“Even the body wasn’t mine”, — Roma activist Alona Kazanska about her own experience of fighting patriarchy

Today is a period of qualitative changes, rethinking of values and struggle for respect for boundaries of personal space. Society is moving towards gender parity and equality in various spheres of life. However, women from the most segregated communities are still held hostage by their environment. For the most part, the conditions artificially constructed in radical-patriarchal parts of society are not favourable for the development of a woman as a complete individual; girls are placed in an absolutely subordinate position in relation to their parents and husband. Sometimes patriarchal principles and a strict interpretation of national traditions can spoil a girl’s mental and physical health, and sometimes even confront with a choice – family or personality.

Alona Kazanska is a Roma activist and human rights defender who experienced all the “contrasts” of a traditional patriarchal upbringing. At the age of 25, the girl already speaks openly about taboo topics, promotes the rights of minorities, representatives of the LGBT community, and defends women against traditions and the patriarchal system. She repeatedly raised the topic of discrimination in the Roma community, became a co-author of two films in which she touched on “forbidden” topics: Roma–gays and virginity tests at weddings. Read the article about how the path to personal independence began and why it cost relationships with the family.

Prolonged childhood

Alona grew up in a family without a father, her mother and grandmother took care of her education. The women were afraid that their daughter was growing up quickly and tried to create unnatural favourable conditions in which she would think about nothing but excellent study and her own behaviour. Make-up, hanging out with peers, festive events and out-of-school activities were out of reach for the girl.

“I was dressed like a child and always told that I was still too young. My family didn’t want me to distract from my studies and think about marriage. At the age of 17, I was allowed to wear an evening dress, heels and a little make-up for a family holiday. It was my debut”,— Alona recalls her childhood with irony in her voice.

The girl felt that the boundaries set by her family were stricter than those of her peers. Mother and grandmother were afraid to make a mistake in upbringing, because they controlled this process together. All spheres of Alona’s life were under the constant and vigilant control of the family. Over time, she will learn to bypass barriers to her advantage, but it will not happen immediately.

“When guests came to our house, I was not always allowed to sit at the common table, or they might scold me for turning my back on my husband. And at the age of 18, my mother completely forbade wearing trousers, only one pair was left, which I kept for a long time and wore when I went out of town”,— Alona admits that she did manage to convince her family to allow her to wear trousers, but it took a lot of time, and the number was limited.

Social expectations for Alona went beyond the limits and were hyperbolized; prohibitions were not reasoned or objectively understandable. So, for example, at some point the girl was not allowed to put on sneakers with a dress, straighten her hair or run in the morning, explaining it by the fact that Roma women do not do that.

Photo: Alyona Kazanskaya

Kyiv, college and a little freedom

When the girl was 16-17 years old, she began to rebel and defend her personal boundaries. It was at this time that the biggest problems in the family began. It was difficult for Alona to accept the layering of social expectations on national characteristics. Education is not the only thing in which she received tremendous support. The grandmother, who was the de facto head of the family, allowed her to go to Kyiv to study, to live in a hostel so that in the future she would be financially independent from her husband.

A year has passed. Alona felt that she could finally solve everyday issues and take responsibility for her life. At this time, her family began to notice changes in her behaviour that did not suit them.

“They (mother and grandmother, ed;) decided that I should be taken away from the hostel. My mother started to rent us a joint apartment in Kyiv, this decision appeared under the influence of external pressure and my behavioural changes”,— Alona recounts the events; later the girl will feel the consequences of the family’s hyper-observance.

Student life absorbed the girl only in terms of study. She wanted to develop, to earn money, to engage in human rights protection. It was at this time that Alyona became an activist and human rights defender. The family tried to strengthen control as much as possible and spread it to all areas of the girl’s life.

“I began to actively engage in human rights activities and immerse myself in the problems of patriarchal society. My first Pride in Kyiv passed, and then I had to close my social networks from all my family and friends. Analysing the situation, I realised that the environment is destroying itself and me along with it”,— says the human rights defender about the first steps in her activity.

Аgree not argue

At the age of 15-16, Alona strove to fully meet the expectations of her family and community. The girl liked how qualitatively she differs from her peers in upbringing and education. At that time, the main ideal was the grandmother; the girl aspired to be like her. She managed to adapt to the circumstances so much that the girl saw her life in the future only with a Roma man, so she did not feel an urgent need to change anything.

“I thought that I would not be happy with anyone except a Rom. It was a strong conviction until I met my friends and colleagues.”

Photo: Alyona during the trip

Over time, views began to change, horizons expanded along with new acquaintances. When the mother moved to Kyiv and took her daughter to live with her, the atmosphere began to heat up and soon reached its climax. Control, prohibitions and interference in the comfort zone led to psychological injuries and their psychosomatic manifestations.

There were moments when Alona broke down morally and had depressive episodes. The first ended with the onset of migraines and hand tremors, the second occurred when the girl was taken from the hostel. This led to a confrontation: on the one hand, she felt like an adult person, and on the other hand, she could not make even basic decisions in her life.

“My mother made sure that I returned home immediately after classes. During the period of my study in college and university, I was threatened several times to come to the institution and get the documents out, and then get married”, — the heroine recalls the methods of manipulation used by the mother to control the life of her adult daughter.

All this provoked a new depressive episode that lasted several months. During this time, Alona could not force herself to study, eat and live normally as before. After returning home for the Christmas holidays, the girl initiated an appeal to a psychotherapist, her grandmother agreed with this decision. After 5 sessions, the family stopped therapy. At that moment, Alona felt better, she was able to pull herself out of a depressed state and start to advocate for numerous decisions.

A wedding is not for two

All the women in the family had traumatic experiences in relationships and marriage. This became one of the reasons for constant control of daughters. Alona believed that she should go through 9 rounds of wedding traditions so that her sister would not have to suffer later, reaping the consequences. She had the idea of a fictitious marriage with an acquaintance from Moldova as the only way out for her. However, the girl met her future husband and eventually abandoned this idea.

Photo: Alyona Kazanskaya with her husband Vladimir Selivanenko.

Once, Alona had a conversation with her mother, which became somewhat decisive for her. During the conversation, the woman shared her story and de facto gave her daughter permission to marry a boy of another nationality. In practice, everything turned out to be more difficult, but the couple was saved by the fact that the chosen one turned out to be a Jew, to whom the Roma community has the most favourable attitude.

Since the future husband hardly knew any traditions, it was not difficult to convince him of the need for certain components. After some persuasion, he agreed to the most important procedure – a virginity test and speeding up the ceremony. Alona admits that she was not ready for most of what happened at the celebration.

“I dealt with the consequences of the wedding for several years; it was after it that I stopped communicating with my family. At the wedding, I was allowed to choose rings and a bouquet – nothing else. One of the worst moments was the ceremonial presentation of the basket with the bloody sheet to my husband’s family. The fact that I turned out to be “pure” became a triumph, but not mine”.

The girl admits that the last straw that destroyed her grandmother’s image in her eyes was the question: “can she be proud of her granddaughter.”

Photo: Leе Biletska, “Romani Dance” movie poster

“Not what I have become, not what I have achieved. Only my virginity mattered, that is, even the body was not mine”.

It was the events at the wedding that became the final stage in relations with the family. Later, Alona will become the co-author and heroine of the documentary “Roma Dance”, which is dedicated to the procedure of testing the virginity of girls at a wedding and the trauma that accompanies this unspoken tradition.

Today, the girl and her husband live in Kyiv; they are engaged in human rights protection and volunteering. Currently, Alona continues to get rid of some behavioural patterns that remained in her life as a reminder of traditional, patriarchal upbringing.

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