On 7 March, 2018, around 50 delegates joined Iriss for a day of discussion and talks. The theme of the day was to explore how co-production can equip social services with the cultural competency they need when working with Gypsy Traveller and Roma communities. It was a chance to identify the unique challenges facing these two distinct communities in Scotland and think about creative ways to overcome them.
At this event we heard from Geetha Marcus. Geetha is a sociologist, feminist and teacher activist whose research and teaching interests focus on social inequalities within public education systems. In 2012, she was awarded a jointly funded Scottish Government/ESRC doctoral research into the educational experiences of Gypsy/Traveller girls in Scotland.
In the course of this research, she conducted an extensive range of in-depth interviews with young Traveller women about their racialised and gendered experiences within public spaces of school and private spaces of home. This research attempts to address a gap in the literature where Gypsy/Traveller girls’ experiences are mis-recognised and erased through non-recognition. The girls’ stories are highlighted and juxtaposed alongside the general problems encountered by Gypsy/Travellers in Scotland to reveal a complex narrative. Geetha shared her experiences of working as a researcher on this project and insights from the girls she worked with. It was followed by a lively and interesting discussion.
I’m Geetha Marcus and I did a study around the experiences of Gypsy Traveller girls in Scottish schools some time ago, and before I started I thought – oh, by the way, Isaac, I hope I fulfil your strong women thing because that’s, you know, you can tell me later if I fit the bill! So just a little bit about my journey, who I am and how I ended up here and how I ended up talking about Gypsies and Travellers when I’m not myself a Gypsy or a Traveller, although I think there’s some sort of a connection through the Indian connection, but I thought I’d start with myself. So basically I’m of South Asian origin, I’m Indian, and as you can see I’m a woman and a woman of colour. My family originated from the central part of India, but I wasn’t born there. I am third generation Singaporean because my ancestors - grandparents, great grandparents - tried to escape the British Raj. Some came across as businessmen to Singapore, some came across as convicts under the colonial system, to work in Singapore for the British empire.
I was born on the cusp of independence in Singapore, so my mind-set is very much of that era of being educated in, you know, the finest sort of, the English education which was seen as a gold standard, being able to speak the language that I do, at the expense of my own language which I cannot and do not speak. So I come from quite a, I guess what would be called a post-colonial perspective, because that has been my experience, my education, who I am today. It’s very much a mixture of being Indian but also being Singaporean with all of its mix of cultures there, but also being British. So I’m proud of being all of those things and because I’ve lived in Scotland for thirty years I also feel quite Scottish even though I don’t necessarily sound like one, but so I’ve got an affinity for all of these various places. I was a teacher for a very long time. I taught in Scottish schools for a very long time and then I was a head teacher as well, and then I gave up my job and I wanted to go back to school.
I did a Masters and then I came across a Scottish Government funded project entitled, “Improving our understanding of Gypsy Travellers in Scotland”, and I feel very privileged to talk to you about my study today, but I’m also very sad that we’re still trying to improve our understanding of Gypsies and Travellers, and I’ve been to so many of these events where people are crying out for information about Gypsies and Travellers, and Gypsies and Travellers, some of them have been in communication with policy people, people in government for, like Seamus, you know, for a very, very long time and yet here we are talking about this again.
I’ll give you a bit of background about myself, as I’ve done, but also a background to the study and some of the assumptions and perspectives around what I’ve discovered in the research way back, going way back in Victorian times to today, and then the study itself, why I chose to do this particular work, some of the unsurprising findings that we’ve all heard about ad nauseam and then the surprising findings that were surprising to me, and then the way forward, which I think is how, if you’re working in government, if you’re working in frontline services, you know, all of this academic stuff is all very well but then what do you do with it and how do you move forward, or are we going to be back here again in a year’s time talking about the same issues? So I want to highlight some of the assumptions and perspectives that are in literature and policy and I’ll just go back to, there we are there. When I was looking and trying to find out what I wanted to talk about, what I wanted to write about and do the research on, I found a lot of these recurring themes. There was a lot of paternalism, so anything that was written tended to be written by males in the majority society, settled society, anthropologists, you know, historians, people - non-Travellers of course - but people claiming to be knowledgeable about this minority population in Scotland. It’s also quite protectionist, there’s a historical erasion - as Seamus and Thomas have talked about as well - of experiences, and I’ve discovered especially the voices of girls and women are missing.
