Begging as gendered activity in Romanian Roma’s migration to Italy
Catholic University of the Sacred Heart
Drawing on ethnographic research with Roma in Italy, I focus on begging as a transnational gendered activity, involving mostly women in emotional work. Romanian Roma women often talk about the rules of behaviour appropriate for men and for women as tradition. Being Roma means thinking and acting according to profound differences between men and women. Parents and other family members teach, monitor and sometimes punish girls, prescribing precise limits to their freedom and acceptable social paths for them. The prestige of the entire community and of the family depends on the respect of these norms, reified as “tradition”. Through the activity of begging, Romanian Roma women acquire new statuses in their family and change the hierarchies of decision making, as they start to count as breadwinners. While in the country of origin they were more intensely controlled and worked in the domestic sphere, in Italy they spend considerable amounts of time in the public space, acquiring relational capital and relative freedom from traditional gender norms. I argue that begging is an emotional labour dealing with raising the empathy of by-passers. It depends on managing one’s own appearance and story in order to transmit one’s state of need. Just like for airline hostesses, nannies and sex-workers, working with emotions means managing one’s appearance, body display, and hearts. By performing transnational emotional work, although informal, Romanian Roma women both challenge and perpetuate, in a dynamic negotiation, gender norms reified as “tradition”.