A fundamental element of majority privilege is the blind universality that members of an ethnic, religious, racial, or sexual majority often unconsciously embrace. They believe that their perspectives are held – or should be held – by everyone. They think that everyone celebrates Christmas, wants to get married to someone of the opposite sex, or aspires to the ideal of beauty typified by George Clooney.
One aspect of this universality is that a member of the majority can unquestionably work in any sphere and on any issue. No one raises an eyebrow if a white person works on, say, global human rights issues. If, on the other hand, such a person worked on the “human rights of white people,” it would generate accusations of racism, and justifiably so.
Members of minority groups, however, face a challenge in this regard. There is usually a pressing need for advocacy work on behalf of their fellow minority members. And yet, people who choose this path sometimes feel as if this is the only option open to them, that they’ve been “ghettoized” in their vocation, that only members of the majority are expected to have the necessary skills to work on behalf of people not of their own ilk.
Rita Izsak, a Roma human rights activist from Hungary, has been pushing back against such assumptions her entire life. “When I was in the eighth grade and about to finish primary school, my mother was advised that her daughter should go to an easier school, to a vocational school or maybe to a weaker high school,” she told me in an interview in Budapest in August 2013. “Apparently, though I can’t remember, I got so angry that I opened the newspaper and searched for the strongest school in the area, which was the one in Pécs, a Catholic school belonging to the Cistercian order. My mom says I decided to apply there to prove my teachers wrong. I got accepted.”
She went on to law school and then to work at the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) in Budapest. There she handled a number of cases involving discrimination against Roma. She told me about one challenging case involving a small town in Hungary where the kindergarten that Roma children attended was obviously inferior to the one attended by non-Roma. She found three plaintiffs willing to be part of a lawsuit against the municipal authority.
“When I went for the first trial, I found out that out of my three initial clients, only one appeared and when I found her, she was in tears,” Izsak remembered. “When I asked her ‘What’s going on?’ she started screaming at me: ‘What did you do to my life? What did you do to me?! They came from the municipality and threatened to take away my children. I have nothing but my children!’ She was shaking, literally shaking. I tried to hold her hand. She said, ‘I need to go now, they’re waiting for me.’ I saw the municipality car waiting outside. An Equal Treatment Authority representative told us she left a letter, which we needed to read aloud now. He opened the envelope and read this beautifully written letter with correct legal terms that could have never been written by my client. She finished only four years in school. It was all about how she’d been misled in this case, that she wanted to withdraw her authorization and that she had no intention of complaining about the school system. ‘Everything is fine in this town,’ she wrote. I heard later that this letter was typed by somebody at the primary school.”
Today, Izsak is the Special Rapporteur on minority issues appointed by the UN Human Rights Council. “An important step in my career was when I decided to use the knowledge and experience I gained by working on the Roma issue for other minorities too,” she told me. “It was partly again to prove a point, to demonstrate that it is possible to protest the intellectual ghetto, the belief and pressure that if you are Roma, you are only able to and are supposed to work on Roma issues. I was again blessed. I was a fellow with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva in 2006, and they called me back for a consultancy in January 2007. This is how I ended up in a more global human rights environment.”
The work remains challenging but also rewarding. “Sometimes I believe that I would make more change if I established a nice day-care center in northeastern Hungary or somewhere in Africa,” she concluded. “I’ve reached a position where I’m in one of the top jobs in the field of human rights (even if it’s unpaid). I talk to BBC, Al Jazeera. I have a privilege that I can write down all my thoughts in a report and it will get a UN logo and be distributed to 193 Member States without any censorship. But we need to be committed, patient, and persistent to see our work resulting in the actual improvement of people’s lives. We need to believe that the seeds we now plant will grow into something in 30, 50, 100 years.”
Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
No, I don’t think so. My first memory of the fall of Communism was that I had to buy a Russian textbook because I was supposed to learn the language. I was ten years old and in the fourth grade in the primary school. When I was about to enter the fifth grade and start Russian, they abolished the class. That was my first sense that something was changing, that and my wish to have a red kerchief, because before I only had a blue one. You switched kerchiefs between the fourth and fifth grades.
