as a result of their exclusion from the wider public sphere, the majority of these initiatives are unable to transmit the voice of the community to decision-makers. In this way, they can be regarded as internal, and, in a certain sense, exclusive workshops of the community that ensure participatory parity in public affairs through a parallel structure. However, they cannot ensure the equal participation of the Roma community or properly advocate for the community’s interests in local decision-making processes. Moreover, their activism as Roma women is by no means devoid of struggle. Their presence and advocacy activities upset existing power relations and generate tension not only in the local power arena but also within the internal realm of the community and the intimate sphere of the household. Despite these difficulties, Roma women still undertake these struggles because they believe that the discourses they generate, and the actions connected to them, increase their own participation and equality, as well as the participation and equality of community members affected by their initiatives, and boost the level of democracy prevailing in their locality. At the same time, their exclusion from the wider public sphere, the absence of channels of communication for genuine dialogue and the lack of participatory parity in interactions with decision-makers limit their potential to strengthen local democracy. However, this not only attests to the importance of the local initiatives but also provides a glimpse into the diagnosis of their current political and social environments.

The present study is divided into three parts. First, we describe our research methodology. We then examine the relevant literature, which provides the study’s conceptual vocabulary and analytical framework, before discussing the results of our research. The study concludes with a summary of our research findings.

2 Research Methodology

Since the topic is under-researched and the transparency of Roma women’s initiatives is low, we mapped the initiatives using the snowball method. We paid careful attention to ensure that both Roma women’s non-governmental organizations and informal initiatives were included in our research sample. With a few exceptions, all local Roma women’s initiatives we approached agreed to participate. Our interlocutors arrived from various environments, thus reflecting – or at least displaying – the heterogeneity and social and cultural layout of domestic Roma communities.4 Our interlocutors ranged from residents of Roma settlements of economically decaying small towns to inhabitants of bustling big cities, and from public-sector employees and mediators5to former local minority council representatives6 and college-graduate association presidents. There was a prominent Beás organization leader, a Lovari-speaking foundation employee and a Romungro community activist. What they all had in common was that they were of Roma origin, that they were women and that they wanted to shape the development of their own destiny and that of their community.

We collected our data applying both qualitative and quantitative methods. In addition to using questionnaires containing demographic data, we organized three focus-group discussions in major provincial towns in Hungary. The discussions, which focused on preset topics and involved twenty-six representatives from eleven local Roma women’s initiatives, were guided by the following main themes:

  1. the main pillars of participation in the initiatives;
  2. the arenas for inclusion of the Roma community and patterns of activism;
  3. the formation of women’s roles in the participatory processes; and
  4. advocacy and interest-representation capacity and inhibiting factors.

Several participants had not yet met, and the focus-group discussions thus also provided them with a platform for presenting their aspirations, their strategies and their results. Beyond simply sharing experiences, this interaction provided participants of the focus-group discussions with inspiration and concrete ideas. According to many of them, it also contributed to the identification of common interests and possible areas of future cooperation. With the help of this method, we were also able to reproduce debates and contradictions connected to cultural and social affairs that would not otherwise have risen to the surface, or only with great difficulty.7

Participants agreed both verbally and in writing to participate in the research, to the recording of the focus-group discussions and to the anonymous use of the data provided.

3 Analytical Framework

Although there is broad agreement that civil society is an essential element of a functioning democratic society, the conceptual relationship between civil society and the democratic public has so far received little scholarly attention.8 This is partly due to the increasing influence of social-capital and communitarian theories pertaining to civil society. As a result, solidarity-based social organizations and the community norms established by them have become the focus of attention. As Lang points out, civil society is often defined as an isolated domain at the boundary of the private and public sphere, a “semi-privatised moral school for solidarity-based citizenship.”9 Thus, by virtue of its apolitical character, civil society sharply differentiates itself from affairs requiring interest mediation.10 While Lang regards solidarity networks and the norms they generate as indispensable subjects and analytical units of examination, she cautions that placing them in focus provides only a superficial glimpse into the empirical reality of civil society, posing a number of analytical problems. From our perspective, the most important element of Lang’s criticism is that the most influential paradigms pertaining to civil society “write” the public sphere “out” of the discourse. Consequently, they ignore the potentially critical function of civil society in providing social space for expressing the opinion of the “politically engaged public.”11 Civil society itself can display, construct and, in certain cases, represent public affairs. As a result, communitarian and social-capital theories do not provide an analytical tool for the examination of the modes and conditions of these mechanisms. According to Lang’s convincing argument, the functions of civil initiatives that also carry the promise of social transformation become analysable only by “writing” the public sphere “back into” the discourse.

Below we describe the complex interplay between civil society and democratic political practice through the concept of the public sphere. The concept of the public sphere does not only serve to “write” the critical role of civil society “back into” the representation of public interests but also contributes to normative democratic theory. As we demonstrate, the public sphere is an essential concept for both critical social theory and democratic political practice.

