Today is International Romani Day. A day to celebrate Romani culture and traditions and raise awareness about the discrimination and difficulties Romani (Roma) people still face. We have to be honest and admit we didn’t know much about Romani culture, but it’s been a pleasure both finding out and bursting the misconceptions and we hope you’ll take time today to do the same, there are some additional links and resources you can find dive into at the bottom of this article.
Who are the Romani?
Romani or Roma people are recognised as a distinct ethnic group whose traditionally nomadic culture centres around family, and originally hails from around north west India. A mass migration from there in the early Middle Ages means that today there are nomadic and settled Roma communities around the world. When these communities first began to arrive in large numbers in the UK (earliest recorded was in 1505) the settled population believed them to be Egyptians due to their darker complexion, hence the name “Egyptians” “Gyptians” or “Gypsies”.
The word gyspy
The term gypsy/gypsies is now so widely used to describe different travelling communities that is part of the common vernacular and is often used by Romani organisations and communities to partly describe themselves, we always recommend asking the people you’re speaking with though to check how they prefer to be referred to. Generally speaking use of the word gypsy with a lower case ‘g’ is not problematic, however the capitalised version is sometimes deemed offensive when referring specifically to people of the Romani culture, and Romani or Roma should be used in these instances.
How Romani differ from other Travelling Communities
Today there is often confusion with other travelling communities such as Irish Travellers and Scottish Gypsy Travellers who are recognised ethnic groups under race relations legislation and Showmen and New Travellers who are not recognised under race relations legislation. Whilst there are similarities, each has their own distinctive cultures, traditions and even languages.
Romani history, beliefs and traditions
Family is central to the Roma way of life, with families travelling in family groups. Due to discrimination over the years they are a people ‘without place’ and so family ties are of extreme importance. They travel in in groups from ten to hundreds of families form a band or kumpania, smaller bands are called vitsas. Each band has a leader a voivode, a man who holds the role for life, a female leader, a phuri looks after the welfare of women and children.
Honour and purity is central to the Roma way of life but they are not defined by one faith. There is no one religion and different groups follow a range of faiths such as Catholicism, Christianity, Islam or their own spirituality.
Traditional clothing and jewelry is not seen as often as it used to be due to the fear of discrimination but the colourful fabrics and opulent jewelry have modernised and still remain an important way of showing their hospitality, warmth and success. The sharing of wealth is regarded as honourable and hospitality is a key part of their way of life.
Problems facing Romani people
Romani have often been persecuted over time and in 1554 a law was passed making being a gypsy punishable by death. Romani people were also some of the many groups targeted by the Nazis and in modern times due to the sometimes forced itinerant Roma way of life it is more difficult for these communities to take part in things such as the Census so populations are deeply underestimated. This often means Roma needs are not taken into account when service provisions are planned and Planning Policies can leave Romani people stuck in a limbo situation; they’re told they can’t be on public land yet disputes then arise when they apply for planning permission to develop a site on land they have purchased privately. Opposition from local residents frequently leads to local authorities turning down planning applications and underpinning this is racism, that racism is still common, frequently overt and often seen as justified. A dangerous extension of people hiding behind the NIMBYism (not in my back yard). Whilst most overt racism is frowned upon by the general population, racism towards Romani people is still rife.
There is more work happening by authorities to actually engage with Roma people and this is long overdue. Like many other ethnic groups Roma have been part of Cumbria for many hundreds of years and in fact Appleby is home to the largest gypsy fairs in Europe attracting Roma from around the world, other travelling communities, tourists and visitors alike. We wish all those celebrating Romani Day a very happy one, we hope you are able to find ways to connect and be together safely this year.