Demonization of the other, consistent right across in a major way to the point where I would say - as Richardson says - it’s a political and social project of demonization that goes on to this day, and we can’t actually divorce ourselves from that because that really underlies why we’re here today and the reason for some of the situations that Gypsies and Travellers find themselves in. They are the one-time absent - people have used the words hard to reach - population. I would argue that they’re not hard to reach, they’re there, it’s just that they may not choose to be reached by you or me, but so they’re seemingly absent but they’re also always present. They’re present in the media when they’re demonised. All the negative news. They’re present because we’re here talking about them. They’re present in policy contexts. They’re present in recommendations, guidelines, going back for a very, very long time. Even, you know, in the Victorian era in the 1800’s there were reports written about what to do with the Gypsy or Traveller problem. So it’s been around for a very, very long time and they’re often seen as victims or being victimised. So a lot of the language, a lot of the titles of the books and the articles that are written about are all very negative, and Clark who’s here today also talked about how when the policies - say health policy, education policy, recommendations - when they talk about Gypsy Travellers they always come across how do we help these people, they’re in such need of help, you know? And how do we care for them, but the flipside of that care is also, you know, I would argue - and Clark argues - a rhetoric of control as well, and there’s a lack of recognition and respect for the alternative ways of thinking and doing.
Thomas was talking about trust and respect, that’s been mentioned many times and unfortunately that still exists. Sorry, there’s a myth of this what I call egalitarianism, this idea that here in Scotland that we are really quite good or better at equity and social justice that we’re really doing quite a good job at helping to make people who are othered or who feel othered, who are marginalised and demonised, actually we’re doing an okay job, things are moving along, you know, and there’s a fear of speaking truth to power as well. So I talked to a lot of people - stakeholders - from planning, education, social services, health - over thirty informants as part of my study - and there was this fear of really telling the truth about what’s going on in our society behind the scenes in that underbelly, and there’s a tension which nearly all of them talked about between the funding that they receive and the findings that they dare to talk about, you know, because the funding, their jobs are reliant on the funding. So it was what Isaac was saying as well or I think maybe it was Thomas or Seamus, one of them said that it’s giving the right message, you know? Yes, there’s the racism, yes, there’s this problem and yes, there’s the inequality, but it all has to be couched in a way that’s acceptable to government policy and the people in control. So I would like to highlight these points, because I think that patriarchy is an overriding and consistent theme and the forensic unpicking of Scottish attitudes towards its imperial past and the unrelenting fallout from these policies and practices is never talked about, but it involves an examination of how Scotland engages with the subject of race and racism, and these topics are taboo in our society. We may be talking about it here but it’s not generally talked about out there. It’s a sacred talking point, and as a country we’re generally amnesiacs. We’re in denial, we’re uncomfortable, we’re scared to talk about this. We’re reluctant to talk about race, and I argue that it’s not only challenging for Scotland to explore issues of race and before that colonialism, but even more challenging for us to examine the intersection of that race with class and gender inequalities and identities, which perhaps has an even more devastating impact on the lives of those who have been racialized from working class backgrounds who also happen to be young and women. I highlight only some basic facts about Gypsy Travellers in Scotland because there’s, other people have already talked about some of the issues.
So just going back, Scottish Travellers have lived in Scotland since the twelfth century - some say tenth century - making them one of Britain’s oldest nomadic communities. Their history is disputed, and please forgive the fact that I’m using the words their, them and us. I don’t know how else to put it. It sounds very indelicate, but I don’t mean it in any disrespectful way because I have myself experienced racial harassment, racism and some of the problems that Gypsies and Travellers faced. So, there’s a guy called Ray (… unclear) who wrote about how Gypsy Traveller history is lost in the past, and I think in a way it may be. You could say, yes, it’s lost. That’s why we’re here. We don’t know what’s going on, we don’t know their history, but at the same time for all the people that I met I would argue that it’s not lost for Gypsies and Travellers. They know who they are, they know their history. It’s not their problem that we don’t know about it, and one of the things I wanted to say as well is that when I, in the whole time I’ve lived in Scotland, before I came across this topic I didn’t even know that there were Scottish Gypsies. I’d never heard of the term Scottish Travellers, and I was wondering to myself how on earth could I have lived in this country and not heard about any of this, and the first encounter I had with a Scottish Traveller was with a young boy who was in my class who said, “My grandfather’s a storyteller”, and I said, “Great”, and it was going to be storyteller week and so that’s why he said, you know, “Can my grandfather come and speak to the class?” I said, “Absolutely.” Well, who should pop in but this guy called Stanley Robertson, and he came in - I had no idea. He was very dapper, beautifully dressed, rings on his fingers, and I even had the audacity to ask him what the rings meant, and then we got to talking. He was a wonderful storyteller but I had no idea who he was or how important he was to Scotland and to Scotland’s history - aural history as well - and I met him several times, he came to my class several times. One day I organised a whole school assembly where he talked to all the children in this very posh private primary school, and one of the senior members of staff came up to me and said, “We don’t have people like this in our school”, and I looked at him and I thought, oh, okay. And the first thing I thought was, wait a minute, he doesn’t look dodgy. He is a fantastic storyteller. You’re white, he’s white. What’s the big problem here? But she was senior, so I thought now okay. Stanley never came back and actually I never saw him again, but I learned a lot about who he was and he told me a little bit about Traveller culture. That was my only contact until I came across this study with a Scottish Traveller person, so I knew nothing, nothing, about Scottish Travellers or Scottish Gypsies before I started this project.