3.1 Civil Society and the Public Sphere

Habermas produced a seminal body of work12 on the concept of the public sphere. The enormous amount of critical literature published in connection with his work serves to verify its landmark importance. His 1998 book Between Facts and Norms is the most relevant in terms of discussing civil society and the public sphere within the same analytical framework. Habermas places discourse at the centre of his democratic theory – discourse that resolves differences of opinion, makes collective action possible and provides institutions with a democratic character. Furthermore, Habermas endows civil society, as a body of diverse organizations assembled to build public discourse, with a strong normative quality:

The core of civil society comprises a network of associations that institutionalises problem-solving discourses on questions of general interest inside the framework of organised public spheres.13

For Habermas, civil society organizes the opinions of private individuals regarding public affairs into a discourse. In other words, it creates a public arena for the expression of opinions regarding public affairs, the generation of debate and the formation of common viewpoints. In this “weak public,” horizontal communication takes place among the rationalities, and opinion is formed through deliberative practice, but no decision is made.14 At the same time, civil society also conducts vertical communication in the course of which opinions crystallizing within the “weak public” are channelled towards the institutions of political decision-making (“strong public”), thus influencing and questioning decisions made in these institutions. The precondition for this two-step mechanism is that civil society is open to everybody and the border between the two types of public is permeable. However, if we understand discourse generated in the public sphere as the harmonization and aggregation of interests based on which the representation of community interests can take place vis-à-vis decision-makers, then, in our opinion, numerous other conditions must also be met. Fraser,15 based on a critical analysis of the premises of Habermas’s ideal public sphere,16 formulates an alternative model of the democratic public sphere, drawing attention to further normative dimensions.17

3.2 The Normative Model of the Public Sphere

According to Fraser, the question of open access extends beyond the issue of whether participation is formally and legally guaranteed. Within inclusive public spheres, a much greater degree of emphasis is placed on whether the autonomous members of society possess equal influence. Whereas in her earlier work Fraser regards equal participation in social life as a determinative factor in the democratic public sphere,18 she later makes participatory parity the focus of her social justice theory, thus eliminating the dichotomy between recognition and distribution.19 In both works, Fraser highlights that participatory parity is not possible in an arena built upon systemic relations of inequality; equal participation has both objective and intersubjective conditions. The requirement for equal distribution of goods ensures that the resources needed to participate in interactions as equal partners are available to all social groups. Equal participation also requires that institutionalized patterns of cultural value provide equal opportunities for all social groups to achieve social esteem.20 Therefore, participatory parity can take place only through the elimination of social inequalities and the establishment of “the sort of rough equality that is inconsistent with systematically generated relations of dominance and subordination.”21 The concept of equal participation is closely related to the notion of public affairs. According to Fraser, participants are entrusted with the task of defining what they consider to be a public matter. As an example, she cites domestic violence, which was regarded as a private affair until the appearance of the feminist subaltern counterpublic.

At the same time, Fraser expresses scepticism regarding the inclusive nature of public affairs. Public affairs framed under the umbrella of “us” frequently do not include the interests of subordinated groups in societies established on inequality. Therefore, she continues the conceptual correction of the public sphere with the critical analysis of the “public” and the “private.” The boundary between these two social spheres is defined according to rhetorical labels and cultural classifications. In political discourses, the “public” represents a rhetorical “magic formula” with which certain narratives are delegitimized while others become overvalued. The “private” is defined in contrast to “the public,” thus resulting in the transfer of some matters to the realm of private, personal-family life, while other interests are moved to the conceptual field of the public sphere, without any public debate. In the ideal case, the definition of public matters takes place within a discursive arena in which minorities have the opportunity to redefine issues that affect them as public affairs. The concept of subaltern counterpublics is also derived from participatory parity. In those stratified societies in which significant social inequalities prevail, deliberative processes taking place in the public sphere may adversely affect subordinate social groups. In the absence of their own venue for internal consultation, the needs, goals and strategies of these groups may dissolve in the “we” melting pot, which often operates to the advantage of dominant groups.22 The subaltern counterpublics emerge precisely as a result of their exclusion from the dominant public sphere. They can be regarded as alternative, parallel public spheres in which the subordinate social groups create counter-narratives, which in turn provide them with an opportunity to formulate the interpretation of their own interests and needs. However, this is not an end in itself – the objective of the participants in counterpublics is to disseminate their narratives in ever-widening discursive arenas. The emancipatory potential of counterpublics, the counterbalancing of participatory privileges held by dominant groups, can be perceived in the dialectical relationship between these two functions.23

It should be noted here that Habermas has to some degree incorporated this element of Fraser’s criticism into his theory of the public sphere. While in his early work Habermas speaks of one, dominant public sphere, in Between Facts and Norms he discusses public spheres and attributes to them some of the functions described by Fraser. The difference in Fraser’s interpretation is that subaltern counterpublics not only generate discourse but also construct the collective identity of participants through participatory parity and create a platform for expressing this identity. However, unequal power relations are also present in the public sphere at the discursive level: “These institutions may be understood as culturally specific rhetorical lenses that filter and alter the utterances they frame; they can accommodate some expressive modes and not others.”24 Nevertheless, with the assertion of the principle of equal participation, the participants are able to speak with their own “voice,” thereby “simultaneously constructing and expressing one’s cultural identity through idiom and style.”25

