The bad things about having chronic migraines are… well… too numerous to list here. The good thing about having chronic migraines is lots of time to watch television, since you are in too much pain to be productive to society. If you are lucky, you have cable. But TV goes beyond “16 and Pregnant” and the even more amusing “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant.” (Okay, I can be a misanthrope when in pain.) And there’s even the National Geographic channel, (called NatGeo to those in the know).
Along with soporific factory and fishing documentaries, NatGeo is currently airing a show called “American Gypsy.” Google “gypsy,” (which is considered by many Roma to be derogatory, incidentally), and one of the first sites to come up has a link to the show’s trailer, which shows a young Roma woman’s face partially obscured, followed by the undulating hips of a belly dancer, for a dash of Orientalist flair.
So ahead and do that… Okay. So, out of the people who will watch that show, how many will know fun facts about the persecution Roma have faced, despite being in Europe for hundreds of years? But let’s just focus on early 20th-century persecution. After all, this is an outpouring of righteous indignation, not a master’s thesis.
According to the meticulously detailed “Documentation on the Persecution of Roma” in 1926, the Bavarian state passed the first (20th-century) act of anti-Roma persecution in a law which compelled Roma to register with authorities and “regulated their movements.” Germany codified Roma hatred “when it enacted this legislation at the national level in 1929, and remained in effect when the National Socialists came to power in 1933.” As if that restriction weren’t enough, Nazis took things to the next, murderous level when they imprisoned Roma in such infamous hellholes as Aushwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau.
Although this sounds awfully familiar to what another group suffered during the Shoah, the lionized Elie Weisel opposed Roma inclusion in The Holocaust Memorial. For Professor Weisel, “never forget” does not extend to all ethnic and religious groups.
But surely since the end of World War II, Europe has a attempted to atone for its murderous past, and the world has a newfound sense of empathy and understanding? Perhaps the world excluding Mel Gibson. But I digress.
Any optimism regarding more respectful treatment of Roma is misplaced. Not only have they been subjected to continued persecution and abject poverty, life in postwar Europe has been especially cruel to women. (You knew I would get to them, right?) In her excellent article “Sterilized Roma Say They Did Not Consent,” Dinah A. Spritzer writes of the forced sterilization practices that plagued women well into the 20th-century in the former Czechoslovakia. In 1990, then 21-year-old Alena Gordova says she was coerced into sterilization after the birth of her second child. As she explains, “He (the physician sic) told me just before the birth that I needed a sterilization and I was not sure what that meant. Then he put a piece of paper in front of my face and said, ‘Sign.’ I was tired, stressed out and, as is the custom here, I did what I was told.” Although a confused Gordova tried to find someone at the hospital with whom to discuss the surgery, hospital officials were unhelpful. But Alena Gordova’s case was not unique; rather, she was one of “at least 70 Roma women” to come forward in 2005 with the charge that state-run hospitals forcibly sterilized them during the last 15 years.
Other women, such as Jana Bogliyova, charge that sterilization was used by the state as a bargaining chip. Bogliyova, who had six children, said a social worker warned her that another baby would result in her children being removed from her custody. Unfortunately, that scenario came true. However, when Bogliyova consented to sterilization, her children were returned.
While Roma women have their advocates, well-regarded gynecologists including Libor Kavan dismiss the claims. “Some woman who has had four or five children and then has had herself sterilized decides she could make some money off of it and claims that she wasn’t properly informed or gave her consent after stress,” he said. For her part, Alena Gordova is unsurprised by the skeptics. But she remains determined to let the world know of her violation and loss she suffered.
But even if this piece doesn’t persuade doesn’t inspire to internet search “Roma Persecution” (or even peruse the Wiki article), or inspire you to read Isabel Fonseca‘s excellent Bury Me Standing, at least stop saying “gypped” the next time you manage to be parted with money. I suppose you can still watch “16 and Pregnant,” though.