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Commentary: The Miss Roma competition does more harm than good

25.9.2016 18:29
Petr Uhl
Petr Uhl

On Saturday evening the "Miss Roma 2016" competition was held at the House of Culture in the Czech town of Hodonín for the 12th year in a row. I have always had mixed feelings about this contest, but I have never before publicly discussed what bothers me about it because it was always clear to me that it involves a significant emancipatory charge for some Romani community members.

The message of the competition is:  We Roma are here, we are part of Czech society, and we are able to apply ourselves in this way, too. The contest increases a sense of pride in romipen [Roma-ness], especially among young Roma, as per the saying "Amaro romipen - amaro baripen" - "Our romipen is our pride".

Such pride can contribute to integration efforts, both for Roma as a group and as individuals. Personally, I have always been interested in seeing Romani people highlighted as an ethnic group here.

I am one of the very few people in Czech society who judges that Romani emancipation must be the basic route to Romani integration in a democratic state where the rule of law is in place, that it is a necessary component, an essential augmentation of the path of assimilation (i.e., adapting to the majority and absolutely merging with it). Yes, I know, a certain amount of assimilation, to a certain degree, is necessary, and many Romani people strive to attain it.

However, their efforts are accompanied by the intolerance of a significant proportion of the majority society, with its authoritarian, even totalitarian demand for Romani assimilation. That demand raises not just the justified requirement that the law be upheld by everybody, but requires conformity of lifestyle and suppresses the Romanes language and Romani cultural traditions and customs. 

Machismo, unfortunately, is rising worldwide

The word macho in Spanish originally meant the male of the species. Machismo is a term for a masculinity that is understood as involving men's alleged superiority to women and an emphatically male way of behaving that borders on the offensive.

Along with overcoming misogyny, sexism, homophobia, retributive justice, dismissive attitudes toward children, repressive education (or re-education), consumerism and racism (including antigypsyism!), rejecting machismo is the direct cultural/political basis for what today is sometimes called the cultural left. In this respect, Czech society as a whole is still consistently very conservative and traditional, and the difference between Czech culture and that of Western European countries in this regard is striking.

The other side of the coin of sexism is just as much a part of it, and that is the side that covers up gender inequality and discrimination against women through the compliments paid to women as female bodies, the celebration of them as female bodies, male gallantry toward them, that "Ladies first", that view of them as the "weaker sex", that male kissing of the female hand that seems so ridiculous to people in parts west of the Czech Republic. This includes the exploitation of sexuality, eroticism, and the female body in the advertisements that have gradually permeated all of public life here.

One component of this is all of these female appearance competitions of the "Miss" variety. On the other hand, I have not observed anything as harmful as sexism during events and marches such as Roma Pride, which I consider to be an appropriate promotion of romipen

It is undignified to sell female beauty

It is inappropriate to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as it were. We cannot get rid of discrimination against Romani people and the reduction of human dignity that it entails by simultaneously demeaning the dignity of women by reducing them to admiration of female beauty and the graceful contours of the female body.

Kitsch and an orientation toward the lower (in this case, the male sexual) level is the essence of all competitions of female "beauty". Of course, the organizers of these contests are aware of that.

That is why today the contest is for a "Miss" and not a "beauty queen", although even today the feudal nature of the ceremony is still expressed through the winning of a crown. For that reason, the competition in Hodonín just now was preceded by a week-long meeting of the finalists in Radějov during which they perfected not just their communications skills, but also studied choreography and focused on dance.

Apparently the "Miss Roma" jury places great emphasis on contestants' dancing skills. The organizers of the "competition", however, are doing their best to desexualize this display of female bodies and to dilute the superficiality of the event a bit.

During the 1990s I noticed the various reactions of Romani people to their involvement in social events in the Czech Republic. Guided tours of excluded localities, mainly undertaken by journalists, were seen by many Romani people as like a sort of visit to the "zoo", and some Romani musicians even became reluctant to perform publicly in concert.

Such performers do enjoy dancing and singing for Romani audiences, and of course also for those gadje [non-Roma] who do not go to Romani concerts to confirm their convictions that while the "Roma may be bastards and outcasts, they really can dance and sing". People who hold such views take a caste approach to Romani people, which is necessarily one of segregation. 

Our romipen is our pride

From 1998 to 2001 I was both the Czech Government Commissioner for Human Rights and the chair of the Government's Inter-ministerial Commission for Romani Community Affairs. During the past 20 years, changes have occurred in the position of Romani people as a social group or groups in the Czech Republic, and I'd say they were changes for the better.

There is still a lot of hatred against Romani people in the public space, and incitement to hatred of them may still be happening "more freely" than it did when it was not prohibited by law. However, the number of Czech legal instruments for suppressing both physical and verbal assaults on Romani people have increased, under pressure from the Council of Europe and the European Union, as have the number of legal instruments for eliminating antigypsyist discrimination and incitement to it.

It is decidedly the case that the number of direct attacks on Romani people has declined since the beginning of the 1990s, but discrimination is cruder and more open today, even with the increased number of legal options for combating it. Fewer media outlets are stirring up hatred against Roma now than were 20 years ago, though.

Some political parties and social organizations here are even striving for Romani integration, even though they espouse this quietly and to a limited extent so as not to lose popularity and votes. On the other hand, however, various forms of pro-Romani and Romani activities have greatly developed here, with the aid of the Government and sometimes even local authorities.

The number of educated Romani people has increased here as well. We are making progress in many ways that benefit Romani people.

These are ways forward that bolster human dignity and equality and thereby contribute to the emancipatory component of Romani integration. It is just as important that these paths also lead to the other pieces necessary to preserving the human freedoms of all people in both Czech society and European society.

While I am aware that the organizers of the competition for the most beautiful Romani woman share the same aims - i.e., Romani emancipation along with that Romani asset, that "Our romipen is our pride", and the increase of Romani prestige in the eyes of the majority society - we must now begin to call into question this voting for "Miss Roma" because it is undignified, in human terms. After all, there are so many other occasions on which Romani people could get together to celebrate.  

Petr Uhl, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Miss, ženy, action, Analysis



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