Using the normative paradigm of the public sphere, we have demonstrated how civil society can contribute to deepening democracy. Interpreted as an arena for constructing public affairs, civil society creates a political agency and transmits opinions and interests generated in counterpublics towards wider publics and political decision-making institutions. It initiates political discourse, influences decisions, places issues on the agenda and demands accountability. For Habermas, democratic processes are formed in the interaction between the two public spheres. Since civil society creates the public sphere that provides space for the diversity of opinions and interests and has the potential to assert these in the process of institutional decision-making, political decisions are, in fact, born in the discourses of citizens or, at the very least, made by taking these discourses into account. According to Habermas, the preconditions for this process are, on the one hand, that the public sphere is open to everyone and, on the other, that the various public spheres are interconnected. In other words, political decision-making institutions must give space to particular community interests and opinions articulated in the civil public spheres and integrate them into political discourse and decision-making. Fraser’s public sphere model, though including other normative dimensions such as participation parity, reveals an even greater degree of political potential inherent in civil society initiatives and their prerequisites, serving as benchmarks of democracy. In the following section of this study, Fraser’s normative model will serve as an orientation point for the analysis of the empirical data.

4 Analysis

Our study – as a descriptive-analytical case study – seeks mostly to provide an interpretive reading of the focus-group discussions rather than to apprehend the genealogy and operation of the initiatives. We present what was said during the conversations while taking into account our specific research interests and the limitations imposed by the length of our article. We believe, first of all, that it is important to outline the social and economic environment in which these initiatives are embedded. Subsequently, we present our analysis in five categories. Finally, in the light of our analysis, we also attempt to conduct a critical assessment of the quality of democracy at the local level. We highlight two aspects of this assessment: pluralism in advocacy and participatory parity in discursive processes. It is worth emphasizing that our analysis is paradigm-dependent, as Fraser’s approach to critical theory guides our questions and interpretations.

4.1 The Social and Economic Environment of the Roma Women’s Initiatives

The concept of social exclusion is seen as covering a wide range of social and economic problems.26 It can be associated with insufficient income, being deprived of social connections and many other determining factors of social existence. At least eight of the Roma women’s initiatives possess social and economic characteristics indicating that their communities live in social exclusion and poverty; indeed, at least three of them are among the most disadvantaged communities in Hungary.27 These communities are in need of urgent socio-economic and infrastructural development and are heavily affected by unemployment. The slum-like environment and segregation significantly impede their access to basic public services. Although a quarter of our interlocutors no longer live in slum-like settlements, it can generally be said that their roots lead back to this milieu. Moreover, of the eleven Roma women’s initiatives, ten are implemented in slum-like, segregated settlements. The largest of these settlements has an estimated population of 3,000,28 and the smallest is located in a village that has no transit traffic,29 electricity or water and where healthcare services are available only once a week and official administrative services twice a week. Public transport is also very limited, as is access to employment. In the case of interlocutors coming from smaller settlements, the public employment programme is the source of almost all income-generating work.30 With regard to the qualifications of our interlocutors, some have completed secondary or post-secondary education, and at least one staff member of each ngo-based initiative has attained or is pursuing a post-secondary degree (e.g. as a social worker, communications professional or community organizer). With the exception of one who operates a business, all the interlocutors have a low income; some have even joined an initiative producing products and crops in order to supplement their income.

4.2 The Main Pillars of Participation in the Initiatives

Based on the narratives of our interlocutors, their involvement in the initiatives rests upon three pillars. On the one hand, (i) a personal inner drive manifests itself. This is continually kept in motion by prior knowledge, learning and personal experiences that drive personal aspirations towards the struggle for social equality.

On the other hand, a group-level dynamic also emerges, generated by (ii) the common objectives of Roma women and their communities. According to our interlocutors, the issues affecting the Roma community are not adequately addressed by local institutions, including the Roma minority self-governments. In fact, it is precisely this – their exclusion from the dominant public sphere – that gives rise to subaltern counterpublics.

The family support service is the institution that deals with disadvantaged people, children and families to a certain degree, but not the same way we do. (Mediator)

The role of the minority self-government could also be mentioned. But I should say that they – I don’t know why – don’t do anything here. The fact that the mayor’s office organizes an event and a representative of the Roma minority self-government shows up there, in my opinion, does not help the Roma. There are no visible results; in fact, I believe that the Roma minority self-government in this place is useless because it doesn’t represent the interests of the Roma, but behaves like a puppet. It dances to the tune of those manipulating it from above. (Association president)

It is important to note, in parentheses, that our interlocutors continue to hold these opinions, in spite of the fact that the amendment of Act lxxvii of 1993 on the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities in 2005 provided the Roma minority self-governments with the power to independently administer minority public affairs. This allows them to implement individual and collective rights enshrined in the law, voice the interests of their community members and maintain their cultural autonomy – in particular with regard to preserving, safeguarding and enriching their mother tongue.31 Furthermore, this administrative power includes performing tasks related to guaranteeing their representation in state institutions and minority self-governments and creating the organizational, personal and financial conditions necessary for achieving these aims.32 The opinion of our interlocutors described above is consistent with the conclusions of social science researchers. For instance, Rátkai’s analysis of forty-six minority self-governments concluded that they play an insignificant role and that, in contrast to existing civil society organizations, they do not possess genuine legitimacy. Indeed, these organizations would be able to perform the tasks of the minority self-governments much more effectively.33 In addition, Koulish has examined the expectations of Roma communities with regard to Roma minority self-governments by surveying 500 individuals using questionnaires. His most significant findings included that, although Roma residents would like to participate in public life, their inadequate skills hamper the successful representation of their interests. In addition, half of the respondents were dissatisfied with the work of the Roma minority self-governments, although 90 per cent of them would oppose their elimination.34 A majority of respondents thus regarded the advocacy of Roma interests as important. However, rather than focusing on cultural activities, they regarded action to tackle discrimination, the implementation of social rights and employment-related training as priorities.