Like their Roma counterparts in Europe, Gypsy Travellers have experienced multiple forms of persecution and marginality spanning centuries. Like their Roma counterparts in Europe, the symbolic public perception reflects a demonised and a dehumanised other. Gypsy Travellers are ignored, erased or demonised as well-known others in both the European and the Scottish imagination, and the manipulation of their history and identity belies the suppression of alternative knowledge and modes of thinking. You think Scottish Gypsy Traveller, you think Scottish Gypsy or Scottish Traveller and you think racism, and single narratives of history - particularly those written by the majority about the minority - silences other historical accounts. It is typical for societies to have discourses about minorities in which the minorities themselves are hardly ever heard. The imposed silence over centuries, it streamlines history, it cleanses the history and the histories become hidden, and that’s why so many of us talk about how we don’t know, we don’t understand, what is this history about, because it’s been erased, thereby constricting both the collective and the individual historical memory commemoration and memorialisation. The gap in the existing literature on Gypsy Traveller women, there’s nothing, hardly anything written about them other than in the past where they’ve been sexualised, exoticised, exacerbates the complexity, you know, of the censorship and absence, and of the limited studies that are available it is significant that Gypsy Traveller women - again like their Roma sisters - are perceived as being a problem, having problems, being polluted, unclean, having the potential to pollute and dishonour their communities.
There is a lack of contemporary research about Gypsy Traveller women and girls following a long tradition of women and girls either being erased from the Gypsy Traveller experience within literature or being discussed in sexist and racist ways within the literature. Their voices are missing, and this persistent erasure or negative representation reflects almost in my mind a cultural and political violence towards these woman and girls from the communities in Scotland. So they’re always present but they’re also absent through these structural and institutional systems. The absence and the presence coexist. They are happening at the same time. The dialogue occurs and information is being disseminated - like today - about the subject, but both tend to take place without the subject itself being around. They tend to be excluded from the conversations. Occasionally they are invited to give evidence, they are invited to talk to policy makers, make recommendations.
In 2001 there was a huge list of recommendations made with the help of Gypsy Travellers from Gypsy Traveller communities - Seamus, you may have been there as a member of the Scottish Gypsy Traveller Association. Thirty-two recommendations were made. Only two of those recommendations were actually ever carried out. So that was in 2001, and one of the things that I discovered when I was looking at the policies and the rhetoric in the policies is you could almost cut and paste the policy from one year to the next. It hasn’t really changed. The policies are the same. They’re talking about the same issues. There’s a lot of nice rhetoric about equality and human rights and civil rights, but what’s actually happening on the ground, and yes, there is some good practice definitely, there is good practice, but there’s not much of it going round, or it hasn’t been the capacity or the political will to actually spread the good practice so that people know what to do, not just what to say or what to write about in these policies, but actually what to do to make things better finally. I had a lot of difficulty gaining access to information and I nearly gave up! It was a real challenge for my research. Within a few months of starting my research I encountered barriers and observed suspicion and competition amongst gatekeepers from a range of public services and charities, many of whom were dependent on government funding for their existence, so when I shared my research focus with some of the stakeholders I met, I faced well-intentioned discouragement. Some responded with the following generalised views. One explanation sited was that the girls will already have left school and been married with children, so there really is no point implying that they were a lost cause.