It took a very long time before I understood what happened. My generation really had to try to find out the truth by ourselves. Those who came from middle-class and elite families probably had discussions about it during Sunday lunches. But I guess lower-middle class families like us didn’t talk about these issues. We talked about neighbors or TV series. I can’t remember any discussions going on in my family about Communism and how democracy arrived.
Where did you grow up?
In Szekszárd. I went to Pécs for my high school, and then I came to Budapest for law school. I left home quite early, when I was 14 and then stayed in hostels.
The high school in Pécs, was it focused on a specific topic?
It was a Catholic school and I had language specification. When I was in the eighth grade and about to finish primary school, my mother was advised that her daughter should go to an easier school, to a vocational school or maybe to a weaker high school. Apparently, though I can’t remember, I got so angry that I opened the newspaper and searched for the strongest school in the area, which was the one in Pécs, a Catholic school belonging to the Cistercian order. My mom says I decided to apply there to prove my teachers wrong. I got accepted.
It was almost the same story with law school. I was never sure whether my mom’s name and my partly Roma background contributed to the fact that I was never a promising student in the eyes of my teachers. Even when I applied to law school, it was basically to prove a point to the others. Many were surprised that I was admitted.
It’s interesting that you don’t remember that moment. How old were you when you opened up the newspaper?
I was 13 but I have a short memory. What I do remember is that after I had been accepted to the school, my headmaster called me to ask how I’d done it. Many believed I cheated because they doubted I could pass the entrance exam by myself.
What’s your first memory of that kind of attitude in yourself?
The fighter in me? Definitely this one. But I also remember that once, when I was 11 years old and a boy I liked called me Gypsy on the street in a very derogative tone, I went home in tears. My mom asked me whether I wanted her to change her name (Orsós – a very typical Romani name) so people wouldn’t know my background, and I immediately, without thinking, protested the idea and said “no.” I thought if she lived her life with this name and faced all the difficulties she had to face, I must not be a coward to try to escape from challenges either.
I had other painful memories: for example, when I was fired from a job because of my Roma origin. It was a company that hired me as a university student to assist in the organization of national events. When a NATO delegation came for instance, I had to escort them to their place, make sure that they had what they needed, this kind of easy student job. One day, I had a candid discussion with my boss, and I told him about my background and my mom and how I grew up. Then a couple of weeks later, I was not invited to work with him anymore. I was a bit surprised, but I didn’t think there was any particular reason. There were almost 100 students doing this job. I thought that maybe he preferred the others, or they needed more men, or older students or whatever. Then I realized that my friends, who were also my roommates at our rented apartment, continued to do this job. I had to find out the reason. So I sat down with the secretary, who was very ashamed to tell me that it was because of my Roma origin. The boss told her that it was shameful for the company to be represented by a Roma person.
This was a wake-up call. When people read in the newspaper that Roma were not allowed to enter a disco or some workers were fired because they were Roma, they don’t believe it because it didn’t happen to them. It was similar in my situation. I’d heard about such cases, but I didn’t believe them because it had never happened to me. So I realized that in Hungary today your background, your family, and your origin still define you. I was a third-year law student, neat, and I spoke two languages, but what mattered most was that I was partly Roma.
Was there any opportunity to challenge that? Not just to complain about the firing but deal with it legally? You were a law student, after all.
When I first heard that I was fired because of my ethnicity, I laughed. For me it was funny. I pitied this man more than I got angry at him. “If he thinks this way,” I thought, “he will have many problems in life.” But then over the longer term, it did make me think that I should work towards the acceptance of Roma. The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) had an opening, so I went for an interview. I was not hired first because my English was not good enough. But they created a part-time job just to keep me there, and I was very grateful for that. So, I ended up at the ERRC, and a bad experience was transformed into something good.
When I joined the ERRC and shared my story, they offered legal assistance so I could go to court. But I wanted to avoid a lengthy court proceeding, plus I wanted to leave this experience behind me. I wasn’t angry with the man. Of course I understood later that it would have been important for the cause, to raise awareness and let people know that such a thing can happen.
After that event, did you start to reconsider anything that happened earlier in your life and understand it in a different way?