The third pillar common to all initiatives was (iii) an external individual or organization providing motivation and support, thus guaranteeing space for these personal and group aspirations.

These opportunity structures open the door that leads from the private sector to the public realm. Representing their initiatives, Roma women act as participants in the public sphere. Local initiatives assume two main forms: informal or formal. In informal groups, Roma women establish community action groups due to an external impetus, while the non-governmental organizational form provides a formal operational framework for grassroots initiatives. In addition, a third alternative form has also emerged in which a local pro-Roma non-government organization directly assists and manages the local women’s group. While the three types of initiative display some (albeit minimal) disparities in the representation of interests, the mode of selection of issues for representation is identical in all three cases.

4.3 Roma Women’s Initiatives as Subaltern Counterpublics

Practice shows that the initiatives always reflect the needs of communities by involving them in the selection of issues. The dusty streets of a Roma settlement, a crowded bus stop in the morning, a shabby room that is transformed into a teahouse on Wednesdays, roundtable discussions organized at regular intervals, a room-sized office and even social-media networks all serve as fora for articulating and hearing the opinions, needs and interests of the community. However, the initiatives do not merely collect individual opinions but also provide diverse arenas for discussing them. Each Roma women’s initiative creates its own public sphere, a local arena for discourse operating in parallel to the mainstream public sphere, where community members can formulate their needs and their (counter-)opinions. These initiatives thus create subaltern counterpublics – in the Fraserian sense – for marginalized Roma communities living in rural settlements. In addition to consolidating opinions, the initiatives have raised a series of concrete issues, including the need for house renovations, mother and baby clubs, sex education for young girls, the alleviation of food shortages, community dances, measures to tackle unemployment, support for young talent, the provision of toys for young children, the establishment of a salt room, the organization of Roma cultural events and the maintenance of local kindergartens. The initiatives address issues that emerge from the routine of everyday life, endowing them with normative elements and presenting them as community matters that subsequently determine their actions and activities. The community therefore participates in these initiatives on two levels: in identifying the issues and by taking part in the actions that are subsequently taken. They create an arena for the community where personal reflections of individual members on social issues gain expression in their own language. The linguistic norms that mainstream public space requires are not valid in these counterpublics. There is not even an implicit obligation to change register, and members of the community can therefore speak in their own voice and act as equal partners in the interaction.

If an individual providing support comes from the target group, she understands their language, not like the authorities. You don’t need to explain yourself. … In this way, confidence is quickly built. (Community action group member)

In these subaltern counterpublics, opinions are realigned in the course of discourse, providing space for the development of common narratives, identities and capacity for collective action. The presence of Roma women plays a vital role in this process.

4.4 Female Participation as a Springboard

While emphasizing gender perspectives in their diverse activities and, for the most part, defining themselves explicitly as Roma women’s initiatives, the initiatives do not exclusively embrace Roma women’s issues. Through activities related to the interests of the female members of the community, such as making handicrafts, establishing a tea house or running a mother and baby club, they create community experiences and discourses. In these emerging micro-publics, issues that participants consider important, such as raising children, Roma culture and gender roles, come to the fore. According to our interlocutors, the gender roles of Roma women and men are embedded in the complex context of Roma culture, and any transformation of these roles requires a change in the attitudes of both women and men. Thus, when talking about this issue, they also aim to address men.

We do not need to live this way. This isn’t written anywhere. Women should want and know how to be successful. Her husband should support her, and not put her next to the cooking pot. … A change is needed. For this to happen, the husband must regard his wife as an equal. … We must take our husbands into the twenty-first century. (Mediator)

In addition to holding community-organizing programmes for Roma women and implementing activities to raise awareness of the traditional notion of gender roles in Roma culture, all the initiatives, without exception, seek to reach out to children, young people and, indeed, the entire community. They believe that Roma women are key to the inclusion of the wider community.

Roma women, in this way, play a leading role to some degree also within the family. … They are the decision-makers on this issue; they can soften up their husbands and lead the family in the right direction. So then, if a Roma woman sees that a Roma community or an organization can be to their benefit and provide them with a service that their family can partake in and from which they can also benefit – and I’m not thinking of financial profit here – … and can also gain experience, then she will take her family members and the community along with her as well. … She is the driving force. (Association president)

This reveals the unique nature of women’s participation in public affairs, which – according to our interlocutors – underscores the importance of the participation of Roma women in such affairs.

Within the Roma community, the husband is the breadwinner, while the woman is primarily a community builder. And if a man, a husband, engages in public affairs, he prioritizes the generation of resources regardless of what kind of public affairs we’re talking about. But if a Roma woman engages in public affairs, she doesn’t focus on resources. She is concerned with how she can rise up, how she can live up to expectations and how she can improve not only her own situation but that of her environment as well. (Association president)

Based on the statements of our interlocutors, it is evident that the leadership of Roma women, as well as their participation in public affairs, promotes not only their own emancipation but also that of their communities. When they have the opportunity to play a role in society, Roma women perform a community-building function. These initiatives are seen by our interlocutors as opportunity structures whose resources can be utilized in order to benefit both the Roma women leading them and their communities.

