Why you should care
Soraya Post is one of the most prominent voices ever for one of Europe’s most oppressed people: the Roma.
She’s a blond-haired, blue-eyed Swede. And yet Soraya Post is the daughter of two of Europe’s most-oppressed minorities: her father, a German-born Jew and Holocaust survivor; her mother Roma. And now, after winning election to the European Parliament earlier this year as the first Feminist Initiative party candidate, she has a powerful perch from which to pursue her twin goals of knocking down offensive Roma stereotypes and promoting equal rights.
This 58-year-old mother of four and grandmother has worked for years on behalf of Europe’s Roma community, a people originally of Indian origin, also known as Romani, Gypsies or Travellers, concentrated in Romania but spread across Europe and to North America. She was both the vice chairman of the European Roma and Travellers Forum and president of the International Roma Women’s Network, but her foray into politics is new. And while she might be one of the most politically empowered of Europe’s 15 million Roma, still, she’s one of them: The so-called pocketbook-stealing, flashy dressers who kidnap children, topple housing values and draw welfare wherever they go. It’s hard to overstate the level of prejudice faced in Europe.
Post told party faithful to see her as “a mixture between Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King and the pope.”
After being approached twice by Sweden’s Feminist Initiative (FI), Post threw her (trademark) pink scarf in the ring. “I recognized myself in their program. It was as though I could have written all of their policies myself,” she tells OZY. Post told party faithful to see her as “a mixture between Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King and the pope,” she recalls. It’s a grand comparison, but she knows about oppression and survival. Her own mother was sterilized by the state while she was seven months pregnant, not to mention her ethnic background. All of which make her a natural human rights campaigner.
She speaks freely about feeling like a second-class citizen in her native Gothenburg. She’s warm and friendly in tone and yet direct. Her eyes appear pained, yet a deep throaty laugh seems to add authenticity, perhaps enhancing her appeal with voters and propelling her quickly into Sweden’s national spotlight. Now, thanks to the FI winning 5.3 percent of parliamentary votes, Post’s voice is being heard on the European stage.
Ruus Dijksterjuis, executive director of the ERGO Network for European Roma, says the Roma community has been proud to have her elected, but recognizes it could be a honeymoon period. “I’ve not heard any criticism yet, but I think that will come after she’s had to make more decisions,” she says. Andy Shallice, of the Roma Support Group in the U.K., expresses a similar concern, that Roma who are successful “within the political system [are perceived to] have crossed the line — become like non-Roma.”
Most Europeans know little about Roma, a group who are often uneducated and unemployed, at the fringes of society. Many Europeans view them as lawless freeloaders who refuse to integrate. Some Roma have no access to legal papers, travel or healthcare. But that’s not by choice, says Post. “Everyone wants to be a part of society,” she says. Now they’re facing the rise of right-wing extremism like Gabor Vona’s Jobbik party in Hungary, or the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece. The Sweden Democrats, largely seen as anti-Roma, got the third-largest percentage of the vote in September’s national elections. Roma are being evicted from informal settlements, killed in racist attacks, segregated at schools, rounded up to be shipped “home” (to Romania), even denied a cup of coffee at a hotel.
Women’s issues aren’t just women’s issues — they’re society’s issues.
— Soraya Post
Post aims to change that. She and the Feminist Initiative formally aligned with the second-largest group in the European Parliament, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats, for whom she speaks on Roma issues. Post also sits on the subcommittee for Human Rights, and the Civil Rights, Justice and Home Affairs committee. She’s got a long list of projects, starting with creation of a parliamentary intergroup for Roma and injecting language protecting Roma in all relevant EU legislative proposals. Post wants the intergroup to define anti-Roma behavior as a unique form of racism. She also wants the parliament to create a special representative for Roma, and provide a platform to empower the community and foster activism. She hopes to convince her colleagues to introduce curriculum detailing Roma history and culture.
When asked where her priorities lie — first with Roma or women’s rights — Post says it makes no difference. “The two go hand in hand,” she says. “Women’s issues aren’t just women’s issues — they’re society’s issues.” So you won’t find Post joining women’s committees.
Post’s association with the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats brings gender equality into the mainstream and, she says, puts her “platform with a group that has a good strong voice” in parliament. But she’s already been criticized for the alliance, as well as her support for conservative European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Many of Post’s Facebook supporters questioned her after Juncker’s election in July, saying she was supposed to be “stirring the pot,” not driving “a knife into [their] heart.” But both moves, Post reasons, allow her to go with the grain in a bid for political capital tomorrow, rather than stand alone on principle today.
Post hopes that time and results will heal any initial wounds. She’s in Brussels now, and for the next five years, where she will use her chance to affect change, even if it means making a few compromises along the way.