Yes. My mom grew up institutionalized. She was put into an orphanage when she was 11 years old. So she does have some memories of Roma life and her Roma upbringing. But it was deliberately suppressed. When she got married to my father, she broke with her Roma life. My father had to fight for my mother for many years. They were one of the first mixed couples in Hungary. It was a big deal then: how could a Hungarian man from a well-off agricultural family fall in love with this lonely Roma girl?
They had to fight just to have the right to get married?
My grandparents didn’t want my father to marry her. They said that no one would be friends with them, no one would join them in a restaurant. My mom did not really speak of her Roma origin to anyone, being a bit ashamed of it although she is dark-skinned with the name Orsós, so it was obvious. At the same time, she did plant in me the idea that I’m different in a very positive way. I was gifted in playing instruments, singing, dancing and all these artistic things. She told me that I had a special talent because we were Roma. So she put it in that context.
When I grew up, I didn’t realize that the names my schoolmates called me were not really flattering. I was called Chocolate (Csoki) and Shoe Polish (Bokszos). I never took them as something bad. I knew I had Creole skin and I was proud of it. When I was dismissed by the company during my university years, I started reassessing all the things that had happened to me over the years. I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do because so many memories that were neutral before started becoming somewhat painful. And then I also thought, “Maybe these kids were told at home that I was Roma and they laughed at me.” I believed before that I didn’t get enough support in my school because I was simply not an impressive student. But then I questioned it and wondered why there was little trust in me because I came from this lower middle-class, partly Roma family.
Has it become easier for your parents as a mixed couple?
Oh yes, I’m sure. But my mom encounters some negative experiences when she leaves our hometown, where everyone knows and appreciates her. When she travels to Budapest for example where no one knows her, she becomes just another Roma woman. She’s not anymore the kindergarten teacher who lives in a nice apartment, is neat, happy, and gives out chocolate to children and also to adults when they need some cheering up. She goes to a store and people look at her differently, with suspicion. She gets followed by the security guard. She once stayed alone on her bus seat when others were standing rather than sitting next to her. This is what is difficult for her. When she leaves her comfort zone, she becomes a victim of these prejudices.
When you were at university, you said that this experience with the private company changed your trajectory. What did you think you were going to do as a lawyer prior to this experience?
When I was at the law school, I was thinking probably of criminal law. But I was completely lost like most students. I didn’t even really fit into law school, with my background, with my thinking. It was made up mainly of children of well-established families: government ministers, constitutional court judges, public figures. I was wondering what I was doing there. For me the strangest experience in joining ERRC was to see an office. Nobody in my family had worked in an office. Everybody worked with real stuff and people: my grandparents were engaged in agriculture, my mother works with children, my father works with TVs. One can simply see what they do. And then I saw these office people typing at a computer. Even working on a computer was new for me — I had to learn how to do that. But I struggled to understand how you can change things from behind a computer.
And I still have this question, after 10 years of doing this work. Sometimes I believe that I would make more change if I established a nice day-care center in northeastern Hungary or somewhere in Africa. I’ve reached a position where I’m in one of the top jobs in the field of human rights (even if it’s unpaid). I talk to BBC, Al Jazeera. I have a privilege that I can write down all my thoughts in a report and it will get a UN logo and be distributed to 193 Member States without any censorship. But we need to be committed, patient, and persistent to see our work resulting in the actual improvement of people’s lives. We need to believe that the seeds we now plant will grow into something in 30, 50, 100 years. And this is difficult as we all need inspiration and motivation to keep going, and it can be extremely discouraging if we just don’t see the outcome of all the effort, time, and dedication given to the cause.
I know how you feel. My wife and I worked in Asia as NGO staff — and we constantly were confronted with the fact that we were not providing concrete services. We were not putting in a sewage system. It was somewhat abstract service that we were providing. It was long term. But it put us in an awkward position.
You were there for a good cause. And you were there because you believed in it. But to make others believe in it is sometimes not easy.
Tell me about your path immediately after this decision you made in law school to go off in the human rights direction. Did you change what you were doing at law school at that moment?