Another explanation for not granting access was that the families would never allow the girls to speak to someone like me - a researcher - and it was also suggested by some that my race would be a problem, as I look like a Roma and they don’t like Roma’s. I was warned - and this is a direct quote from someone I’d interviewed - I was warned never to be on my own with them, and it had to be part of my ethics application of how I was going to protect myself when I went out to meet a Gypsy Traveller. It’s actually in my ethics application, you know? I don’t think that when they, it was all very well intentioned, very well meaning, but I think they almost forgot that they were also speaking to someone who has been racialized and experienced racist harassment, so I knew the language of the discourse. Stakeholders and potential gatekeepers from a range of government organisations and charities whom I approached were also reluctant to give interviews or provide access. They were afraid. Walls of structural silence reflected through non-cooperation was extensive. It was very difficult to overcome. It took over a year for me to gain access and to meet one Traveller girl, just one, and by the end of my research there were girls contacting me on my mobile phone. Silence is a huge issue and is a well-meaning, well-meaning people who consider themselves non-racist and who work with minority ethnic groups can help to perpetuate these divisions in society without them even realising it. The refusal of sharing of information, access, lack of transparency, it reflects the power that gatekeepers have to control, and in doing so, you know, arguably it infantilises the Gypsy Traveller almost like the Gypsy Traveller is a child that needs to be looked after, taken care of, because that community is a victim, and Clark contends that this reflects a patriarchal mind-set which confuses care with cleansing and control.
The walls of silence also came from Gypsy Travellers I met, but for very different reasons. Gypsy Travellers who refused to take part in my research were suspicious and afraid that they might get into trouble with the authorities because their children were not in school. They didn’t want me to, you know, they were afraid that maybe I would report them and they often reported that they did not see the point of talking to anyone as nothing was going to change for them, nothing has, according to them. They refused to give information to government authorities who could exact control over them, and in a digital age where many of us inadvertently or willingly share data about every aspect of our lives to the state and corporations, it is perhaps instructive that Travellers tenaciously hold on to their information. This deep suspicion was confirmed by all the participants I met and their families. Their suspicion of the state, the lack of trust, the suspicion of state narratives, you know, that these policies that are created about them, for them, it reflects their invisibility as a form of meaningful absence, again they’re absent, their voice is absent. So silence is strategic in withholding the information. Their silence I felt gave them protection and a measure of power in a way, you know, living outside certain norms and structures, their refusal to be visible, to be hard to reach, to participate and cooperate disempowers the state and its outreach.
One of the major complaints that are made by statisticians and policy makers is that we can’t get the data about Gypsies, they don’t want to talk to us, they don’t want to fill in that survey, they don’t want to fill in the census, but you can understand why they don’t because, you know, you’re giving away information about yourself and they don’t know how that information is going to be used about them. There’s centuries of persecution following this and a deep sense of mistrust, so in fact, Gypsy Travellers can use silence to their advantage and in this way silence is not merely an impediment, it’s a powerful thing, the idea that power and control only exists in the hands of governing institutions perhaps denies the power of the individual, their human agency. Stuart Hall talks about weak power, and this is a kind of weak power, it’s what they have to keep control of their lives. Belton, this academic who is himself a Gypsy, argues it might also be in the interest of the marginalised to maintain and take advantage of that marginality. Belton suggests that oppression can be a means to gain resources and suggests the socially excluded might themselves exclude the included. So they don’t necessarily, may not necessarily want to be part of the majority and the mainstream, and this is what I discovered when I was speaking to some of the young women I met. They don’t necessarily want to be part of the society that we’ve created for ourselves for all sorts of reasons, and you’ll know about this phrase, it’s the last bastion of acceptable racism is what we always think about when we think of Gypsies and Travellers in Scotland, and this is the nastiness, this is an example of the nastiness, this is from the Press and Journal, not so long ago, 2010, this is the kind of thing that was being online abuse and obviously nobody cares, nobody cares to prosecute this kind of hate language and hate crime, but it’s how people think, you know? Hazlehead by the way is a crematorium in Aberdeen. So this is the kind of thing that they’re up against. So why did I bother talking about women when it’s all about race? What’s that got to do with the women in the society, and these are some of the stereotypes of Gypsy women that you will have seen, bigger fatter Gypsy - I remember the Channel 4 program. This is all classed against the Gypsy woman.