I am really happy that I can work for the foundation since it represents … and gives us power to do something that I always wanted to do. … We identify the problems that in fact affect underprivileged people and seek solutions to these issues. [We are concerned with] how we can change these peoples’ lives and their circumstances. … We want this to work after a while without our involvement. It would be important if they would be self-sufficient in maintaining this. … Soon it will be necessary for them to break away from us. (Mediator)

By providing the community with decision-making rights, capacity and responsibility, the initiatives are the engine of the emancipation not only of the Roma women leading the initiatives and their female companions but also of the local community. At the same time, we cannot ignore the obstacles faced by Roma women as they take on community and social roles.

4.5 Factors Inhibiting Participation

Our interlocutors describe their transition from the margins of local society to the centre of public life as a struggle-filled process. The expectations of their families, the traditions of Roma communities and existing power relations collectively hinder their active presence in public life. These are precisely the factors that cement the disadvantages arising from their status as women and their ethnic origin, preventing their breakout from social invisibility.

Their family members barely notice any changes in their everyday lives. Despite their occasional absence, frequent telephone calls and ever-lengthening work week, they continue, without exception, to fulfil their obligations as homemakers and mothers with absolute devotion. The attitudes their work demands hardly ever enter the intimate family milieu, where they continue to play traditional gender roles.

Perhaps it is difficult that I cannot just go ahead and forget them. To perform at 100 [per cent at home] and to perform at 100 [per cent] in my work as well is really hard. Perhaps it is somewhat a limitation. (Association employee)

The thing that we must fight with the most is the family background. It’s already become somewhat easier for me because the kids are now older. But to be able to come here now, I already had to cook at seven o’clock … because we live in a traditional family. My husband is Roma, and, well, there is an expectation that he won’t do the cooking, for example. (Association president)

One of our interlocutors described the contradiction between her professional role and her role as a wife in very stark terms.

When I step out of the house, I must assume a leadership role, and, if necessary, I negotiate and conduct business with men. I am equal with them. Then when I get home, I must immediately put on the style of a Roma housewife. My husband is right whether I like it or not, even if I don’t agree with him. And when we go out and we are in the company of friends, then we don’t sit among the men. And if somebody says something, if a man starts to say something that I don’t agree with, I am not sure that I can express my own opinion, because, if I do, my husband looks at me like, “hey c’mon.” So I need to behave in a completely different way – like a Roma wife. I serve all the men while they talk about trivial things, sometimes even nonsense things, and I have to listen to all of it. And I have no say in it. But if it isn’t about having fun, but about my work, I can assert my own opinion. So this is why I feel schizophrenic. Do you understand what I mean? (Association president)

They must prove themselves to their community as Roma women and as supporters. Their community leadership clashes sharply with conventional views on the “place” of women, which they can challenge only by demonstrating their aptitude. This requires them to acquire a new skill, namely the ability to speak the language of men.

They don’t accept simply what I would like to do, just like that. … I must explain it to them in an understandable way, in their language. I must translate it. I had to learn how to speak their language. (Association president)

The disillusionment of the disadvantaged Roma communities with self-appointed candidates who want to help them is not unjustified. As a result of their negative experiences, some initially regarded the Roma women’s initiatives as a minority affair. The trust and support of the community had to be won through long, patient work and a permanent presence.

The Roma have started to get used to us. At the beginning, they didn’t accept us and attacked us, asking how much I was getting paid for it and claiming that I was just doing it for the money and wanted to steal money. But they now know that this isn’t the case and that we’re there to do everything we can to promote our common cause. We focus not on issues affecting just one or two families but on changing the situation of the Roma in general, working on something that is good for the community. (Community activist)

Their efforts to navigate the local balance of power are the most demanding. According to our interlocutors, the Roma minority self-governments – which are largely male-dominated political institutions – are seen, particularly in smaller communities, as the custodians of local Roma affairs, and they are not inclined to let Roma women enter the political arena. In many cases, Roma minority self-governments seek to exercise control over the women’s grassroots initiatives, while in other cases they work against them as rivals or regard them with suspicion. Only a small number of initiatives reported that they enjoyed largely neutral relationships with the Roma minority self-governments. Furthermore, not a single case of genuine cooperation was reported to have emerged between the initiatives and Roma minority self-governments.

I try to be open-minded, but I am not going to visit them again. They see me as a rival and they make sure that I feel how they regard me. I don’t know; they probably think that I will run for office when the elections take place. But I don’t have the slightest intention of doing that. (Association president)

All the initiatives, without exception, currently maintain good relations with local public support offices and educational institutions, although at the time of their establishment they faced numerous difficulties. Due to their ethnic background, gender and lack of professional experience, they were initially pushed to the margins of the municipal institutional system.

Nobody wanted to talk to us at the local level. Perhaps this was because we were Roma and women. I am not sure – I didn’t ask. We had to prove ourselves … because we are Roma, because we are women, because the leader of the association is a woman. They considered us as inexperienced and uneducated. (Association president)

Currently, the main difficulty faced by the initiatives is to define their role in the institutional matrix while avoiding the establishment of parallel structures.