I started working when I was in my third year. During my third, fourth, and fifth years, I was a full-time law student and I worked six hours per day at the ERRC office. It was very difficult. And I was a waitress in a restaurant before, a job that I had to keep for a while. Sometimes I had to go to exams without ever having seen the teacher before and apologize. Of course, they were not too happy but I must say that they were very understanding because I was working on the Roma issue and there were very few of us – Roma students and those who worked on Roma issues. Actually there were only three of us at that time, to be precise. But the work also helped with my thesis, which compared racial discrimination cases before the European Court of Human Rights and before the UN treaty bodies. This was not something that I could have done if I didn’t have this job. The professor who worked with me encouraged me to publish it because he said that it was something that hasn’t been much discussed before in Hungary.
I was lucky because when I graduated, I had a job while many other students were sending their CVs to law firms trying to get a first assignment somewhere for minimum wage. I joined ERRC in September 2002, and in November I was sent to Vienna for a Council of Europe conference. So when I left the university, I was rather well established and known, also internationally. I worked for four years at the ERRC, and I resigned because of internal problems that were morally unacceptable to me.
An important step in my career was when I decided to use the knowledge and experience I gained by working on the Roma issue for other minorities too. It was partly again to prove a point, to demonstrate that it is possible to protest the intellectual ghetto, the belief and pressure that if you are Roma, you are only able to and are supposed to work on Roma issues. I was again blessed. I was a fellow with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva in 2006, and they called me back for a consultancy in January 2007. This is how I ended up in a more global human rights environment.
Then I also wanted to test myself in the field. I went to Somalia in 2008 for one-and-a-half years. I was teaching at the law school in Somaliland, in Hargeisa. I gave a one-semester lecture in human rights without any equipment, without blackboard or books. I just walked into the room, and there were 81 very curious people who were rather suspicious too of this European, white Christian girl going to preach about human rights which was regarded as a Western agenda to be imposed on the Muslim African population. I had to reassure them that I was nothing like that. I was there to help them raise questions, and they were the ones to give the answers. Then I went to Bosnia and Herzegovina as a Human Rights Officer with the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), where I spent half a year in Srebrenica as a seconded diplomat. In Srebrenica, I got a call from Fidesz, which had just won the first round of parliamentary elections and could foresee a major win, asking whether I would be interested in working for them. So I returned home.
There has been a lot of money devoted to the Roma issue and yet there hasn’t been the kind of progress that people had hoped to see 20 years ago. On the other hand, having not been in Hungary since 1993, I do see some dramatic improvement, though perhaps only for some individuals. What do you think about this challenge between collective and individual advancement?
The big challenge I see is the weak or sometimes absent solidarity and movement among the Roma. This is a core problem. A positive development is that now we have many committed and dedicated non-Roma and Roma intellectuals and activists devoted to the Roma cause. There is more attention, which is, however, more international than local. If you look at the global human rights game, the Roma issue became very popular, especially among developing countries (I hate this expression) which now have a tool: they can rightly bring up the Roma issue as evidence that Europe is not doing good enough either. The plight of Roma people is a safe and secure topic. You can bring it up without accusing any specific country, because Roma are everywhere in Europe.
It goes back to my concern about the lack of a movement. The Roma issue is a safe topic because Roma are not yet organized at the level that they should be. I don’t know the reason for that. People sometimes tell me that there are movements at a local level. Maybe that’s true, and I don’t know because I work at rather an international level. But I yet have to be convinced. Look at the Dalit women in India who in 2012 marched over a period of two full months and crossed 18 states demanding their rights. It was peaceful and organized. They had their agenda and clear messages. You can’t really see anything like this with the Roma. Even when the serial killings of Roma happened, which I was so shocked to learn in Somaliland, there was almost no reaction. It alerted me that we have a long way to go.
I said that there are a lot of non-Roma working on this issue, and that’s good. Every minority is in need of support of majority voices because a voice coming from a minority alone might be regarded as inferior. But the problem is that we are not backed by the same number of Roma working on these issues. People are disturbed that the Open Society Foundation is filled with non-Roma working on Roma issues. Of course now it’s changing with Zeljko Jovanovic and some Roma folks at the ERRC. But if you look at the management in those NGOs and organizations working on Roma issues, the non-Roma outnumber the Roma. The problem is not why non-Roma are working on this issue but why there are not more Roma, why there’s not an equal balance at least.