If you put in Gypsy women under Google images, you’ll be very interested to see the kind of images that appear. One of the reasons why I decided to dig into this further is because of this lady who talks about how there’s no hierarchy of oppressions, so you may think or feel that racism is the worst oppression in the world but it may not be for some people. For some people it may be a combination of race, class and gender that all those oppressions working, race, class and gender and disability together that’s making their life worse. So, and when I discovered that there was hardly anything written about women - it’s called intersectionality - and that was my approach, I wanted to look at what it was like for the lives of these young girls and women. It concerns the way things work rather than who people are. How are things working for them rather than who are they as people, and for them of course, because they’re young their age also comes into it, and their interaction with power. It’s looking at all of these multiple inequalities together, but it also reveals the within group diversity.
So just because a Gypsy Traveller male has a particular type of experience doesn’t mean that a Gypsy Traveller woman has that same experience, or that a Gypsy Traveller boy has that experience or a Gypsy Traveller girl has that experience, because everybody’s different within communities. Communities are not homogenous. Different people live within those communities, and any community has tensions. They have different interests even though they come under that community and labelled as such Gypsy Traveller - that’s the category given by the government - and there’s no such thing as a single issue struggle. So racism does affect the lives of the girls I met for sure, and I’ll show you examples of what they said, but it’s not the only single issue, because none of us lead single issue lives.
We all have struggles and those struggles sometimes have multiple issues, and that’s what she says, there’s no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives. It could be race, but maybe without, if you’re very wealthy and you’re experiencing racism, maybe it’s not so bad, right, but if you’re experiencing racism and you’re also experiencing poverty and your class affects you and your opportunities, that makes it even more challenging for you as an individual. So it’s not about defining groups as victim, it’s about, as I mentioned before, practical action, you know, that there’s a lot of talk, a lot of rhetoric, a lot of policies out there. It’s very good at creating these policies and it’s not an act in itself, it’s just part of the process, but we need to move away from that to thoughtful and committed action.
So these were my research questions. Quite simple, how do Gypsy Traveller girls frame their educational experiences in Scottish schools, seeing how I was told that all they ever wanted to do was get married and have children, and my first thought was, wow, that’s an entire group of women swept aside by this person, and also my other question was what’s so wrong with that? What is so wrong with simply wanting to get married and have children? I wanted to get married and have children, you know? So why is that for Gypsy Travellers a terrible problem, and also the fact that they don’t have any ambitions other than the fact that they want to get married and have children? Well, do they have ambitions? What are they? So I asked them. These are some of the women I met who didn’t look like any of the stereotype images that I saw on Google. These are just normal people who happen to be Scottish Gypsy or Scottish Travellers, these are some of the people that I came across. Very different, not demonised.
My study involved thirteen Gypsy Traveller girls aged twelve to twenty-two years, and a focus group discussion with four young women from Article 12. Is there anyone here from Article 12? Hello. And also, they came from all over Scotland. Now one of the things that I was really concerned about is to establish their anonymity and the confidence around what they were going to say to me. So they all had pseudonyms and all their pseudonyms were linked to Scottish islands, so Fara, Iona, Sandray, you know? They all had, none of them were, even they wouldn’t know what name was given to them because I chose the island for them, Skye, Rona, you know? And they all had different family and living circumstances. Some of them had a traditional, what you would consider a traditional Gypsy family setting. Some came, had single families with their mothers who were divorced or ostracised for whatever reason. Some were very wealthy, their parents owned land and chose to live on their own private site with their trailers, still experiencing problems with Planning Office of course, and some lived in houses.
Not everybody travelled, some did, some travelled some of the time. There were some people who never travelled. So, and they all had different attendance. There was one five-year-old girl - when I met her she was sixteen - she’d never ever been to school other than five days. She had cancer. She was treated very badly in school when she had cancer and she never went back. Her parents refused to send her to school, she was being bullied for having no hair. And their achievements were also different. Some only went to primary school. Some went to secondary school. One girl went to University. So, you know, what I’m trying to say is that this whole idea that all they wanted to do was get married and have children was slowly disappearing pretty quickly, and on top of that of course I had the thirty or so informants, stakeholders, people that I met, teachers, social workers, health visitors, and I compared their narrative, what they were saying about the jobs that they were trying to do, very earnestly, and what these girls were saying. So these are the general findings.