One must be careful and pay attention to the fact that we serve as a link between the institutions and disadvantaged people. When there is cooperation with the school, should it be my task, my duty to go out and visit the families? I don’t want the institution to sit back and relax and think that our Roma organization will take care of the problems. (Association president)

Two clearly defined patterns emerge regarding the relationship between the initiatives and local decision-makers. On the one hand, as a result of the commitments of municipal governments, some of the initiatives engage in regular communication and interest mediation with the leadership of the municipality.

The mayor, hats off to him, stands behind us and provides us with the greatest motivation. … The fact that he supports us shows there is a power behind us and that we can go to him if we need help of any kind, any little thing, and he is there, he stands with us and is a partner. (Mediator)

However, in the majority of cases, there is neither support nor hindrance, but rather a complete lack of contact with the municipal leadership.

I think that it is really important what kind of cooperation we have with the town leadership. It’s really good to hear that you have such a good relationship with the mayor. We have not yet managed to get into the mayor’s office. Therefore, [we can] not really [cooperate] with the town leadership. (Association president)

However, balancing between the expectations of different roles in different spheres poses obstacles to the personal and professional achievements of the initiatives. Many describe their activity in terms of serving as a mediator between the minority and the majority, the oppressed and the powerful, the Roma subaltern counterpublic and the wider, non-Roma public sphere.

We have a responsibility in how we form a bridge between our own people and the majority. (Mediator)

This intermediary role also implies that the initiatives engage in vertical communication – or at least wish to engage in such communication – with a view to bringing community interests to the wider discursive arena. At the same time, their relationship with local decision-makers also has a decisive impact on the nature and effectiveness of their advocacy.

4.6 Representation of Community Interests

The initiatives employ two types of advocacy depending on what kind of institutional relationship they have established with municipal leaders. Initiatives that do not receive support from the local leadership channel the interests of the community into their own advocacy activities. As a subaltern counterpublic, they identify local issues and needs through discourse with the local Roma community and offer solutions through focused actions to the best of their abilities. The articulation of interests is thus realized at the community level, but these interests are not channelled into the decision-making process. The interest representation process thus routinely comes to a halt at the intersection of local power relations. The initiatives conduct public advocacy, the primary goal of which is to initiate discourse and construct the public sphere, “actively stimulating citizen voice and engagement in this process.”35

On the other hand, the two initiatives that have succeeded in establishing good relations with local decision-making institutions can take certain community interests to arenas outside their community, namely to the representatives of relevant local institutions or local decision-makers or, within the framework of joint meetings, to both of them. As a result of institutional advocacy,36 a portion of community aspirations is absorbed into local decision-making, subsequently altering the life of the communities in the form of policy measures.

The mayor has supported us from the beginning; he is glad to have us around. … And we have already had many roundtable discussions with institutional leaders and factory directors, and they expect us to help them in everything. I have to go a lot – you really have to go a lot … to the settlement. We did signature collections, and we collected petitions. I visited the job centre to see what kind of training and employment possibilities they have. We sat down with officials from factories and multinational companies. We managed to have them employ Roma. And they [Roma] now also participate in training courses. And I am really happy about this because I feel that if we were not an organization we would not have been able to achieve this. I want us, Roma, not to be oppressed and want everybody to succeed in life. (Community activist)

At the same time, the principle of participatory parity does not prevail in the mechanisms of cooperation and dialogue with local decision-makers.

For us, for example, the first major success was that the officials sat down with us to talk, as before we just stood there queuing [in front of the office] and didn’t even dare to say anything. We were just happy if we could get in and ask, for example, for some kinds of benefits. We also witnessed how they behave with other Roma. So, for us this was a real achievement. (Community activist)

The women leading the initiatives articulate the interests of the community, but they do not speak with their own “voice.” Contrary to subaltern counterpublics, in the course of negotiating with decision-makers an obligation to change registers is prescribed. However, the parties do not have an equal level of standard language norms and argumentation techniques at their disposal. Since political participation materializes in the consultative processes through debate and negotiation, disparities at the discursive level jeopardize the effectiveness of the participation of Roma women.

Access to public discourse and the nature of the dialogue with decision-makers offer a glimpse not only into the mechanisms of participation in local public affairs available to the initiatives but also into the nature of local democratic governance.

4.7 Local Democratic Governance in the Light of the Initiatives

In this section of our study, we return to the theoretical framework to compare the relationships revealed in the preceding analysis with the normative prescriptions of the Fraserian model. As we have demonstrated, in the vast majority of cases the boundary between subaltern counterpublics and the dominant public sphere is not porous; they function as parallel structures and closed spheres. Roma communities formulate their interests horizontally, but they cannot represent them vertically. In other words, minority interests are articulated within the community, but the communication channels that would make dialogue with decision-makers possible have not been established. In our view, the role of Roma minority self-governments is not negligible in this process. As a result of their place in the local public sphere, they emerge as the almost exclusive consultative partners regarding Roma-related affairs. At the same time, none of our interlocutors maintain partnerships with the Roma minority self-governments, partly as a result of the latter’s desire to retain their authority and position and partly because our interlocutors believe that the representation of community interests by the Roma minority self-governments is inadequate or non-existent. At a certain level, the Roma women’s initiatives also emerge as counterpublics opposed to the local Roma minority self-governments. However, while channels of communication have been established between Roma minority self-governments and local decision-makers, none of these decision-makers engage in a genuine dialogue with the Roma women’s initiatives. Therefore, decision-makers are not aware of the unequal power relations and conflicting interests within the Roma community.