We also accept things that would be unacceptable elsewhere. I just saw a TV program about a theater piece now in the National Theater in Hungary, which is a play about Roma. It was written by a non-Roma Polish man and played by non-Roma actors. Imagine this in the U.S. context, that a Negro spiritual is being played by non-Black people written by non-Black people. African-Americans would not let this happen. They’d say that they needed to be consulted and included. Here we tend to tolerate things like that.
We need to organize ourselves more. I just had a talk with a good Romanian Roma girlfriend about relaunching a Roma women’s movement. We started it some years ago, but it fell apart. We’ll be going to Finland for a Roma women’s conference, and we could put together a transnational women’s network there. I believe Roma women can group together internationally. We can start doing this without men. We seem to be more ready to work in solidarity and without hierarchies.
The civil rights movement was also very patriarchal. At the famous 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. speech, no women were initially invited onto the platform. At the last minute, they put Marian Anderson on stage. Movement leaders said that they should focus on civil rights for African Americans first and the women’s issue after that.
We experience that. Did you see the movie No by Michael Simmons‘ daughter Aishah? Roma women have similar challenges, not necessarily with the sexual abuse part but with the general pressure to prioritize our problems and push specifically the Roma women’s problem to the back. Roma women in the past, because of fear of putting a further stigma on Roma in general, chose to silence themselves on issues such as domestic violence or trafficking. But more and more Roma women have started bringing up the questions of forced marriage, early marriage, virginity tests, and so on, and make an argument that these harmful practices must not be justified as “culture” or “tradition.” It is also a great recent development that we have Roma men advocating for Roma women’s rights on our side as well.
Can you give any examples either here in Hungary or elsewhere where Roma women have begun to organize around these issues?
There is a big gap between the international and local levels, where it gets very difficult. When it comes to numbers, it’s fine. Researchers collect the information anonymously, protecting the interviewees. And the numbers are alarming. But at the local level, where everyone knows everyone, it is almost impossible to complain about your marriage, even within your immediate family or among neighbors, let alone to an external source. But there are some very good local Roma initiatives, especially in the Pécs area, that I would recommend that you meet. They are doing some very good work locally with women.
This reminds me of one of my earlier cases. I went to a small northeastern town in Hungary where I found a very clear-cut case of segregation. There was a kindergarten built in the Roma settlement with few teachers. They closed at noon because parents had no jobs and could take their children home. A few kilometers away, in the same town, there was a well-equipped kindergarten with full opening hours and staff also with medical expertise. No wonder the Roma kids failed the school test and went straight to special school for the mentally handicapped. So I filed a lawsuit at the Equal Treatment Authority.
When I went for the first trial, I found out that out of my three initial clients, only one appeared and when I found her, she was in tears. When I asked her “What’s going on?” she started screaming at me: “What did you do to my life? What did you do to me?! They came from the municipality and threatened to take away my children. I have nothing but my children!” She was shaking, literally shaking. I tried to hold her hand. She said, “I need to go now, they’re waiting for me.” I saw the municipality car waiting outside. An Equal Treatment Authority representative told us she left a letter, which we needed to read aloud now. He opened the envelope and read this beautifully written letter with correct legal terms that could have never been written by my client. She finished only four years in school. It was all about how she’d been misled in this case, that she wanted to withdraw her authorization and that she had no intention of complaining about the school system. “Everything is fine in this town,” she wrote. I heard later that this letter was typed by somebody at the primary school.
What do you do with these stories? It’s so easy to talk about human rights violations internationally and nationally, it’s so easy to say that there’s segregation, but at the local level, what can you do? When you want to help clients who are seriously threatened, how can you solve their problem when you’re not constantly there to support them? When a woman is beaten every day, how do you ask her to leave her husband when she has nowhere to go? She has to live there while you are sitting in Budapest in your office.
The people on the ground have to be the ones to take the initiative. They might not be the ones who file the grievance, but they have to be willing to make the sacrifices. During the voting rights campaigns, people were risking their lives to vote. They weren’t doing it just because they were asked to do it. It’s the same with union organizing. People risk losing their jobs. They have to be the ones to make that ultimate decision. What about here in Hungary in terms of the governments? Have you seen any improvement in the understanding of Roma issues?