The girl’s experiences are not all the same, surprise! There’s no single narrative. The concepts of identity and belonging are dynamic and they were multiple. So for example, some of them identified - I never ever asked, I never ever said, “So, you’re a Traveller”, or, “So, you’re a Gypsy Traveller?” I asked them, “How, what are you? Where have you come from? Who are your parents? How do you identify yourself?” And so I got different answers. They never ever once used that term Gypsy stroke Traveller, funnily enough, you know? So they would say, “No, I’m an Irish Traveller”, or, “I’m a Scottish Traveller”, or, “I’m a Scottish Gypsy.” Of the seventeen girls I met, two were Scottish Gypsy and the rest identified as Scottish Travellers. There were two within the Scottish Traveller group who said, “Oh, I’m half, half”, and I said, “Half, half? What’s that?” And they’d say, “Half Irish Traveller, half Scottish Traveller.” And I said, “Oh, okay.” “I’m also half, half in my religion”, and I said, “Oh, okay!” “I’m catholic and another part of my family is protestant.” I said, “Oh, okay.” So they knew exactly who they were, where their families had come from and how their families and traditions and culture worked, no problems there. There were however things that they did not talk about, and I did not push those boundaries. Anything to do with sexual education, sexuality, was never brought up and I never pushed that out of respect for their culture, their parents, and just the fact that I would be leaving them. I might meet them for half a day, I go away. It’s very important to me that I didn’t want to then leave them muddled. So I did not interject with my opinions at all.
Would it be alright if I share with you - because we’ve all got voices and there are plenty of voices here that have been heard - would it be alright if I just share with you some of the voices of the girls who spoke to me? I’d really like to do that if that’s okay? So this is a young girl, Sandray, she’s about twenty years old, and this is what she said about the kind of culture she lives in, about education and about knowledge, about learning, and this is what she said. Sandray took pains to point out that even though her father had never attended school and could not read or write, he was in her words a very intelligent man. He is knowledgeable about certain subjects and about his way of living.
So there’s a lot of respect for her father and who he is as a man - his mental capacity - and she says, you know, because Travellers are - and please forgive my accent – (… unclear) educated right in the way of reading and writing numbers, but they can get money. They can survive. They can build a home from scratch for themselves. They can get cars. They can get anything because they are very wise to that point, but they didn’t have to go to school to know that, you know? So that’s what I think, educated is like having the experience of being able to work out how to get money, how to solve a problem, but not necessarily reading or writing, but actually being able to take in, earn quickly, and that’s what I believe knowledge is, and then Fara says, “If you’re careful with the way you think and the way you reason, you learn from what’s around you.” She’s thirteen. Sandray again, I could just say - because I asked them which is more important, education in school or education from your parents - and they said, “I would just say it’s both equally great because I’ve been taught so much about my heritage.” There’s a great pride there in who she is and the way of life, and I’m proud of that. “And you know how to get money and how to hawk and how to do things like that. I could do all of that. So one is not better than the other.” I asked her and she says, “No, I wouldn’t say so. I would say they’re both equally important. It’s the best of both worlds to me.” Okay? So I then asked the girls, “So these experiences that you’ve had where you’ve been, negative experiences, are they mostly from teachers or the kids in schools?” “The kids.” Iona is sixteen. She stopped going to school when she was thirteen. The kids, and so the kids are worse than the teachers, not the teachers worse than the kids, and her sister Fara says, “No, no, but the teachers could be a wee bit more helpful when it comes towards the kids. They did not get disciplined and we were made to feel like the bad ones all the time.” And there’s another one. This is a member of the focus group from Article 12. “I had one teacher who literally - she had my older sister, my brother, then me - and she hated us. She literally, she didn’t hide that she had a problem with Travellers and she used to say things, she used to put me to the head teacher and go, she’s thick, she cannot learn.” May said that when in the past she did get into trouble - May’s twelve - in school she was not excluded because one head teacher believed it would be too much of a holiday, and this to me … really, really brought, I had to really hold back my tears because this is a thirteen-year-old girl talking about how she coped with bullies in school, and this is what she said. “Whatever they say - and it’s alright the first time - but they repeat it and repeat it and repeat it until it rings in your head. Then you get really annoyed and you think about saying something back and you think should I do this or are they just going to come and hit me with more, but me and Iona are not really the aggressive type. She’s a wee bit more feisty than me, but I’m not. I try and avoid everything and try and hide in the shadows, because if you don’t you’re just sitting there waiting for them to beat you. It’s a time bomb. You’re a sitting duck, and if not you’ve got to try and stand up for yourself, and I’m not very good at that.” So you see, when I had conversations like this over and over and over again, as a teacher and as an educator, I was deeply ashamed that I’m part of a system that allows that to happen to even one child. So the idea of sexuality didn’t really come up that much. This was the important issue for them. Lots of restrictions that they also talked about. Opportunities were restricted. Access to the outside world was not an easy option. They were not allowed to make informed choices for themselves.