In other words, instead of plural public spheres, a dominant, monolithic actor has the opportunity to exercise influence over measures affecting the Roma communities in these municipalities. In other cases, Roma women leaders are able transmit the voice of the community to decision-makers, but they are not able to amplify this voice as equal partners. As a result of the requirement to change registers, standard language norms and techniques of persuasion are prescribed, giving rise to inequalities at the discursive level. Political participation, however, materializes through discourse in consultative mechanisms. The question therefore arises how effective their participation can be if the forum that provides space for their participation not only displays but also reproduces the inequalities they voice their objections to. In Fraser’s theory of democracy, the intersubjective condition of participatory parity prescribes the normative requirement that institutionalized cultural value patterns provide equal opportunities for all social groups to attain social esteem. If the opportunity to participate is provided but the parties do not participate in their interactions as equal partners, the principle of parity is undermined and democratic participation does not take place.

To summarize, some of the communities represented by the Roma women’s initiatives cannot successfully redefine issues affecting them as local public affairs because they cannot even enter the discursive arena that would provide them with an opportunity to do so. The community’s participation in interest mediation and consultation with local decision-makers is not only hindered by a lack of necessary resources but also by the fact that the channels of communication for effective dialogue have not been established. In the connection, we have drawn attention to the internal power relations of minority communities and to the fact that participation in consultation mechanisms is limited to those minority representatives who are in a dominant position. In accordance with the principle of pluralism, representation of the interests formulated in the community’s counterpublics should also be ensured. On the other hand, we have also highlighted the importance of equal participation at the discursive level. Unequal power relations are also constructed at the discursive level, and communicative interactions reproduce the inequalities that prevail within society. Social inequalities are unavoidably present in acts of speech, and advocates cannot effectively voice the interests of their communities if these inequalities are not counterbalanced.

5 Conclusion

Our study focuses on initiatives launched by Roma women, mothers and wives who, despite facing many obstacles, were able – through their charismatic leadership skills, persistence and commitment – to involve community members in their initiatives and thereby increase their participation in local public affairs. The concept of the public sphere and the normative theory of democracy serve as the guiding principles of our analysis. Although we have interpreted the discourses of our interlocutors by relying on interpretative sociology, the normative dimension of the Fraserian democracy principle serves as a theoretical benchmark for our study.

We have described the initiatives led by Roma women as arenas for internal consultation for Roma communities. They constitute subaltern counterpublics in which the community is able to articulate its needs and interests. Through the discourse that takes place within these initiatives, personal opinions are formulated as common positions and personal needs as public affairs. As common narratives are formulated, the collective identity of each community emerges, and their common understanding is also constructed by the consciousness of the “we.” In deliberations based on the particular cultural and linguistic patterns of the community, members of the community participate as equal partners in the discourse. By sharing leadership, the initiatives become workshops for community participation as well as for the internal emancipation of the community. However, despite their efforts, they have only had modest success in transmitting community interests to wider public spheres.

While the Roma women’s initiatives provide space for diversity of opinion and equal participation within their communities, they are pounding on closed doors at the gateway to the dominant public sphere. Political indifference, like a daunting wall, blocks the representation of their interests. The wider public sphere and the social elite are not aware of subaltern counterpublics, and the lack of communication channels prevents them from participating in the formulation of local policy measures via consultative frameworks. Although there are Roma women who manage to cross the wide gap separating the subordinated Roma communities and the local power elite, the relationships of dominance and inequality are reproduced through discursive means in the consultative processes. The Roma women’s initiatives nevertheless continue to implement their activities with faith, because they wish to provide marginalized Roma communities with a public arena in which to voice their diverse opinions and guarantee their participatory parity – a role that local institutions should fulfil in a state based on democratic principles.


The number of Roma living in Hungary is approximately 700,000, or roughly 7 per cent of the country’s total population. The gender distribution of Hungary’s Roma population is equal. Around 97 per cent of Roma households live in conditions of material deprivation. In addition to poverty and social exclusion, Roma women face multiple types of discrimination vis-à-vis the majority population as well as within their own Roma communities. Underlying the frequent cases of early marriage and childbearing among Roma women are labour-market discrimination, asymmetrical power relations within the family and the traditional gender roles within Roma culture. These factors not only result in them leaving school at an early age but also serve to impede their labour-market activity and their ability to improve their financial circumstances. See Niall Crowley, Angela Genova and Silvia Sansonetti, Country Report on Hungary: Empowerment of Romani Women within the European Framework of National Roma Inclusion Strategies (European Parliament: Directorate-General for Internal Policies, 2013), (accessed June 16, 2017).

The Strasbourg Declaration on Roma states the following with regard to the rights and gender equality of Roma women: “(22) Put in place effective measures to respect, protect and promote gender equality of Roma girls and women within their communities and in the society as a whole. (23) Put in place effective measures to abolish where still in use harmful practices against Roma women’s reproductive rights, primarily forced sterilisation.” The Strasbourg Declaration on Roma, Doc. CM(2010)133, adopted at the Council of Europe High Level Meeting on Roma, Strasbourg, October 20, 2010.