No. I think the problem is that it always restarts every four/eight years with a new system and new people — new ministers, state secretaries, new people in charge. They spend a lot of time trying to figure out what’s going on. Maybe they had a completely different portfolio before. By the time they’ve started understanding the issue, they’ve probably abolished the previous initiatives because they were launched by the previous government. This is a pride issue as well: “we know better, we do better.” And by the time they start new programs they’ve lost a lot of time and many potential beneficiaries. Sadly many times it’s the innocent children who pay the price.
All our governments make a mistake by not having a long-term impact assessment. If you want to introduce a new program, what changes do you expect to have in five years, 10 years, and so on? It’s important to conduct research on whether a newly planned program has been carried out in other countries and what were the lessons learned.
Those of us who have been working on this for such a long time, witness one step forward, two steps back. It’s sad. There are many experts who should be consulted and could move things forward. It’s a pity that they are not relied on extensively since so much knowledge about Roma projects has piled up since 1991-92 and even before.
I feel fatigue over the ongoing Hungarian political polarization. When I came back to Hungary, I had to learn which newspaper and which TV channel was close to which party. I was so blind to these issues before. If you read one type of newspaper or watch one type of TV, you get completely different narratives of the same facts. I feel sad about this. The Roma issue has fallen victim to this polarization too. Roma intellectuals tend to be put in boxes against their will. Since I worked for Fidesz, I am put in the center-right box. The ones who worked for the previous government are put in a left-liberal box. Even if you heavily criticized the leadership you worked under. Many of us just want to do good programs for the Roma. We’ll work with anyone who will support the cause. We don’t have the luxury of selecting the people we want to work with: we have to work with whoever is willing and holds the power.
There is nothing that we don’t know at the moment. If you look at the Roma projects in the whole of Europe, there’s nothing we don’t know. We know now what happens if you have ethnically divided political parties as in Romania. We know what happens if you build coalitions, as in Macedonia. We know what happens when you put Roma people on the party list, as in Hungary. We have all the different mechanisms, methodologies, stories. We just need to look at them all, learn the lessons, and establish the political will to do the best we can.
Some folks talk about the importance of government programs that specifically target Roma. Others talk about the necessity of what we call in the United States entitlement programs for disadvantaged people in general. What are your thoughts about the efficacy of these respective approaches?
It’s been a long debate. I now support the territorial approach, which is what we advocated for during the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies that I coordinated under Hungary’s EU Presidency. We came to the conclusion that it’s very difficult to have dedicated programs especially in countries that deny the notion of minorities, like France, or that have minorities but don’t have good disaggregated data on them (which basically means all European countries except the UK).
So, we realized during the negotiations with other EU governments that the only approach that is acceptable to all governments – and we needed a unanimous decision at the final Ministerial Council meeting — is the territorial approach. Everybody knows that poverty has a geographical face. Poor people live together; rich people live together. With the regular national census, it is easy to see even at the micro-regional level which households lack basic infrastructure, where is income insufficient, where children can’t attend school. You can put together all this data, draw a map, and then start pumping money into the localities. Now, of course, many people say that the risk is that the poor non-Roma friends of the mayor will get all the funds instead of the poor Roma who might live in the same neighborhoods. But if there are safeguards within the monitoring and evaluation system, I believe this can really work.
The challenge is that not many politicians want to pump money into underdeveloped areas, because they are afraid that it might lead to losing a majority of middle-class voters, who expect different investments into their environment, and will not bring any new votes, although research shows that the same ratio of Roma people vote as non-Roma. Plus there is little interest in pleasing the poor as they have little negotiation or lobby power in their respective municipalities.
Where do you think Hungary is right now in terms of international perceptions? Is there any truth in the negative portrayals, or is completely overblown?
It’s in the middle, as with anything. When I travel, people do talk to me about human rights-related concerns of Hungary. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, for example, just issued a press release on the fourth amendment of our Constitution saying that Hungary is on the wrong track. But I also realize that many critics base their opinion solely on media reports and are not very aware of actual facts or details. A big problem is that the Fidesz-KDNP coalition is trying to hold onto power in too many areas. Viktor Orbán is a strong leader, who goes almost unchallenged in his party and unites his government appointees like no other party leader can do at the moment. It’s a skill that not many people can claim.