This is what the girls reported, these are not my words. Silence was used as a positive to a lot of weak powers, as Fara herself said. She just tried to hide in the shadows because that’s how she protected herself, and self-exclusion, not going to school, whether primary or secondary, was a protective tool, a coping mechanism. Schools are supposed to be safe places. If you don’t feel safe in school, why the hell should you go there? Why would you go there? What parent would send a child to a school that’s not safe? Who would do that? Okay, so there’s a lot of questions that we have to answer as well about our education system. And so, there the idea of preserving the honour of girls. That was like in my society as well. The purity of the family line was maintained, and this was about protecting the community, ancient ways of thinking, living and doing, and they had every right to that. Every right, I would argue, to protect their community and the way things have been done, even though it comes at a price for certain members of that community. Within a supportive framework the girls all talked about how much they loved their family, how much they respect their parents and love their parents and their grandparents, and they care for them, and it really challenges our middle-class notions of what care, love and respect are. They may not be dressed in the finest clothes or they may be living in a trailer which maybe doesn’t have heating, and their parents may not be able to afford to give them certain things, but they all reported that without fail they had agency. They were artfully negotiating how to go out and get that job or how to go out and get more education in a further education college. Some have been ostracised by their families and communities for being seen as leaving the community by doing different things. Some have escaped, some hide, and some pass as white Scottish, not even admitting that they are Gypsy Travellers, and that must be emotionally and mentally very, very destructive to not be able to acknowledge who you are, but there’s a lot of resilience and creativity as well in straddling these identities.
There’s a lot of power in what they had to say. Some of them may not have been able to read or write very well but they were hugely articulate young women who were able to express the complexity of their lives and their loyalty to their families and communities, even though they knew that maybe out there, there may be a better world for themselves, maybe, but they weren’t sure if to try that better world would mean giving up who they are as their parents, and this was the sort of identity conflicts that they were trying to grapple with, living in the twenty-first century but coming from communities that are very proud of their traditions, and this by the way is not just in Gypsy Traveller communities.
This affects a lot of women around the globe. It’s not particular to Gypsies and Travellers. So the way forward, the central importance of solidarity and support you were talking about coproduction, respectful listening between Gypsy Traveller women and allies, building trust is huge, respectful dialogue, and this is what the literature from Europe is saying, inclusive collaboration. Where things have worked it’s because people have had a dialogic partnership. One person is not seen as better than the other. One culture is not seen as better than the other. Both are talking to each other on equal terms about how to move things forward. The last point I want to leave you with - I know that we’re running out of time - is this whole point about education.
There’s a lot of fuss and concern about Gypsy Travellers not attending school, not wanting to have an education, having no respect for education, and perhaps rightly so. You can argue either way, but just as we have these expectations of their education I would argue that we should consider the way we have been educated and the Scottish education program itself. Is it as inclusive as we’d like to make it out to be? And as a teacher activist I teach student teachers how to teach today, I would argue that the understanding of racism and the history of colonialism in Scotland and indeed elsewhere, also the history of Gypsy Travellers, should become mainstream. It’s not something you have to go to the Elphinstone Institute in Aberdeen University to find out about or go to a storytelling festival where storytellers are suddenly brought out, you know, to talk about Gypsy Traveller history. It should be part of the mainstream agenda. Scotland’s history and Gypsy Traveller history are parallel and yet one side is completely forgotten about. Why?
A lot of good news and positive stories about travelling people are not in the mainstream and you have to look hard for them. Conversations in safe places such as these afford us much needed camaraderie and comfort and understanding, but we are also in danger of creating and recreating the same talk over and over again from the same people. So we need to take the conversation to spaces where we confront, expose, encourage and provoke thoughts about taboo subjects including looking at ourselves and how we are part of these systems. Education I believe is the most important powerful weapon you can use to change the world, as Mandela said, and Bell Hooks - a black American feminist - reminds us that education is the practice of freedom, not just for the oppressed but for the oppressor. Thank you.