Yes, 2005 – 2015 is officially dedicated to the outreach, support and understanding of Roma communities throughout the world. But how much does the average person know about the cultures, traditions and problems of these esoteric, isolated people? Isn't Roma the capital of Italy, anyway?
For many, the word 'gyspy' has vastly negative connotations, conjouring images of dirty thieves, witches, scavengers, littering countyside with their rubbish and beleaguering towns with their ostentatious begging. Of course, as with all stereotypes, this represents only the extreme minority, and the richness and profundity of Roma, or Rromani culture is obscured and forgotten because of this ill-written label. Roma communities can be found all over the world; it is estimated that approximately 12 million people today ethnologically define themselves as Roma. It is therefore scandalous that such a large group should receive such few national and international rights and such great global mis-representation.
Roma people are thought to have migrated from Pamir, a north-western region of India, between the seventh and tenth centuries. Contrary to popular belief, they did not head straight for Europe, but rather first made their way to Iraq, Syria, Armenia and Turkey.
By medieval times many were resident in Western Europe and plagued with hostility, fear and persecution. Christians vindicated their harassment of the Roma people by spreading rumours that it had been the intercourse between a Roma woman and Satan that had created them. At that time Roma men were principally blacksmiths by trade, and further rumours were spread claiming that it was they who had forged the nails in Christ's crucifixion. During the Christian witch-hunting murders, Roma people, in particular the women, whose tradition it was, and still is, to tell fortune, were heavily targeted. Many gypsy hunts took place throughout central Europe; it is clear that a europe-wide hatred for the Roma people was growing, and the Diet of Augsburg made it legal for Christians to kill gypsies, while no judical representation was available to them in any matter whatsoever. Up to half of all Roma in Europe were in slavery from the fourteenth century to the nineteen century, at which point slavery became illegal. Anti-Roma sentiment, however, reached a peak under Nazi Germany, where Roma, along with other marginalised groups, were considered sub-human. Officials were told 'Kill all Jews, gypsies and mental patients', thus resulting in half a million massacred Roma.
Racism against Roma people is still extremely ubiquitous throughout most, if not all, of the world. They are denied access to basic human rights such as healthcare and education in many countries. The situation is particularly dire in the former communist states of the Balkans, where Roma are often simply not counted as citizens. The crisis in Kosovo displaced up to 90,000 Roma, most of whom migrated to nearby Serbia, Montenegro and Albania, thus increasing both racism in these countries and a lack of facilities for them.
In the schools that accept Roma children, they are frequently sat at the back of the class or given separate lessons, and are victims to violent racism from both teachers and pupils. Roma children will not usually finish their school career, as any pretext is found for throwing them out.
Roma people in many countries, particularly the Balkans, have no access to healthcare. No insurance, no health number; authorities have no idea how many Roma are reisident in their countries as most national cenci do not include Roma. For example, according to the Roma Women's Initiative, the life expectancy of a Roma woman in Hungary is 60, 14 years less than her hungarian counterpart.
Roma women especially, have an extremely hard life. It is traditionally a woman's role to devote her life to the bearing and raising of children. Before their marriage, which can sometimes be as early as 13, young women are subjected to 'premarital examination' to ascertain their viginity and is often perfomed by a family member. It is common for a husband to barter for or sell his wife, and trafficking is rife. Other Roma traditions, reviled and condemned by western society include early and arranged marriages, co-erced sterilisation, domestic violence and prostitution. In a 2001 survey conducted by the Roma Women's Initiative Macedonia, 75% of young men were quite happy to have pre-marital sex themselves, but when asked whether their wife should be a virgin, 76% responded in the affirmative.
It is believed that a woman's genitals are dirty and impure - mahrimē - as a result of menstruation. A pregnant woman is also considered mahrimē and must be isolated until she gives birth. Once the child is born and until it is christened, anything the woman touches must be burned. A woman must never show her legs; they should remain covered in a long floral skirt, which only her husband may touch.
However, many aspects of Roma culture and traditions are rich, vibrant and unique. According to Ms Grigore of the Roma Centre for Public Policies in Romania, Roma culture is largely characterised by the following stereotypes; nomadism (although approximately 95% of Roma are in fact living in sedentary communities) music and dance, traditional crafts and costumes, early marriage, bartered brides, a woman's inferior position within the family and children's freedom. Here is a brief summary of Roma traditional beliefs:
phralipen (brotherhood) – characterised by mutual help, support and solidarity, collective life as opposed to individual life
baxt – positive fate or destiny
bibaxt – ill fortune; what happens when the rules of purity are broken. For example, it is forbidden to speak about death, as this could incur bibaxt
ujo vs mahrimē (pure vs impure) – there are many strict rules to be respected, ensuring balance between these two poles. If the rules are broken, serious punishments are enforced, such as isolation from the community
family = community, community = family – characterised by a strong sense of belonging, solidarity, shared responsibility and is demonstrated through many complex rituals
del (good) bong (evil) – good and evil exist in equal quantities on earth and one should be aware of both at all times
eternal present – the past is dead, and only God can know the future, hence only the present has relavence
Roma people can often be rather secretive about their culture, as secrecy is one of the ways to avoid impurity. Thus, it is difficult for outsiders to gain the trust and respect of the community, or any real understanding of the way they work. This secrecy is one of the causes of the mistrust of Roma communities by indiginous people. However, there are many Roma thinkers and activists fighting for international recognition of their culture and seeking to foster a sense of pride and confidence within Roma people themselves. In 1971, at a conference in London (of all places!) the Roma language was unified – as it has previously consisted of 4 seperate and mainly oral dialects – and recognised by the UN as an official language. A Roma anthem was composed and endorsed. A Roma flag was also concieved, the upper half of which is blue, representing the sky, the lower, green, depicting the grass, and in the middle is a red wheel, symolising the constant movement of the people. It is very charming.
But how does the average Roma person benefit from all this? How do they even find out about such developments? Activists travel from community to community spreading the information, the anthem and language are taught in Roma schools, NGOs publish the news in papers written in Rromani and spread them throughout the areas in which they work.
It is hard to know the best way to help these people. Their culture is separatist by nature, so inclusion in mainstream society will remain difficult, and thus racism of sorts will always be present. Several organisations are working inside communities, building schools or working with the women there, but it is hard to know what they are trying to achieve. Girls will be forced by ther parents to leave school at 12 in order to marry and raise children, and trying to get adult women out of the home and back into even practical learning or skill-sharing is night impossible as men deem it unnecessary. The very question of whether charities and NGOs should be working or meddling with Roma communities is two sided. On one hand it is about attempting to give these people a choice, but on the other hand it can be seen as interfering in their culture and forcing them to live as 'civilised westerners'.
Perhaps the largest body of work is to be done in the minds of the indiginous populations. Education reduces racism, and if locals were to understand and accept the habits and traditions of Roma people, then maybe we would begin to see a blurring of the lines between the two cultures. Positive reports and articles need to be written, explanatory documentaries need to be made... our culture needs to accept their culture before the opposite can ever take place.
interview with Grattan of the Gypsy council
http://perseus.herts.ac.uk/uhinfo/university-of-hertfordshire-press/welcome.cfm/Gypsies.html - Books on Roma
http://www.travellerslaw.org.uk/ - G & TLRC
http://www.gypsy-traveller.org/law/book.htm - Excellnt book on Traveller Law with Gypsy history overview.
Dale Farm campaign - firstname.lastname@example.org
Also check out Roma Day.