But at the same time, the country is risking its good reputation because of petty issues that should be let go without any government influence, like the appointment of leaders outside of government circles. I believe we need to be able to work with people who are maybe not on our side and to show strength by allowing challenges instead of suppressing them. Viktor Orbán is also focusing a lot on economic development, for which he seems to be willing to sacrifice human rights concerns, which is regrettable.
From the work you’ve done internationally — working on human rights issues in 190-plus countries — how has that led you to rethink some of the earlier positions you had around human rights issues, in particular?
I’m doing a lot of thinking about that these days. One lesson that I certainly learned is that one needs to be an activist and a politician at the same time to be successful. In Hungary, we believe that you are a good human rights activist if you can organize a demonstration, interrupt a meeting and walk out from it, or if you dare to ask embarrassing questions publicly of a high-level person. That’s the kind of attitude I also believed in when I started my NGO experience. But it has changed. I feel that I’ve matured, so when people do such things now, I not only feel that they are disrespectful but also that they’re not strategic enough. And I’m not talking about situations when people don’t have a choice, when they are under a dictatorship, for example. I remember for example my own experiences when we offered an NGO leader to come and sit with us. She systematically turned down our invitation and then went to protest against us for more dialogue. This is what I call unstrategic as she really lost her chances to be regarded as a potential partner.
Or when people attack Viviane Reding of the European Commission, I feel bad about it. I don’t think she deserves it as she’s among the few who is trying to do something. Her tools are limited because she gets her mandate from the Member States. Our challenge is not to convince the Commissioners but the national governments who refuse to give more power to the EU. But we do need to learn to appreciate our few allies. We should avoid attacking them unnecessarily and thereby lose even more opportunities for cooperation.
Probably I am more understanding because I’ve been in responsible positions in all these sectors – in civil society, government, EU, and the UN – and I realize how difficult or even impossible it can be to satisfy our constituency. We need to learn to appreciate all the seemingly small things that people do in their various capacities because we can’t always know the fight that’s going on in the background.
The second thing I regret, which is rather a personal thing, is not documenting my stories because I keep forgetting what happened, I have a very short memory. It would be good to read my notes about what kind of dilemmas and thoughts we had 10 years ago about the Roma women’s rights movement so I could compare it with today. So from now on I’m trying to pay attention, to write down whatever I experience because history, even if personal, is important.
The last questions are quantitative. When you think about everything that has changed or not changed in Hungary from 1990s to now, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 most disappointed and 10 most satisfied?
People should feel around 8, but they feel perhaps around 5 or 6.
So you feel 8.
Yes. I think we are much better off than we think.
Same period of time, same scale: your own personal life?
8 or 9.
Looking into the near future, how would you evaluate Hungary’s prospects from 1 to 10, with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
Everyone is very pessimistic. I’m not purely optimistic — because people are pessimistic. You can’t be too optimistic when people are so pessimistic. I would still say 8.
Why do I differentiate myself from others? I think we have problems in this country, but I think they’re so small compared to other countries. When I came back from Somalia and I could sleep without a mosquito net, drive my own car without a curfew and military escort, or brush my teeth in water running from the tap in my house, it was difficult to understand why people here were so stressed and frustrated over little things. I felt that as long as we have water and can grow vegetables and fruits in our gardens – almost nothing grew in Somali soil and water scarcity was a huge problem – we should not complain. We have free education and free health care and we must appreciate it. Okay, we have challenges, we have segregated and poorly equipped schools, but they are free and you can make the most out of them. My mom made the most out of it — coming from an orphanage. She finished primary school, she finished high school, and she finished college – all alone in the world as a Roma woman without any support whatsoever. Of course, not everyone is as strong as my mother and many face other barriers, for example when a family forces a daughter to stay at home and work or marry early. But as long as we have these basic things, I wish Hungarians stopped using “but” all the time. We say, “We have free education but….” We should sometimes give ourselves a minute of reflection and feel relief and appreciation. It would do us all good.
I can be accused of speaking from an upper middle class point of view because I have everything I want. But even when I didn’t have these things, when I was a university student and only on payday could I afford to buy meat, tomatoes or juice, I was happy. And I am happy now and grateful to God for everything I have but most especially for my daughter. I am truly blessed.
Budapest, August 1, 2013