This study was prepared in the framework of the Tom Lantos Institute’s Roma Rights and Citizenship Programme, whose primary objective is to promote and support the meaningful participation of Roma communities in social, economic and cultural life, as well as in public affairs.


Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” in Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun (Cambridge, MA: mit Press, 1992), 109–142.


The Roma population of Hungary can be divided into three main subgroups – the Oláh (Vlach), the Romungro (Hungarian-speaking Roma) and the Beás (Beash or Boyash) – that distinguish themselves from one another on the basis of language, culture and traditional occupations.


The mediators and community action-group members who spoke to us during our research participated in a regional project implemented in Hungary aimed at promoting the self-organization of Roma communities, increasing their participation in local public affairs and fostering local social dialogue. “Intercultural” Roma mediators and community action groups composed of local residents supported by mediators were the key players in this project. The objective of these community action groups is to assert community interests through dialogue and cooperation with the local decision-makers participating in the project.


Section 2 of the explanatory provisions of Article 6/A of Act lxxvii of 1993 on the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities (amended in 2005) contains the following definition of minority self-government: “an organisation established by democratically held elections in accordance with the provisions of this Act and with the procedure set forth by a separate law, having the task of providing public services under the law, operating as a body with legal personality, being formed in order to enforce minority rights, to protect and to represent the interest of minorities, and to independently conduct minority public affairs on a local, regional (county and Budapest) or national level.”


Here we are thinking primarily of the divergent cultural traditions, customs and gender-role concepts of the various Roma subgroups in Hungary. However, an examination of these differences is beyond the scope of this study.


Sabine Lang, ngos, Civil Society, and the Public Sphere (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).


Ibid., 44.


Lang notes on several occasions that the concepts of civil society formed in these discourses seep down to the level of practice as the state and certain donors construct civil society and the interactions that take place with it.


Lang, ngos, 43.


See Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989); Jürgen Habermas, “Further Reflections on the Public Sphere,” in Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun (Cambridge, MA: mit Press, 1992), 421–461; Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy (Cambridge, MA: mit Press, 1996).


Habermas, Between Facts and Norms, 367.


The division between weak and strong publics is taken from Fraser’s criticism of Habermas’s landmark work examining the structural changes to the public sphere.


Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere.”


Habermas’s early work on the public sphere has remained a point of departure for discourses regarding the public sphere. Originally written as his PhD dissertation in 1962, the English-language translation of this work produced a series of sharp debates, criticisms and revisions, including Habermas’s own reflections. Perhaps it was precisely this unceasing interest that prompted Habermas to return to the theme in the work outlined briefly above.


In 2007, Fraser formulated a transnational model of the public sphere in which she voiced criticism of the methodological nationalism contained in her own previous work and in the works of Habermas. See Nancy Fraser, “Transnationalizing the Public Sphere: On the Legitimacy and Efficacy of Public Opinion in a Post-Westphalian World,” Theory, Culture and Society 24, no. 4 (2007): 7–30.


Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere.”


Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking Recognition,” New Left Review 3 (2000): 107–120.




Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere,” 121–126.






Ibid., 126.




Amartya Sen, “Társadalmi kirekesztés: Fogalom, alkalmazás és vizsgálat” [Social exclusion: concept, application, and scrutiny], trans. Judit Kozma, Esély 6 (2003): 3–22.


See Government Decree No. 105/2015. (iv.23) on the classification of the favoured areas and the conditions for classification in relation to Act xxi of 1996 on Regional Development and Regional Planning.


We define a segregated settlement as a section of a settlement consisting of at least one block of houses – on property lying between four streets or public spaces – in which the segregation index, i.e. the proportion of inhabitants who are characterized as low status (those who belong to the economically active population, have no more than an eighth-grade education and have no regular income from work), is above 50 per cent. In the case of those communities that participated in the Regional Operational Programme’s capacity increasing or the urban rehabilitation programme and prepared an Integrated Municipal Development Strategy, the segregated residential area must be defined based on the segregation map prepared by the Central Statistics Office. See, for example, Integrated Community Development Strategy or Local Equal Opportunity Programme in “Road to Work Programme: Glossary of Terms” [in Hungarian], Employment and Social Affairs Office, March 26, 2009, (accessed June 16, 2017).


Only one single road leads to the settlement, and the settlement can only be approached from one direction.


“Public employment is a special form of employment relationship, a supported form of ‘transitional employment’ that aims to enable public employees to successfully enter or return to the primary labour market. Public employment provides temporary job opportunities for those whose independent search for employment proves to be ineffective for a long period of time.” See “Information on the Public Work Scheme” [in Hungarian], Hungarian Ministry of the Interior, January 2016, available at (accessed June 16, 2017). For more details, see Act cvi of 2011 on the Modification of the Act on Public Employment, the Act Related to Public Employment and Other Acts.


See Section 1 of the explanatory provisions of Article 6/A of Act lxxvii of 1993 on the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities (amended in 2005).


Ibid., Section 2.


Árpád Rátkai, “A kisebbségi önkormányzatok legitimációhiánya” [Minority self-governments’ lack of legitimacy], Regio 3 (2000): 113–132.


Robert E. Koulish, “What Roma Want Survey: Roma Civic Attitudes in Hungary,” in Partners Studies, vol. 4 (Budapest: Cicero Press, 2001), also available at


Lang, ngos, 23.



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